This is a printer-friendly version of an article from Zip06.com.Article Published December 8, 2019
The Hand football team just keeps rolling along. In what might have been their most dominant performance of the season so far, the Tigers scored on their first seven possessions on their way to demolishing Newington 52-0 in the quarterfinals of the Class L State Playoffs at the Surf Club on Dec. 3. In the process, senior captain quarterback Phoenix Billings set a school record by throwing six touchdown passes for Hand on the night.
The 2nd-seeded Tigers, who scored all 52 of their points during the first half, improved to 11-0 by shutting out No. 7 seed Newington and now have now won 35-consecutive games. Hand hosted No. 3 seed Maloney (10-1) in a rematch of last year’s Class L final in the semifinal round on Dec. 9 (after press time). With a victory, the two-time defending champion Tigers would take on the winner of top-seeded St. Joseph and No. 4 New Canaan for the title on Saturday, Dec. 14.
“Our goal tonight was to simply get out there and execute,” said Head Coach Dave Mastroianni, who called plays from the press box while assistant coach Mike DeVito directed the action from the sidelines. “A lot of what we do is built off of our run-pass options. Phoenix gave us great reads tonight.”
Hand began its first possession at its own 35-yard line after Newington sent the opening kickoff out of bounds. Senior Isaiah McNeilly gained 12 yards on a counter play, after which fellow senior Colin McCabe found a big hole on the right side and rumbled 33 yards to the Indians’ 30. One play later, Billings tossed a 30-yard touchdown pass to senior Ethan Haberman, who had four TD receptions in the game. McNeilly ran in the 2-point conversion to give Hand an 8-0 lead just 1:06 into the contest.
Following a Newington punt, McCabe ran for 15 yards to put the ball at the Hand 47. Billings connected with Haberman on a 29-yard pass and then found him again for a 24-yard scoring strike. McNeilly threw the 2-point conversion pass to junior Will Flanagan to make it 16-0.
“We had a good game-plan today,” said Billings, who went 9-of-12 passing for 190 yards. “The idea was to get the ball out of my hands quickly, to get the ball into the hands of our playmakers, and let them do the rest. We could see right away that they were going to play it tight in the box. It opened up the rest of the field for us.”
On Newington’s next possession, junior Colin Telford intercepted a pass and returned it to the Indians’ 17-yard line. The Tigers’ offense didn’t waste any time as Billings threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Haberman to increase Hand’s advantage. McNeilly kicked the extra point, and the Tigers were up 23-0 with 7:06 to go in the first quarter. Haberman had five catches for 110 yards and the four scores in the game.
“Ethan is a hard person to miss out there. As of late, he’s come up big for us,” Coach Mastroianni said. “Big players make big plays, and Ethan has done just that.”
Senior Shane Reiner appeared to have scored on a 17-yard fumble return on Newington’s next series, but the play was called back. Senior captain Ben Corniello had taken down Indians’ quarterback Austyn Burns as he was releasing the ball, although the referees ruled it an incomplete pass instead of a fumble.
Hand’s next possession got started with a 17-yard completion from Billings to Reiner. McCabe then ripped off runs of 12 and nine yards before sophomore Seth Sweitzer caught a nine-yard pass from Billings to bring the ball to the Newington 29. Billings went to Sweitzer again, this time on a 29-yard touchdown pass, for a 29-0 advantage. McNeilly tossed another 2-point pass to Flanagan to give Hand a 31-0 lead after the first quarter.
The Tigers’ defense turned aside Newington on downs on the next possession, giving Hand the ball at the Indians’ 20. After two incompletions, Billings threw his fourth touchdown pass of the night to Haberman on a 10-yard completion for a 37-0 command just 22 seconds into the second quarter. McNeilly split the sticks for another extra point to make it 38-0.
Hand scored two more touchdowns during the second quarter. First, Billings threw a 25-yard TD pass to senior Jesse Lutz with 6:40 to play in the half. McCabe (8 carries, 130 yards) followed with a 22-yard touchdown run to continue padding the cushion with 3:17 remaining. McNeilly kicked the extra point after both scores as the Tigers took a 52-0 lead into the locker room at halftime.
With the outcome all but decided, the second half was played with a running clock. Sophomore Patch Flanagan went 4-of-5 for 57 yards in the second half, including three completions for 47 yards to Will Flanagan.
Hand outgained Newington by a 409-99 differential in the victory. The Tigers have outscored their last two opponents by a combined total of 113-6 since a nail-biting 21-14 win over Shelton on Nov. 15.
“That game was a wakeup call for us,” said Billings. “We came out of a bad offensive game and managed to win. But it did show that we can be caught. We had to clean things up from there. We’re going to work hard getting ready for Maloney.”
With his six TD passes, Billings broke Hand’s single-game record that had been set by Nick Van Dell against Wilbur Cross in 2015.
As usual, Hand’s defense turned in a dominant performance. Telford had two interceptions, Corniello and fellow senior Austin Doyle both recorded a sack, and Doyle also made eight tackles in the victory.
“You can only dream about winning a first-round game 52-0. It’s a little unreal, but we did it,” Corniello said. “We chased their offense around all game long and did it. We made stops and took away whatever offense they were planning to get against us. I enjoyed looking up at our scoreboard when it was over and seeing those numbers up in lights. It’s special.”
Check Zip06.com to find out how Hand fared in its semifinal matchup against Maloney.