By NED X. GRIFFEN
Very few teams in the state have been running the option as long, and as well as, Staples of Westport.
Sunday, NFA beat the masters at their own game.
The Wildcats ran their option quite well in their 30-28 Class LL semifinal win at Ken Strong Stadium in West Haven. Their defense also came up with a late turnover when Staples tried an option pitch.
"We came out here and out-hit them and out-played them," NFA senior defensive end Tuzar Skipper said. "Don't you agree?"
The Wildcats (12-0), ranked eighth in The Day of New London Top 10 state coaches' poll, earned themselves a shot at two-time defending state champion Xavier of Middletown.
"This is a great feeling," NFA junior Airec Ricks said, smiling through the tears. "I'm just so happy to be in the state championship. This is a dream come true."
Staples (10-1), the division's top seed, made too many mistakes. It had a botched snap on a punt that resulted in a safety and two turnovers.
The Wildcats didn't make those errors, and their tandem of quarterback Joey Paparelli and tailback Marcus Outlow created problems for the Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference champions.
Outlow ran 12 times for a game-high 113 yards.
Paparelli had 23 carries for 102 yards and a score.
"They're two great football players," Wreckers coach Marce Petroccio said. "They did a great job and their coach should be very proud of what they did. That's a good football team."
The state has learned the last five days what eastern Connecticut already knew — that Outlow is a talent. He's showed a whole new group of football fans why major Division I colleges are tracking him.
Paparelli had one of Sunday's biggest runs. His team began the fourth quarter with the ball at their 28-yard line.
On second-and-9, Paparelli began to give the ball to Khaleed Exum-Strong, but pulled it back
Paparelli found a crease and raced for a 63-yard gain.
"We don't block the defensive tackle," Paparelli said. "He slammed in on Khaleed, and there was a just a huge window for me. My line blew it up and I was off.
"I'm kind of mad I got caught. It was a long day."
Exum-Strong scored two plays later on a 2-yard run.
"We felt that Joey was going to be the difference in this game," Davis said. "We were setting up that play in the first half because they were playing the stretch all day. So we talked at halftime that we were going to hit some stuff inside with Joey, and he read it well."
Paparelli also completed 3 of his 7 passes for 87 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown to Ryer Caruso.
Staples drove quickly on its next drive to the Wildcats' 3-yard line.
Quarterback Jack Massie ran towards his team's sidelines on second-and-goal looking to pitch to Joey Zelkowitz.
NFA defensive back Airec Ricks batted the pitch away. Teammate Ryan Stowe recovered the ball at the Wildcats' 25.
"We felt if we forced them to pitch that we're going to control the game," Davis said. "We were feathering. That forces the quarterback to keep expanding."
Staples, ranked second in The Day coaches' poll, averaged a state-best 51 points prior to Sunday's game. It also averaged 502 yards, the best of any team that had reported statistics to MaxPreps.com.
The Wreckers got their yardage against NFA (442 yards).
NFA was the first team to hold the Wreckers to under 49 points, though.
"I knew coming in that our defense could play," Davis said. "A lot of the people on the outside, based on what they've seen down in that part of the state (the southwest) and the points that (Staples) put up on the board, hey, could NFA stop them?"
"Our kids are resilient."
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Hand of Madison quarterback Brendan Bilcheck threw a screen to Caleb Ewald on the first play of Sunday's Class L semifinal.
Ewald took it for a 74-yard touchdown.
The Tigers scored on their first five possessions of the first half as they thumped Masuk of Monroe, 42-23.
Hand (12-0), the No. 1 team in The Day coaches' poll, had 399 yards offense in the first half.
"I give a lot of credit to our offensive line," Hand coach Steve Filippone said. "I thought they really, really stepped it up tonight. That's a very difficult front to block. They're sending six guys every time with a lot of blitzing. It took a tremendous amount of discipline with two days of practice to get ready for that, but I felt they did a terrific job."
The Tigers front five is comprised of left tackle Daniel Padelli, left guard Matt Sagnelli, center James Golicz, right guard Richie Byrd, and right tackle Cameron Gravina.
Bilcheck completed 13 of 21 passes for 259 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 34 yards. Ian O'Toole had 10 carries for 69 yards and three scores.
Conor Dowd had 16 carries for 114 yards and two touchdowns for the Tigers while Ewald had five catches for 182 yards and two scores.
The extra bonus for Hand was that it gave Filippone his 200th win. He's been the head coach since 1989 and won six state titles.
"It's something special," Tigers' quarterback Brendan Bilcheck said. "Not many coaches get the opportunity to do that, and there's no better guy who deserves to get their 200th win than him."
Filippone downplayed the mark.
"I didn't win a game," Filippone said. "I've never won a game, and I defy any coach to tell me they actually won a game for their team. You provide structure. You provide some motivation. You do lots of things, but you don't win games. Your players win games and your assistant coaches win games. That's the honest to God truth. That's not being humble. That's the way it is.
"Somebody has got to have their name on the placard. I get to have my name on it, but that's as far as it goes. I really take no great satisfaction in it. I take satisfaction in that our team has won 26 games in a row."
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Hand linebacker Matt Walsh is TOUGHER THAN YOU.
Walsh's helmet came off on Masuk's first play of the game, and his face was mashed by the facemask of Panthers' quarterback Malik Cummings.
Walsh had to leave the game while his blood was wiped off the turf.
"I tried to catch the blood with my hand, but it was just pouring out, so I decided to take a knee," Walsh told Ray Curran of the Milford-Orange Bulletin.
Hand trainer Terri Ajaski managed to stop the bleeding and bandaged Walsh up so that he could return a few minutes later.
Walsh went to Yale-New Haven after the game to have his mug examined.
"All patched up," Walsh tweeted after midnight.
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Masuk could've done without Sunday's loss, but it was the seventh time in eight years that it reached the Class L semifinals.
The Panthers (10-2) made it to the semifinals one year after graduating a talented senior class, including two-time Gatorade Player of the Year Casey Cochran.
"I couldn't be any prouder of any team I've ever coached," Masuk coach John Murphy said. "When we walked off this field last year (a 35-14 semifinal loss to Hand), I don't think too many people thought we'd be back here. For us to be here and give ourselves a chance, I'm really proud of these guys."
Thomas Milone, who'll play baseball at UConn next season, scored on a 70-yard kickoff return, had six catches for 54 yards and a touchdown, and threw a 33-yard pass.
Junior Malik Cummings completed 18 of 23 passes for 168 yards with a touchdown and interception.
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Class LL: NFA 30, Staples 28. Marc Allard of the Norwich Bulletin, Doug Bonjour of Hearst Inc., and Ken Shabby of TEAM DAY reporting.
Class LL: Xavier 30, Glastonbury 13. Tom Yantz of the Hartford Courant, and Joe Pelletier of the Middletown Press reporting.
Class L: Hand 42, Masuk 23. Mike Anthony of the Hartford Courant, Mike Cardillo of Hearst Inc., and the suave Mike Madera of JRC Amalgamated reporting.
Class L: Windsor 27, New Canaan 21. Matt McDonough of the Hartford Courant, and Dave Ruden of the Stamford Advocate reporting.
Class M: Berlin 21, Weston 7. Andrew Frosceno of Hearst Inc., Carl Josephson of the New Britain Herald, and Matt McDonough of the Hartford Courant reporting.
Class M: Hillhouse 48, Montville 26. Marc Allard of the Norwich Bulletin, Manti Te'o DiMauro of TEAM DAY, and Pooch Diggity Dogg of JRC Amalgamated reporting.
Class S: Ansonia 41, Hyde 13. Mark Jaffee of the Waterbury Republican-American, William S. Paxton of Hearst Inc., and Pooch Diggity Dogg of the New Haven Register reporting.
Class S: North Branford 62, Woodland 27. Kyle Brennan of the Waterbury Republican-American, and Dave Phillips of JRC Amalgamated reporting.
Sean Bowley of Hearst Inc. blogged about Sunday.
Also, Chris Brodeur of Hearst Inc. wrote about New Fairfield senior Joe Pacheco. He carries around a piece of his skull.
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YOUR conference playoff scorecard:
Southern Connecticut Conference: 6-1 (three finalists).
Eastern Connecticut Conference: 3-2 (one finalist).
Naugatuck Valley League: 3-2 (one finalist).
Central Connecticut Conference: 5-5 (two finalists, and one win and one loss was when Glastonbury beat league-foe Southington in the quarterfinals).
Pequot: 3-3 (one finalist).
South-West Conference: 2-3.
Constitution State Conference: 0-3.
Another note about conferences. The Pequot gets ridiculed as much as any league. The majority of its teams are small schools and/or co-ops, which hasn't helped their cause in the playoffs.
It's actually a pretty fun league, what with many of its schools in quiet corners.
Check it — since 2009, Pequot Sassacus and CCC Division III teams have squared off six times. Cromwell, Hyde of New Haven and Valley Regional/Old Lyme have represented the Pequot. Bloomfield, Northwest Catholic of West Hartford and Rocky Hill have carried the CCC D-III banner.
The Pequot Sassacus has a 5-1 edge.
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Ansonia's Arkeel Newsome set a state career-record for most touchdowns (116) in Sunday's 41-13 win over Hyde of New Haven in a Class S semifinal. The record was held by former Ansonia running back Alex Thomas.
Newsome ran 15 times for 207 yards and four touchdowns in the win.
Anthony Scirpo from Woodland of Beacon Falls set a state-record for touchdown catches (25) in his team's 62-27 loss to North Branford in the other Class S semifinal. Former Bristol Central star (and current New England Patriot) Aaron Hernandez had 24 touchdown catches in 2005.
Woodland's Tanner Kingsley threw four touchdowns and ended the season with a state-record 51.
Vaya con dios….