St. Joseph football No. 1

St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia receives hugs after his Gatorade bath following win on Class L final.

St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia receives hugs after his Gatorade bath following win on Class L final.

Matthew Brown / Hearst Connecticut Media

NEW BRITAIN — St. Joseph won its third consecutive CIAC state title when it defeated Daniel Hand, 17-13, in the Class L championship game at Veterans Stadium on Saturday.

Coach Joe Della Vecchia’s Hogs (13-0) came into the final as the top seed, with Hand seeded second. St. Joseph was ranked second in the GameTimeCT poll, with the Tigers first.

“This group of seniors is a special group,” said Della Vecchia of his upperclassmen, who reached four title games and won the last three. “They love playing football. They wanted to be number one since the beginning of the year. We were on a mission and they made a believer out of me.”

To finish its quest, St. Joe’s, which has won 23 games in a row and had been crowned Class S and Class M in the previous two seasons, received key contributions from all three stages.

You want defense? How about Preston Kral returning an interception 41 yards for the game’s first touchdown.

“Throughout practice all week, I saw the back would come out,” Kral said. “When I saw it, I jumped it (the route) and took off. Being on the defensive end of the spectrum, to hold a team like Hand is just amazing...We all came together, acted as one unit and I’m so proud of how well we played.”

You want a short memory from your place kicker? How about Austin Jose making a 37-yarder for a 10-7 lead in the third quarter. Jose had missed from 37 yards with 6 minutes left in the second period and a 45 yarder on the final play of the half.

You want a show of want-to? How about Jaden Shirden taking the hits and still finding a way into the end zone for a 17-7 advantage in the final quarter.

Della Vecchia said of the game going into the locker room tied at 7 all: “We fumbled twice, missed two field goals. Those were our mistakes. I told them just play the way we play. Jaden said there are holes there, I just need a little more room, I’ll be fine. So, we just gave Jay the ball.”

Shirden said: “What a great feeling. What can I say? Going to the state finals four times in a row and getting three. What a way (for the seniors) to end our careers. We were in a battle today. It was war. It was great, all credit to all the coaches. I’m going to miss the SJ community. This is just awesome.”

Kral’s Pick 6, which saw Mike Morrissey pressure Hand QB Phoenix Billings on the play, was the first score in a game between offensive juggernauts.

Hand (12-1) had won 36 games in a row. It tied the game with 31 seconds left in the half when Billings connected with Isaiah McNeilly for an 8-yard TD.

Shirden broke off a 35-yard run to set up Jose’s go-ahead field goal midway through the third quarter.

In the period, St. Joseph forced two punts. They also held Hand held on downs at the Cadets’ 35-yard line when Jermaine Williams and Alex Pagliarini led a stance that stopped Billings short on 4th-and-1 with 1:35 left in the frame.

Key tackles by Caden Porter, Dennis Rotunno, Cole daSilva and Morrissey forced an exchange of punts that penned the Tigers up. Davee Silas never hesitated and came up from his position in the secondary to drop Jesse Lutz for a 9-yard loss and force another kick.

With a short field to work with, Shirden ran for 3 yards before he swept the right side for a 15-yard TD with 4:47 remaining.

Hand got that score back after Seth Sweitzer corralled a tipped 4th-and-12 pass for a 45-yard gain to the 2. Billings bulled in two plays later. The PAT was blocked by Jermaine Williams and the onside kick failed.

“It took 50 years to get to this,” Della Vecchia said. “I’m so happy for my program and for our kids. I’m happy for everyone who has ever been involved in this. Eddie Mc (St. Joe Hall of Fame coach Eddie McCarthy) called today said it’s been a long time since 1982, it’s time to be number one again.

“This is absolutely a phenomenal feeling... I know it will be even greater when it sinks in.


HAND 0 7 0 6—13

ST. JOSEPH 0 7 3 7—17

SJ—Preston Kral 41 interception return (Austin Jose kick)

H—Isaiah McNeilly 8 pass Phoenix Billings (McNeilly kick)

SJ—Jose 37 FG

SJ—Jaden Shirden 15 run (Jose kick)

H—Billings 2 run (kick failed)

Records: Hand 12-1; St. Joseph 13-0