WEST HAVEN - Sean Ireland, Norwalk's first-year head coach, heard all the stories about how big and strong Xavier was, but the impact of the first part of the equation still caught Norwalk’s first-year head coach by surprise as he walked onto the field prior to Saturday’s Class LL semifinals.
“I looked on the field during warm-ups and noticed their quarterback. He was bigger than our tight end,” Ireland said. “I’ve never seen a high school team that big across the board.”
Add in a little competitive nastiness and Norwalk found a Xavier team that was just too tough to handle.
The top-seeded and undefeated Falcons overpowered the fifth-seeded Bears on both sides of the ball, ending one of the greatest seasons in Norwalk High School history with a 55-14 victory at West Haven’s Ken Strong Stadium.
Xavier (12-0), which will look to defend its state title when it meets No. 2 Staples (11-0) in what promises to be a titanic Class LL championship game next weekend at Renstchler Field in East Hartford, used nine different runners in a menacing ground attack that accounted for 413 of the team’s 577 total yards.
Xavier’s defense, led by standout senior lineman Sean Marinan and tenacious 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox, limited Norwalk to just 21 yards rushing. The Bears mustered just 21 yards and two first downs — both on penalties — in the second half.
The Falcons also forced three turnovers and sacked Norwalk quarterback Delshawn Wilson twice.
“We were a little sloppy at the start of the game,” said Xavier head coach Sean Marinan, whose team has won 25 straight games. “But it’s the sign of a good team to be able to overcome the miscues. Our defense was outstanding today.”
Norwalk (9-2), coming off its first playoff victory in school history Tuesday night against Conard, had a 7-6 lead late in the first quarter after senior Andy St. Fleur hauled in jump ball from Wilson on the left sideline and rumbled 72 yards for a touchdown.
But Xavier responded with a 7-yard touchdown run by 6-foot-2, 209-pound senior tight end Ryan Murphy on the next possession and scored two more times to take a 27-14 lead.
Derick Edwards gave the Bears some hope with a 12-yard interception return to make it 27-14, but the Falcons countered again with a 10-yard scoring run by wide receiver Ryan Jacobucci to take a 34-14 halftime lead.
Xavier, which had six different players score touchdowns, was never challenged after that.
“We knew exactly what they were going to do. We just couldn’t stop them,” Ireland said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the state for a reason, and they showed it tonight. We just played them and I saw Masuk, but I don’t think it’s even close between the two of them. I don’t see any team in Connecticut beating Xavier.”
Xavier had Wilson running for cover most of the night, whether it was on designed runs or as he tried to find time dropping back to pass.
“I knew I was going to be scrambling every time I got the ball,” said Wilson, who completed 8 of 25 passes for 103 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Wilson gained just 17 yards on eight carries, but led the team on the ground. “Right when I snapped the ball, they were in on me on every play.”
Xavier won easily and didn’t even feature lead running back Mike Mastriani. The speedy senior carried six times for 38 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown run to put the Falcons up 7-0 with 6:57 left in the first quarter. But Mastriani, who had 1,136 yards and 18 touchdowns going into the game, suffered a bruised thigh in the second quarter and never returned.
Xavier still dominated on the ground behind quarterbacks Pat D’Amato and Tim Boyle, who combined for 134 yards rushing. Jacobucci (80 yards, three carries) gave the Falcons speed on the edge while senior Matt Craig and junior DeAngelo Berry (89 yards, 12 carries) ran well through the tackles.
“I think Matt Craig and DeAngelo Berry could play for a lot of teams,” Marinan said. “Mike took a helmet to the thigh so we wanted to keep him out and get him ready for next week. We don’t lose a lot when those two kids are in there.”
Both D’Amato and Boyle were effective behind center. D’Amato completed 5 of 6 passes for 110 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 94 yards and another score on eight carries. Boyle added 30 yards and one touchdown passing while rushing for another score from eight yards out.
Jacobucci had a brilliant game with three catches for 57 yards, a 10-yard touchdown run, an interception on defense and a 51-yard kick return to set up another score. Murphy was also impressive, rushing for a 7-yard touchdown, catching three passes for 58 yards and a score while playing solid defense on the end.
“They really handled us up front,” Wilson said. “We just couldn’t block them. That was the whole game.”
Norwalk had a chance to get back into the game after Cliff Joseph recovered a fumbled punt by Jacobucci at the Xavier 48 with 9:35 left in the first half. The Bears attempted a halfback option pass on the next play from John Anzalone to Edwards, but Jacobucci came up with a huge interception and the Falcons scored five plays later on a 24-yard pass from D’Amato to Murphy to make it 20-7.
“After getting the punt we decided to take a shot and see if we could make something happen,” Ireland said. “That would have been a huge play for us.”
Murphy recovered a fumbled snap at the Norwalk 30 on the next possession and D’Amato made it 27-7 with a 17-yard run.
That was the end for Norwalk, which gained just 29 yards other than the 72-yard touchdown pass. The lopsided ending still can’t put a damper on what was accomplished by Norwalk, which went 8-1 in the FCIAC while reaching the state semifinals for the second time in school history.
“These kids did things no one at Norwalk High ever did. They turned us into a legitimate program,” Ireland said. “This is a great group of young men and I’m proud to say this is the first team I’ve ever coached.”