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The Hand football squad lost to St. Joseph by a 17-13 score in the final of the Class L State Playoffs at Veterans Memorial Stadium on Dec. 14. Pictured for the Tigers are No. 75, junior Jake Daignault, and No. 17, senior captain quarterback Phoenix Billings. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Senior running back Colin McCabe toughed it out on the ground to gain 59 yards when the Tigers went up against a staunch St. Joseph defense in the Class L state championship game. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Sophomore Seth Sweitzer made a crazy catch to keep Hand’s hopes alive in the final minutes of the Class L state final. Phoenix Billings followed with a short touchdown run that brought the score to 17-13. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Junior Thomas Bambrick (No. 77) stuffs a St. Joseph rusher with a little help from fellow junior Conner Quinnn (88) during the Class L title bout. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Head Coach David Mastroianni was happy to be on the sidelines for the first time in a couple of months when the Hand football team went up against St. Joseph with the state title on the line. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Senior Ethan Haberman and the Tigers finished their campaign with a record of 12-1 after taking a 17-13 loss to St. Joseph in the Class L final. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Senior captain Ben Corniello recovered a fumble and returned it for a 12-yard score when the Hand football team blanked Maloney 42-0 in the semifinals of the Class L State Playoffs at the Surf Club on Dec. 9. The Tigers advanced to the state final for the third year in a row with the victory. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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The Hand football team entered last week’s Class L championship game against St. Joseph riding a 36-game winning streak and had designs on bringing home its third-straight state title. Unfortunately for the Tigers, their remarkable run came to an end when they took a 17-13 defeat to the Cadets in a heavyweight battle between two undefeated teams in the Class L State Playoffs final on a rainy day at Veterans Memorial Stadium in New Britain on Dec. 14. Hand, which was the No. 2 seed in the tournament, finished its season with a record of 12-1. Top-seeded St. Joseph went 13-0 on the year.
Trailing 17-7 with 2:22 to go in the game, the Tigers tried to mount a last-minute comeback. Senior captain quarterback Phoenix Billings scored on a 1-yard touchdown run to cut the deficit to 17-13 with just 37 seconds remaining. Hand went for an onside kick in an attempt to get the ball back for a potential game-winning drive, but St. Joseph pounced on it and then ran out the clock to solidify the victory.
Tigers’ Head Coach Dave Mastroianni was beyond proud of his squad for never giving up while facing such a formidable opponent. Mastroianni, who had been coaching from the press box for the past several weeks, was on the sidelines for the first time since early in the season after undergoing surgery for cancer of the appendix.
“That last drive was fitting for this team. They always continued to fight, even though in many of the games that we were in, we didn’t need a drive like that at the end,” Mastroianni said. “I simply knew that they weren’t going to quit. They showed me that all game long.”
Hand began its final drive at its own 36-yard line after the Tigers’ defense stopped St. Joseph on 4th-down-and-2. On the first play, Billings (14-of-24 for 167 yards) found senior receiver Ethan Haberman for a 14-yard gain and a first down at midfield. Billings then threw a 9-yard completion to senior captain Isaiah McNeilly to bring the ball to the Cadets’ 41 with 1:43 to play.
Following a holding call against Hand, the Tigers were faced with a 4th-and-22 from the St. Joseph 48. Billings dropped back and fired a pass down the right sideline, where two Cadets’ defenders were on the ball. However, the ball was deflected and went into the hands of sophomore Seth Sweitzer, who took it all the way to the 2-yard line before getting tackled.
Two plays later, Billings plunged in for a 1-yard TD rush that made it a one-score game. McNeilly’s extra point kick was blocked, and St. Joseph had a 17-13 lead with 37 seconds on the clock. The Cadets recovered Hand’s onside kick and went on to get the win for their 23rd victory in a row. St. Joseph has now won three-straight state championships after claiming the Class S title in 2017 and the Class M crown last year.
“It’s a tremendous effort on their part to do what they did. They outplayed us at key points in the game. Their defense never backed down,” said Coach Mastroianni of St. Joseph. “We’d get a decent play off and gain some yards and think maybe we’ve found something, maybe we’d found a weakness. Then they would adjust and stop us again. They kept bouncing back.”
The Tigers, who averaged more than 400 yards per game in their 12 wins this year, were held to 229 yards by a St. Joseph defense that gave up less than five points per game. Hand’s typically dominant rushing attack was limited to 62 yards on 32 rushes in the defeat.
Senior running back Colin McCabe carried the ball 19 times for 59 yards for the Tigers. McCabe was still nursing an injury that he had endured during Hand’s 42-0 semifinal victory over Maloney five days earlier.
“He’s a warrior. There’s no other way to describe that kid,” Mastroianni said of McCabe. “I’ve reminded him of that and so has his father. When you see No. 20 walk out on the field, you can’t be happier. He has meant more to our team’s psyche than he thinks.”
The championship matchup between Hand and St. Joseph featured its fair share of turnovers. The Cadets turned the ball over four times with three fumbles and an interception. The Tigers’ defense kept them in the game by stopping St. Joseph numerous times. Haberman had the interception for Hand.
Following a scoreless first quarter, the Cadets broke the ice when Preston Kral picked off a pass by Billings and took it down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown return 56 seconds into the second quarter. Austin Jose’s extra point gave St. Joseph a 7-0 lead.
The Tigers set up their first scoring drive by forcing St. Joseph to punt from deep in its own territory. Senior Jesse Lutz fielded the punt at the Cadets’ 46-yard line and returned it to the 34. Given good field position, Billings connected with Haberman (6 catches, 100 yards) for a nice gain inside the 10. Two plays later, Billings went to McNeilly for a 6-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left in the opening half. McNeilly sent the extra point through the uprights to make it a 7-7 game at the break. St. Joseph had a chance to retake the lead before the half ended, but Jose’s 43-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
St. Joseph took the lead for good when Jose hit a 38-yard field goal to put the Cadets up 10-7 with 6:26 left in the third quarter.
Hand’s offense continued to struggle during the second half. Following a short punt by the Tigers, St. Joseph had the ball on the doorstep of Hand’s red zone with a little more than five minutes to play in the game. A few plays after that, Jaden Shirden (32 carries, 179 yards) rushed for a 15-yard touchdown that gave the Cadets some insurance with 4:47 remaining. Jose’s extra point pushed the lead to 17-7. Hand still had a chance and wound up cutting it to 17-13 on the 1-yard TD run by Billings in the final minute, but was unable to complete the comeback.
Despite the loss, Mastroianni appreciates what the Tigers have accomplished throughout his three seasons as Hand’s head coach. Prior to the state final, the last time Hand had lost a game was when the team took 21-19 defeat to Shelton on Sept. 15, 2017. What followed was a run that will be remembered in Madison for years to come as the Tigers notched 36-consecutive victories and captured a pair of Class L state championships.
“Winning 37 of 39 games is nothing to sneeze at,” Mastroianni said. “I told all of our players that the only tears I want to see are tears of joy. This group of seniors has set a standard of excellence. They did in three years what every coach can only hope for. They’re a great bunch. You’ll see these kids out in the community. I’m so proud of them for what they’ll been building. They leave a great legacy and certainly something for the underclassman to strive to duplicate.”
Hand had advanced to its third-straight state final by posting a 42-0 shutout versus No. 3 seed Maloney in a rain-soaked semifinal game at the Surf Club on Dec. 9. The contest was a rematch of last year’s Class L title bout, which the Tigers won 54-14. In this one, Hand scored three touchdowns on offense and three TDs on defense on its way to dispatching the Spartans.
McCabe ran for a 26-yard touchdown and then took in the 2-point conversion to give the Tigers an 8-0 lead with 5:51 left in the first quarter. With 1:20 to go, Billings scored on a 1-yard TD run for the Tigers. McNeilly’s extra point made it 15-0, which held up as the score at halftime.
Hand scored two touchdowns during the third quarter to pull away. First, junior Conner Quinn intercepted an errant pass and returned it 40 yards for a score. Later in the frame, fellow senior Jesse Lutz ran for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 29-0 through three. McNeilly kicked the extra point following both scores.
The Tigers finished off the game by scoring a pair of defensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter. Sophomore Kevin Nizolek scooped up a fumble and took it 60 yards to the house for a touchdown. Another extra point from McNeilly made it 36-0. Senior captain Ben Corniello got into the act when he recovered a fumble and returned it for a 12-yard touchdown that put the final stamp on Hand’s 42-0 victory.
McCabe had 18 rushes for 117 yards, while Lutz added 42 yards on five carries for the Tigers. Haberman had three receptions for 79 yards.
On defense, Nizolek forced two fumbles, recovered a pair of fumbles, and also recorded 1.5 sacks. Senior Austin Doyle also had 1.5 sacks to go with a forced fumble.
• The athletes on the Hand football team’s roster are senior captains Isaiah McNeilly, Phoenix Billings, and Ben Corniello; seniors Kade Doverspike, Jesse Lutz, Ethan Haberman, Colin McCabe, Aiden Patrick, Shane Reiner, Austin Doyle, Joseph Sandora, Lukas Wagner, Tyler Tarantino, and Chase McMurray; juniors Colin Telford, Will Flanagan, Carson Dempsey, Ethan Maus, Darrell Brake, Hayden Pavlovic, Shaun Henneberry, Benjamin Sisk, Michael Kelly, Michael Roche, Rocky Mayer, Ryan Bordiere, Cyrus Farqui, Sander Coscia, William Ketterer, Jake Daignault, Thomas Bambrick, and Conner Quinn; and sophomores Cameron Testa, Seth Sweitzer, Kevin Nizolek, Patrick Flanagan, Nicholas Lynch, Wyatt Marcous, Ethan O’Brien, Connor Powell, Connor Dickie, John Portley, James Barber, Brendan Walsh, Matthew Rossi, Darian McMahon, and Shane Smith.
• The 2019 season marked Dave Mastroianni’s third year as Hand’s head coach. The Tigers’ assistant coaches are Mike DeVito, Mike Davis, Dan Ives, Jack Callaghan, Don Giles, Paul Philpott, Tom Kleine, Rich Bello, John Sagnelli, Tony Catapano, Scott Nizolek, and Mike Ferraiolo.
• Hand went 10-0 during the regular season for the second year in a row this fall. The Tigers claimed wins against Notre Dame-West Haven (49-14), Middletown (55-6), Wethersfield (56-13), Wilbur Cross (44-0), Norwalk (41-6), East Lyme (47-7), West Haven (37-0), Xavier (46-6), Shelton (21-14), and Guilford (61-6) in the regular season. Hand also finished first in SCC Tier 1 with a record of 4-0 by virtue of its victories versus Notre Dame-West Haven, West Haven, Xavier, and Shelton.
• The Tigers entered the Class L State Playoffs as the No. 2 seed and started off the tournament by notching a 52-0 win against No. 7 seed Newington in the quarterfinal round. In the semifinals, Hand defeated No. 3 seed Maloney by a 42-0 score. The Tigers went on to take a 17-13 defeat versus No. 1 seed St. Joseph in the final to finish the year with an overall record of 12-1.
• Hand had previously made 19 state final appearances, winning 13 state titles. The Tigers won the Class M final in 1976 by defeating St. Paul Catholic 29-0, took the 1977 Class M title by beating Berlin 20-16, lost 14-7 against Seymour in the 1980 M final, took a 14-7 defeat versus Killingly in the 1981 Class M-II title game, defeated East Hartford 28-0 to win the 1982 Class M-II crown, lost 14-12 against East Catholic in the 1983 Class M-I title bout, and beat Wilton 14-7 to take the 1984 Class M-I crown. The Tigers also defeated Darien 38-34 for the 1989 Class MM title, lost 35-14 against New Canaan in 1993 Class M final, dropped a 28-24 decision to Foran in 1994 in the Class M final, and doubled up Staples 14-7 in 1997 to claim the Class L title. After that, Hand shut out Ledyard 28-0 to win the 2003 Class M crown, beat Brookfield 35-6 in the 2004 Class M championship, defeated Hillhouse 34-0 to win the Class M crown in 2005, lost to New Canaan 34-30 for the Class MM final in 2007, beat New Canaan 34-10 to take 2011 Class L title, defeated Windsor 23-6 to win the Class L crown in 2012, dispatched Masuk 35-21 in the 2017 Class L state final, and then posted a 54-14 win over Maloney in the 2018 Class L final.
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