Breaking down the CIAC quarterfinals
* All CIAC quarterfinal round games are at 6:30 p.m. *
No. 1 Staples (9-0) vs. No. 8 West Haven (8-2)
At Staples, Tuesday
Key players: Staples – Sr. RB/DB Joey Zelkowitz, Sr. RB/DB Nick Kelly, Sr. WR James Frusciante, Jr. QB Jack Massie, Sr. OL/DL Pieter Hoets, Sr. LB Lance Lonergan, Jr. RB Patrick Lesch; West Haven – Jr. RB Ervin Phillips, Sr. QB Javon Taylor, Sr. FB/DE Eddy Williams, Jr. RB Duane Gary.
Why Staples will win: Coming off a 48-30 victory over No. 6 Greenwich in the FCIAC championship game, Staples has been on a mission since losing to Xavier in last year’s Class LL state championship. The Wreckers are one of the most explosive offensive teams in the state, averaging 52.2 points per game. Staples is big up front, they’re tremendous on special teams and have a wealth of weapons to fire in their spread option offense, including the run/pass double threat of Massie and a tough runner in Zelkowitz, who ripped off 317 yards against Greenwich. No one has stopped the Wreckers yet this season, and it doesn’t appear as if anyone will.
Why West Haven will win: The Westies play in one of the toughest leagues (SCC) in the state. Their only two losses came against defending Class LL champion Xavier and defending Class L champion Hand, which barely survived 21-20. The Westies also have great size up front and know how to run the ball, averaging 232 yards per game. If this one gets physical, West Haven will be right in its element.
Prediction: Staples 47, West Haven 14
No. 3 Xavier (9-1) vs. No. 6 Greenwich (8-1)
At Palmer Field, Middletown, Wednesday
Key players: Xavier - Sr. QB Tim Boyle, Sr. RB DeAngelo Berry, Sr. WR/DB Kris Luster, Jr. DB Nate Gonzalez. Greenwich – Sr. RB Alex McMurray, Sr. QB Liam O’Neil, Sr. TE Joe Kelly, Jr. WR/DB Jose Melo, Sr. RB/LB Mark Bernstein, Sr. WR Vincent Ferraro.
Why Xavier will win: The two-time defending Class LL champions are still the best team in the state until someone proves otherwise. The Falcons aren’t as scary as they were last year, but with an athletic defense and a balanced attack on offense behind Boyle (1,612 yards, 15 TDs) and Berry (1,275 yards, 27 TDs), they’re still very dangerous.
Why Greenwich will win: The Cardinals can score at will, averaging 49 points per game during the regular season before putting up 38 against a tough Staples defense during the FCIAC championship. Appearing in the playoffs for the first time since 2007, this perennial powerhouse is looking to restore pride to one of the state’s top programs.
Prediction: Xavier 35, Greenwich 28
No. 3 Avon (10-0) vs. No. 6 New Canaan (8-2)
At Simsbury, Wednesday
Key players: Avon – Sr. RB Colin Moore, Jr. QB Noah Hahn, Jr. LB Jimmy Murphy, Sr. LB Joe Murphy, Sr. WR/DB Chris Suttmeier. New Canaan – Jr. QB Nick Cascione, Sr. QB Ted Bossidy, Sr. RB Louis Hagopian, Jr. DT Connor Buck, Jr. RB/DB Jack Gilio.
Why Avon will win: The Falcons are strong on both sides of the ball behind the running of Moore, one of the top backs in the state who has rushed for 2,033 yards and 25 touchdowns, and a defense which has allowed the fourth-fewest points (96) in the state behind linebackers Joe and Jimmy Murphy, who have a combined 234 tackles.
Why New Canaan will win: The Rams are coming off a loss to rival Darien on Thanksgiving Day, but are back in the state playoffs for the eighth straight season. New Canaan has appeared in six straight state championship games, so it can never be counted out. New Canaan’s spread offense, which features a two-quarterback platoon led by the emerging Cascione, is tough to stop with all the different looks it presents to opponents.
Prediction: New Canaan 28, Avon 7
No. 4 Hillhouse (8-2) vs. No. 5 St. Joseph (8-2)
At East Haven High School,Tuesday
Key players: Hillhouse – Jr. RB Harold Cooper, Sr. QB Je’Vaughn Moore, Sr. RB Andre Anderson, Sr. LB Terrell Fairweather. St. Joseph – Jr. QB Jordan Vazzano, Sr. WR/RB/K Jake Pelletier, Sr. LB/FB Mike Pulaski, Sr. WR Denzel Moscova, Sr. WR Mark Hirschbeck, Sr. RB Kyron Crawford.
Why Hillhouse will win: The Academics feature one of the most lethal rushing attacks in the state, grinding out 428 yards per game behind the electrifying running of Cooper (1,337 yards, 19 TDs) and Anderson (1,080 yards, 12 TDs). Hillhouse’s only two losses came against Hand and Xavier. The Acs nearly knocked off the defending Class LL champions, leading by 28 points in the fourth quarter before Xavier rallied for a stunning 51-50 victory. Hillhouse won the Class M title two years ago, and should be a tough out again this year.
Why St. Joseph will win: The Cadets are on quite a roll having won four straight by a combined score of 208-54, including a 55-20 win over Trumbull on Thanksgiving Eve. St. Joseph features perhaps the top throwing quarterbacks in the FCIAC in Vazzano (1,804 yards, 23 TDs) and one of its top all-around players in Pelletier, who set the school’s single-season record for receptions (41). Pelletier also runs the ball, handles the place kicking, and is known to throw a pass now and then. If the defense plays up to its capability, this could be a very dangerous team.
Prediction: St. Joseph 38, Hillhouse 22
No. 3 Ellington/Somers (9-1) vs. No. 6 Weston (8-2)
At Enfield, Wednesday
Key players: Ellington/Somers – Jr. QB Joe Leslie, Sr. WR/DE Brendan Coverdill, Sr. RB/LB Neal Janiga; Weston – Sr. QB/DB Tyler Hassett, Sr. RB/DB Justin Schaffer, Sr. RB/DB Zach Cannon, Sr. LB/RB Aaron Pomerance, Sr. DL/OL Austin Gomar.
Why Ellington/Somers will win – While Weston is making its first trip to the state tournament in 23 years, the Knights have some experience in the playoffs after losing to Wolcott in overtime in the Class M quarterfinals last season. Ellington’s only loss came against undefeated Avon, the top seed in the Class L field.
Why Weston will win – The Trojans have Hassett, a multi-dimensional player who has carried Weston on his back all season. Hassett, a four-year varsity player, has rushed for 720 yards and 10 touchdowns while passing for 1,540 yards, 16 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Hassett also plays defensive back, returns kicks and also handles the punting duties.
Prediction: Weston 24, Ellington 21
No. 2 Berlin (9-1) vs. No. 7 Bullard-Havens (8-2)
At Sage Park, Berlin, Tuesday
Key players: Berlin – Sr. RB Justin Gombotz, Jr. QB Mitch Williams, Sr. RB Scott McLeod, Sr. WR Tyler Bouchard, Sr. S Kevin Main; Bullard-Havens – Sr. RB John Shannon, Sr. OL/DL Shaq Rowe, Sr. RB Jacqua Solomon, Sr. WR Justin Marquez.
Why Berlin will win: The Redcoats have a couple of scores to settle. After winning a state title in 2009, Berlin has lost to the eventual state champion in each of the past two seasons, last year in the semifinals against Ansonia and two years ago as the No. 1 seed against No. 8 Hillhouse. The Redcoats are a balanced team led by the running of Gombotz (1,126 yards, 16 TDs) and the passing of Williams (1,202 yards, 14 TDs).
Why Bullard-Havens will win: The Tigers have game-changers on both sides of the ball behind Shannon, who has gained 1,423 yards and scored 25 touchdowns, and Rowe, who leads the team with 123 tackles and 14 sacks. Berlin has also been scuffling of late, pulling out narrow victories against Bloomfield and New Britain after dropping a 34-14 decision against Platt of Meriden.
Prediction: Berlin 35, Bullard-Havens 6
No. 3 North Branford (10-0) vs. Trinity Catholic (8-2)
At North Branford, Tuesday
Key players: North Branford – Sr. QB Brandon Basil, Sr. RB Dale Hausman, Sr. LB Gary Falanga, Sr. RB Chris Caron, Sr. WR Alex McGuigan, Sr. RB Joe Delucia; Trinity Catholic – Sr. RB Shaquan Howsie, Sr. LB Cody Zaro. Sr. LB David Deleo, So. RB Randy Polonia, Sr. QB Danny O’Leary.
Why North Branford will win: The Thunderbirds tore through the first eight games of the season, winning by a combined margin of 441-82. North Branford completed its perfect regular season with a solid 32-28 win against perennial state playoff contender Hyde of New Haven. North Branford has one of the top passers in the state in Basil (2,413 yards, 36 TDs), Hausman is a tough runner, and three players have 30 receptions or more. The Thunderbirds, who lost in the quarterfinals last season, might have too many weapons for the Crusaders to handle.
Why Trinity Catholic will win: Making its first appearance in the state playoffs since 1989, the Crusaders must get strong games from its talented linebacker tandem if it hopes to slow down North Branford’s potent offense. Howsie has shown the potential to carry the team on his back offensively. Trinity might have regained some confidence with a 42-32 win against Wilton after dropping two straight against Darien and St. Joseph.
Prediction: North Branford 41, Trinity Catholic 13