The snow that blanketed the East Haven High School field Tuesday night definitely painted a pretty picture. But as far as St. Joseph head coach Joe DellaVecchia was concerned, it might as well have been poison arrows falling from the sky.
For the fifth-seeded Cadets, who rely on a spread offense and the passing of junior quarterback Jordan Vazzano to score points, a fresh layer of white stuff was even worse than a worst-case scenario.
With two equally talented halfbacks and a dangerous running quarterback, No. 4 Hillhouse was much better equipped to handle the poor playing conditions, jumping out to a quick 7-0 lead and rolling to a 34-14 victory in the Class M quarterfinals.
Senior running back Andre Anderson rushed for 137 yards and two touchdowns and senior cornerback Darryn Horner intercepted two passes, returning one for a dazzling 99-yard touchdown that made it 28-6 with nine seconds left before halftime.
Hillhouse (9-2) got off to a great start, scoring on a 4-yard run by Facinete Haidara just 30 seconds into the game after St. Joseph fumbled on the first play from scrimmage.
Anderson later scored on runs of 4 and 55 yards to lead the Academics (9-2), who will face the winner of No. 1 Wolcott and No. 8 Montville Sunday in the Class M semifinals.
Hillhouse usually relies more on the running of shifty junior Harold Cooper, who went into the game with 1,337 yards and 19 touchdowns after rushing for almost 2,000 yards as a sophomore. On this night, Anderson proved to be the better option with his powerful yet speedy straight-ahead style. Cooper ran the ball 21 times for 56 yards.
“When Harold is in the game, everyone just runs to him. You have 11 kids on defense who know where No. 1 is,” Hillhouse head coach Tom Dyer said. “(Cooper) didn’t have his opportunities tonight, but Andre Anderson made a ton of great plays. I’ve been saying all year long. I feel like we have the top two backs in the entire state. Tonight, Andre showed what he’s got.”
The Cadets (8-3) were out of their element right from the start as heavy snow began falling well before kickoff and continued through halftime, covering the field in several inches of powder, forcing workers to shovel the sidelines and yard markers throughout the game.
The slippery conditions were less than ideal for Vazzano, who completed just 9 of 25 passes for 90 yards and three interceptions. The Cadets also suffered a big hit to their running game, losing starting halfback Kyron Crawford with an injury on the first play of the game. St. Joseph managed just 51 yards rushing and had just four first downs through three quarters.
DellaVecchia was clearly upset with the decision to play the game after many of the state’s quarterfinal contests for postponed to Wednesday.
“I’m not sure whose idea it was to play,” DellaVecchia said. “We were told playing conditions would be considered, and they weren’t considered. I totally disagreed with the decision to play this game.”
The snow had a much less adverse effect on the Acedemics, who rushed the ball 48 times for 231 yards. Quarterback Je’Vaughn Moore attempted just three passes, completing one for 15 yards.
“Football was meant to be played in the elements,” Dyer said. “When we left New Haven, we had no snow on the ground. We came up here and there was snow on the ground. But it was a hard-fought game. I’m proud of the way my kids played.”
As expected, turnovers played a huge role in the outcome of the game. Hillhouse forced four turnovers, including a fumble by Crawford on the first play of the game. Haidara scored on a 4-yard run two plays later to give the Academics a 7-0 lead with just 30 seconds elapsed.
Pelletier got six right back, returning the ensuing kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown. But the senior captain, who set new school records for receptions and receiving yardage in a season with three catches for 29 yards, missed the extra point to leave Hillhouse ahead 7-6.
St. Joseph had two more golden opportunities with consecutive possessions starting at the 15 and the 11 after a high snap on a punt by Moore and a fumble recovery by Lars Pedersen. But the Cadets failed to score on either opportunity, getting stopped for minus-six yards on the two possessions combined.
“That was big,” DellaVecchia said. “We should have taken advantage of that and we didn’t do it. We didn’t get off the ball well, and that’s the tough part. We had them on the ropes and just didn’t get it done.”
Hillhouse responded with the longest drive of the night, marching 85 yards on 13 plays, taking a 14-6 lead on a 4-yard run by Anderson with 10:07 left in the second quarter.
The two defensive stands made it happen.
“It was a great defensive effort tonight,” Dyer said. “We had two first-quarter stops in the red zone, and ultimately that was the game right there. We had all the momentum after that. We kind of bent but we didn’t break.”
Anderson added a 55-yard touchdown run on the next Hillhouse possession to make it 21-6 with 4:38 left.
The back-breaker came on St. Joseph’s next drive. The Cadets finally got something going after Vazzano started tucking the ball under his arm and running. The ground threat opened up some passing lanes for Vazzano, who drove the ball down to the Hillhouse 17 with 31 seconds left.
His worst mistake of the night ended up being a big one as Horner stepped in front of a pass intended for senior Jake Pelletier in the left corner of the end zone and rumbled 99 yards the other way for a touchdown that made it 28-6.
Horner, who also had seven tackles, raced up the right sideline, cut back to the center of the field then shot past Vazzano as he closed in to make a tackle at the St. Joseph 40. A flag was thrown back inside Hillhouse territory, but the officials picked it up, allowing the touchdown to stand.
“That was a crazy play. He’s an all-league player for us for a reason,” Dyer said for Horner. “We put him inside at linebacker to match him up with the Pelletier kid, who’s a great receiver. All the plays he made tonight, it was a tremendous effort by him.”
Pelletier was never really open on the play, but Vazzano forced the throw to his go-to receiver and the Cadets paid the price.
“That ball was supposed to go to Mark (Hirschbeck) who was open underneath on a crossing route,” DellaVecchia said. “But he saw something and just under-threw it a little bit. It happens. Jake is one of the best receivers in the state, so it’s not a bad decision to go to him.”
That was just about the end for St. Joseph, which mustered just 57 yards of offense in the first half. Vazzano pulled the Cadets to within 28-14 with a 14-yard touchdown run with 11:42 left in the fourth quarter, but the Academics got two more interceptions, one by Moore on the sideline and another by Horner, to put the game away.
Moore scored on a 13-yard run to make it 34-14 with 4:35 left.
“Jordan didn’t have a great day, but they did a great job of mugging our receivers,” DellaVecchia said. “We just couldn’t get off the ball. They were pulling jerseys and everything like that. We had some crossing routes that we were trying to rub, and they were just yanking us all night. He didn’t make good decisions all the time tonight, but he got us here.”