The flashbacks began as Hand head coach Steve Filippone made his way to the locker room at halftime.
Receiver Nick Vitale hauled in an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Henry Foye with five seconds left in the first half, giving the Tigers a seemingly insurmountable 20-3 lead against New Canaan in Saturday’s Class L state championship game.
But Filippone knew better than to fade into a state of comfort. Filippone couldn’t help but think back to the 2007 Class MM finals, when Charlie Westfal led the Rams back from a 30-13 deficit to post a 34-30 victory.
“There was no way we were going to lay down or take it easy,” Filippone said. “They’re an explosive team. They can come back on you anytime, anywhere.”
With past disappointments wringing in their ears, the second-seeded Tigers went out and finished the job, rolling to a 34-10 victory over No. 5 New Canaan to win the Class L state title at Rentschler Field in East Hartford.
Senior running back Kevin Fray ran the ball 22 times for 214 yards, including a 70-yard touchdown on Hand’s first play from scrimmage as Hand raced out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead.
Hand’s defense, led by linebackers Dan Ives (11 tackles) and Matt Walsh (9 tackles) and junior defensive end Peter Gerson (5 tackles, three sacks), held the Rams (11-2) to 16 yards rushing and kept senior quarterbacks Matt Milano in check with a three-man pass rush.
Hand, which finished 13-0 overall with its 10th state title, was also looking for revenge after losing to New Canaan 39-21 in last year’s semifinals.
“Last year’s defeat was something we really had to come back from,” Filippone said. “It put a little subtle pressure on the kids, but they really rose to the challenge.”
New Canaan (11-2), appearing in its sixth straight state championship game, fell in the finals for the second year in a row. The Rams suffered a 50-20 setback in the Class L finals against Masuk last season.
From the first snap of the game to the last, Hand proved to be the better team, racking up 321 yards rushing and 448 yards of total offense. Its defense was nearly impenetrable with 6-foot-2, 285 pound nose tackle Joe Dimichele anchoring a mamouth defensive line.
The Tigers looked so good, New Canaan Lou Marinelli gave the Tigers his vote for the state’s No. 1 ranking.
“We’re not a bad team, although we didn’t show it today, and they took it to us,” Marinelli said. “They’re a helluva football team. Everyone’s talking about Xavier, Xavier, Xavier. But they’re a helluva football team. They kicked our butts.”
New Canaan senior quarterback Matt Milano had a nice day statistically, completing 38 of 63 passes for 357 yards and one touchdown, a 30-yard pass to Duke Repko in the third quarter.
But Hand made New Canaan’s spread offense one-dimensional by stuffing the run. Hand did the same thing to Casey Cochran and Masuk during its 35-14 victory in the semifinals, using eight men in the secondary to keep Milano from hurting them.
“They did a real good job defensively against us,” Marinelli said. “We saw the same game plan against Masuk last week, but we still couldn’t do anything against them.”
The Tigers held the Rams to four yards on the first possession of the game and Frey hit New Canaan like a lightning bolt. Frey, a 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior, took a handoff in the backfield, busted through a huge hole on the right side of the line and raced untouched into the end zone for a 70-yard score to give Hand a quick 7-0 lead 1:07 into the game.
“Kevin Frey has been doing that for us all year,” Filippone said. “His tremendous speed is a great equalizer. We’re really going to miss him next year.”
A 58-yard run by Frey on Hand’s third possession set up a 12-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Henry Foye (18-for-31, 127 yards, 2 touchdowns) to 6-foot-4, 205-pound wide receiver Kyle Anderson in the right corner of the end zone to put the Tigers up 14-0 with 7:00 left in the first quarter.
New Canaan drove inside the Hand 10-yard line three times in the first half and managed just three points.
Linebacker Matt Walsh stuffed running back Kevin McDonough on fourth-and-inches late in the first quarter and a fourth-down pass from Milano to Connor Kilbane fell three yards short of a first down with six minutes left in the second. The Rams drove to the Hand 9 after an interception by Bobby Distler with 3:02 left but had to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Collin Shapiro after a dropped pass in the end zone.
The game also ended on a pass to Repko just outside the Hand goal line.
“Once you get in the red zone like that, you have to get it in because you can’t get those chances back,” Marinelli said. “But you have to give Hand credit. We got beat by the better team.”
Hand took a 27-3 lead on the first possession of the second half on a nifty 28-yard run by Vitale. Frey took the handoff from Foye and flipped to Vitale on a reverse. Vitale stepped past a New Canaan defender at the point of attack then cruised into the end zone untouched behind a wall of pulling blockers on the right sideline.
New Canaan used a successful fake punt to set up a 30-yard touchdown pass from Milano to Duke Repko to pull the Rams to within 27-10 with 2:30 left in the third, but Hand countered with a 1-yard dive by Walsh to make it 34-10 with 7:29 remaining in the fourth quarter.