Mark Fritz was an assistant coach the last time Rocky Hill football won a playoff game.
That was until last Tuesday night, when the assistant-turned-head coach and his surging Terriers coasted to a 56-8 victory over the visiting Bullard-Havens Tigers in the quarterfinals of the Class S playoffs at McVicar Field.
“It’s nice, they’re a hungry group. They’ve been talking about this for years, the opportunity to get back to the state playoffs,” Fritz said of his senior class, who were freshman the last time the program won a postseason game, “For them to get here and experience it for themselves is really special. Having been with them for all four years and to see it pay off for them, I couldn’t be more proud.”
Grant Nieves was a freshman on the 2013 team, which defeated Price Tech 51-8 in playoffs. He rushed for 94 yards and a touchdown in the quarterfinals-triumph three seasons ago.
The now-senior tripled those scoring numbers in the victory Tuesday night, rushing for three touchdowns, including a 51-yard jaunt on the first play from scrimmage.
“We practiced our hammer all week, we executed and my linemen opened it up for me. It was an open field,” Nieves recalled of the opening play, “It helped because we were pretty tense coming into the game because we had never played them before and we weren’t sure how they were going to play.”
“It’s always nice when you score on the first play of the game,” a smiling Fritz added, “It allows our defense to fly around and play with even more confidence. They’re a confident bunch as it is, but when you give them a lead they play aggressive. They love to play fast and playing with a lead really suits our style of football.”
The defense forced a three-and-out on the Bullard-Havens first offensive series, and Nieves added his second touchdown a few minutes later when he scooted around the left side of the defense before cutting back and scoring from six yards out.
Quarterback Danny Cavallaro connected with Dante Baker on a 35-yard touchdown strike with 6:16 left in the first quarter and Joe Catania scored the first of his two touchdowns late in the quarter, providing Rocky Hill a 27-0 advantage after the first dozen minutes.
The sizable cushion allowed the Terriers to continue to do what they do best.
Run. The. Ball.
“We were confident in our o-line to do what they’ve been doing all year. They love to run block and they love our style of offense,” Fritz said about mismatch at the line of scrimmage, “It didn’t really matter who our opponent was tonight, we were going to run our offense and it happened to work out that the weather conditions were conducive to our style of football. I think that helped us out a lot.”
With the game well in hand, Rocky Hill’s Will White had an incredible four minutes stretch that ended any doubt of the eventual outcome.
White intercepted a pass late in the first quarter, and on the ensuing drive hauled in a 35-yard reception on 4th and 7. The junior polished off the drive by plunging into the end zone from two yards out and he also ran in the two-point conversion with 9:07 left in the half.
On the ensuring play following a shanked punt by the road team, Nieves completed the trifecta, scoring from nine yards out.
Catania added his second score less than two minutes later when the locomotive burst around the right side and broke three tackles on his way to a 40-yard touchdown.
All told, Rocky Hill scored on their first seven possession of the game and led 49-0 at the break.
It was a stunning halftime score for a game that, on paper, seemed to feature two evenly-matched teams.
Both entered the playoff contest with 9-1 records and both had lost to undefeated teams.
The Bridgeport-based Tigers also had one of the state’s most prolific players in quarterback Tyrese Wright, who was responsible for 40 total touchdowns in the regular season.
Tuesday night was a different story. Wright was stymied by the fierce Terriers defense, finding little room to operate on the ground or through the air.
The junior quarterback eventually got into the end zone, but it came with less than a minute to play in the contest.
It was another spectacular performance from the Rocky Hill defense, who a week earlier had shut down the normally fruitful run-oriented offense of Cromwell/Portland.
“Our coaches do a great job preparing our players for the week and we played well tonight,” said Fritz, “We have a very well-rounded group of kids playing on defense. They can adjust to playing the pass or the run without changing personnel that much. Other teams might have to sub in and out guys, but we can keep the same guys on the field. Our defense is conducive to any style of offense.”
“Our defensive coaches trust our players, so we went man and we just practiced man coverage the whole time,” added Nieves, who also starts at cornerback and knocked down three passes, “I trust these guys over anybody and we did a great job deflecting passes and staying on our guys.”
The road team attempted to counter Rocky Hill’s attacking defense with several screen passes, but the Terriers disciplined defenders were up to the task. Defensive lineman Lukasz Zduniak knocked down two passes and Damon Lonero and Ricky Montalvo each had a quarterback sack, all of which ended drives.
With the game salted away at the half, Fritz was able to rest several of his starters for a majority of the final two quarters.
Prior to kickoff Nieves didn’t expect to be resting for the final 24 minutes, but the senior captain didn’t mind the light load.
“It’s a good thing. We came out and handled our business.”
Jordan Jones and Joseph Ferreira got a bulk of the second-half carries, and Ferreira scored the team’s final touchdown from 13 yards out.
The program’s second ever playoff victory earned the team a semifinals home date against Seymour.
Panthers Shock Bloomfield
The Cromwell/Portland Panthers traveled to Bloomfield and stunned the undefeated Warhawks 28-14 in the quarterfinals of the Class S playoffs.
Kristian Sapp rushed for 269 yards and three touchdowns as the Panthers dealt the defending Class S state champions their first loss in over two years.
Jon Siena added 54 yards and another touchdown on the ground and punter Richard Loza was the game’s unsung hero, averaging nearly 60 yards a punt and pinning all four of his boots inside the 20-yard line.
The upset win moved the Panthers into the semifinal round for a date at Ansonia.
Middletown Outlasts Platt
The Blue Dragons potent rushing attack amassed 459 yards and eight touchdowns as Middletown defeated Platt 56-36 in the Class L quarterfinals.
Quarterback Tyshaun James ran for five of those touchdowns and Ibn Lombardo grinded out 181 yards and two more scores. CJ Spowl tallied the other rushing touchdown.
Defensively, Stone Belzo tallied 11 tackles and Nico Cavaliere and Justin McMillian each intercepted passes for the Blue Dragons.
The victory propelled Middletown to the semifinal round for a rematch against Windsor.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin