The 2016 Rocky Hill football team experienced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat within a six-day span last week.
The Terriers made history in front of a packed house at McVicar Field last Monday, steamrolling Seymour 42-7 in the Class S semifinals to reach the state championship game for the first time in the program’s history.
The victory marked another exceptional postseason performance from the team, who throttled Bullard-Havens Tech 56-8 in the quarterfinals a week earlier.
Monday’s showdown with Seymour was billed as one of the more anticipated and competitive playoff games in the state because of the team’s familiarity after scrimmaging one another the past two seasons.
Ultimately the game failed to live up to the billing, as the Terriers proved to be the superior team early and often.
“I was not expecting this at all,” Rocky Hill head coach Mark Fritz said of the outcome, “The scrimmage is good because we’re playing a quality opponent to get us ready for the season, but you can’t take too much away from it when you get this late in the season. It was so long ago and both programs have come so far and changed so much.”
From the opening kick the home team was firing on all cylinders, jumping out to a 35-0 advantage at the half.
On the offensive side of the ball, the team’s potent ground game was in full effect, but it was yet another dominant defensive display that paved the path to the title game.
For the second consecutive playoff game, the stingy unit blanked one of the state’s best offenses until the final minutes of the contest.
“Our defense was clicking today,” said defensive back Jack Hansen, “We focused in practice all week and we have a lot of heart.”
Hansen was all over the field Monday night and was responsible for ending three of Seymour’s possessions, including the Wildcats initial offensive drive when he deflected a fourth-down pass in the end zone, spoiling the visitor’s best scoring opportunity of the first half.
Seymour entered the red zone twice more in the second quarter, but the Terriers defense stiffened and forced a turnover on downs on both occasions.
“I think it’s just the guys not wanting to give up points. As simple as that sounds they take a lot of pride and they take it personally when they do score,” Fritz said of the team’s red zone defense, “When we get an opportunity to keep points off the scoreboard they rise up.”
Hansen also recovered a fumble in the first half and the heady junior recognized a fake punt early in the third quarter, before making a diving tackle on Seymour’s upback, who had received a direct snap, “I was covering my man and I saw him flaring out, so I just went and made the tackle.”
Defensive captain Ricky Montalvo added two more sacks and, for the second straight week, was responsible for helping contain one of the state’s most dangerous duel-threat quarterbacks.
Seymour signal caller Jaylen Kelley entered the contest with 44 total touchdowns and his backfield mate Bobby Melms had found pay dirt 25 times through the first 11 games.
Kelley tossed a touchdown late in the game, but Melms was held out of the end zone for only the second time all season.
“We knew we had to key and spy on them. Once we got to them we just had to break down and make the tackle,” said Montalvo, who added that the defense kicks it up a notch when the opposing team nears the goal line, “As soon as someone gets in our red zone we get really aggressive and really energetic. We’ve worked hard in practice and come game time we’re ready to go.”
The defense kept the scoreboard clean for the offense, who continued to create “splash plays” on land and aerially.
Grant Nieves rushed for 186 yards and three scores, increasing his touchdown total to six through the first two playoff games.
Joe Catania added 217 yards on the ground and a pair of breakaway scores, from 40 and 34 yards out.
Quarterback Danny Cavallaro didn’t have to take to the skies too often, but capitalized when he did, heaving a 41-yard scoring strike to Dante Baker “The Touchdown Maker”.
It was Baker’s second touchdown reception of the playoffs. The junior also continued to wreak havoc defensively, forcing Kelley to fumble in the first half when he ran him down from his blindside. The strip sack set up Nieves’ third touchdown.
The victory over Seymour set up a championship date with Ansonia on Saturday at Veterans Stadium inside Willow Brook Park in New Britain.
Catania rushed for 192 yards and a pair of first-half touchdowns, including a 93-yarder, and the Terriers took a 14-6 advantage into the final quarter.
However, the Chargers of Ansonia scored a trio of fourth-quarter touchdowns to win 28-21, capturing their 20th state title.
“I told them that I was proud of them and that I love them,” Fritz told his team after the championship loss, “They worked had for us all year and unfortunately we came up a little short.”
Fritz will have several starters and key players returning next season, including Catania and Cavallaro, who nearly engineered a fourth-quarter rally in the title game. The junior threw a 19-yard touchdown to Nieves on fourth down, narrowing the deficit to seven with 2:34 left in regulation.
“He’s a tremendous worker. He knew we were going to count on him a lot this year and he started putting in the work early in the summer and it’s really showed,” Fritz said of Cavallaro, “He’s done a great job for us all year and to see him step up like that was no surprise to us. He’s one of our leaders and we expect it of him.”
Fritz and the coaching staff will be losing nine seniors, including Nieves and Montalvo. Salman Safdar, Hunter Held, Luke Devine, Krist Veli, Lukasz Zduniak, Damon Lonero, Ernie Mazzarella are the seven others who will be graduating in June.
Despite the championship loss, it’s a senior class that helped set the highest bar in the history of Ricky Hill football.
“I’m proud to have an opportunity to coach this group. I’ll remember how close they were and how much they enjoyed playing football,” added Fritz, “Practice was fun every day and watching them play on Fridays and Saturdays was amazing. I’ve seen them all come through as freshmen and to see them get this close to a state championship this year was special.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin