St. Joseph-Daniel Hand to play to decide No. 1
WHERE/WHEN - Veterans Stadium, New Britain, 3 p.m.
TICKETS - $10 Everyone
ON THE AIR/WEB - NFHS Network (Subscription required) | WELI-AM 960 | Livestream WELI on Facebook
SEEDS/RECORDS - No. 1 St. Joseph 12-0; No. 2 Hand 12-0
COACHES - St. Joseph: Joe Della Vecchia, 22nd year (161-90); Hand: Dave Mastroianni, 3rd year (37-1)
PROGRAM ROSTERS | LIVE STATS (TBA)
St. Joseph (14-3)
1978-S lost to Stamford Catholic 20-9; 1979-S lost to North Branford 25-22; 1980-S def. Immaculate 43-7; 1981-SS def. Montville 37-30; 1982-SS def. Wilson 37-8; 1983-SS def. New Fairfield 20-0; 1984-SS def. New London 14-7; 1988-M def. Bethel 25-21; 1989-M def. Maloney 14-7; 1990-M def. Middletown 26-0; 2009-SS def. Montville 14-3; 2010-S def. Ansonia 49-28; 2013-M def. Brookfield 54-16; 2014-M Large def. Ledyard 37-7; 2016-M lost to Hillhouse 42-21; 2017-S def. Ansonia 42-36; 2018-M def. Berlin 70-18.
1976-M def. St. Paul 29-0; 1977-M def. Berlin 20-16; 1980-M lost to Seymour 14-7; 1981-M lost to Killingly 14-7; 1982-M def. East Hartford 28-0; 1983-MM lost to East Catholic 14-12; 1984-MM def. Wilton 14-7; 1989-MM def. Darien 34-28; 1993-M lost to New Canaan 35-14; 1994-M lost to Foran 28-24; 1997-L def. Staples 14-7; 2003-M def. Ledyard 28-0; 2004-M def. Brookfield 35-6; 2005-M def. Hillhouse 34-0; 2007-MM lost to New Canaan 34-30, 2011-L def. New Canaan 34-10; 2012-L def. Windsor 23-6; 2017-L def. Masuk 35-21; 2018-L def. Maloney 54-14.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jr. QB Jack Wallace; Sr. RB Jaden Shirden; Sr. DL Jermaine Williams (5-11, 320); Sr. K/P/WR Austin Jose; Sr. LB Cole daSilva; Sr. DE Mike Morrissey (6-1, 196); Sr. WR Will Diamantis; Jr. WR Brady Hutchison.
Sr. QB Phoenix Billings; Sr. RB/LB Colin McCabe; Sr. OL/DL Ben Corniello (6-2, 245); Jr. OL Tom Bambrick (6-4, 285); Sr. TE Ethan Haberman (6-4, 225); Sr. RB/WR Jesse Lutz; Sr. WR/DB/K Isaiah McNeilly; Sr. WR/LB Shane Reiner.
Around the state, players, coaches, media, all year long, whether they could say it out loud or had to whisper it with a furtive chuckle: They were all waiting for this game, this matchup.
Hand, second-seeded but No. 1 all season in the GameTimeCT top 10 poll. St. Joseph, top-seeded, wire-to-wire No. 2.
There were checkpoints along the way that could’ve disrupted it, could’ve knocked one or the other down or out, could’ve put them on the same side of the bracket. None of them messed it up. It’s the first time No. 1 and No. 2 will meet for a championship since 2005, when Xavier beat Southington 45-30.
This game features storylines galore, really. One of these teams will become 13th to win three consecutive CIAC championships.
Hand, which has won 36 games in a row, is the two-time defending Class L champion.
St. Joseph, winners of 22 straight, made the Class M final in 2016 but lost to Hillhouse, won Class S in 2017, moved up to Class M and won that in 2018, and moved up to Class L this year. (Without the success modifier, in which a school of choice gets bumped up if it has reached consecutive semifinals, the Hogs would be barely on the Class M side of the Class S border.)
Hand is playing for its coach, Dave Mastroianni, who had surgery for cancer after the second game of the season and will return to the sideline Saturday for the first time since. (He has been coaching games from the press box.) St. Joseph, full of players who took part in two or three of those finals, won their first FCIAC title, completed their first unbeaten regular season since 1983 and are trying to finish off their first completely unbeaten season since then, too.
The Hogs have the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, Jack Wallace, a converted safety, at quarterback. Hand has Phoenix Billings, an athlete who can beat defenses in an assortment of ways (and is signed to play baseball at UConn).
Other all-state or could-be all-state players will be all over the field.
The Hogs’ Jaden Shirden is unofficially just short of 1,900 yards this season after scoring five touchdowns in the semifinal shutout of New Canaan, St. Joseph’s second big win over the Rams this year. Hand has Colin McCabe, who despite missing two games has run for 1,400 yards (11.6 a carry) and 20 touchdowns, though he left Monday’s semifinal in the third quarter with an apparent leg injury. (Jesse Lutz has run for 10 touchdowns, himself.)
Big receivers? Hand’s Ethan Haberman has caught 42 passes and taken 13 to the end zone. St. Joseph’s stable is headlined by senior Will Diamantis and junior Brady Hutchison.
St. Joseph’s defensive line of Mike Morrissey, Jermaine “Whopper” Williams and Cayden Porter, has played together for three years. They free up linebackers like Cole daSilva (16.5 TFL going into the semis) to make big plays. No slouches on the line either, Hand has Ben Corniello, an all-state defensive lineman headed for Columbia, and huge junior offensive lineman Tom Bambrick.
Both teams even have kickers who also play receiver, Hand’s Isaiah McNeilly, and Shelton’s Austin Jose, the Class L all-state kicker and a touchback machine.
Hand is the only one of these two teams to get a serious test this season. That came Nov. 15 at the Surf Club in Madison in what most in the preseason had considered the best game of the regular season, a visit from Shelton. The Gaels, who came in with two losses, had a 14-13 lead in the last minute before the Tigers came back to win 21-14 on McCabe’s touchdown with 18 seconds left.
St. Joseph, for its part, hasn’t trailed since Nov. 2… 2018, when it fell behind Staples on an early touchdown but came back to win 17-14. That was 18 games ago.
SPB’S PICK - St. Joseph
PETE’S PICK - Hand
FORNO’S PICK - St. Joseph
CALPREPS PROJECTION - St. Joseph 38-22