By BRIAN JENNINGS
With just under two minutes left in the game, the two-time state champion Knights were trailing a sub-.500 team.
Southington was mired in penalties throughout much of the first half. The top-ranked Knights coughed up the ball an unprecedented five times, but Southington still managed to dominate the first three quarters of the game.
But with 1:48 remaining, Southington trailed, 29-28.
“We said hey, it’s on the offense now,” said Drury. “It’s our job. We kind of missed several opportunities earlier in the game. We said, hey, now it’s our job to get it done. We have to have a signature drive here, and we did.”
The Knights turned to quarterback Jasen Rose. Backed up on his own 33-yard line, Rose connected a pass to Austin Morin to bring the Knights to midfield. Next, he connected with Alessio Diana down the sidelines for an over-the-head catch at the Cheshire four-yard line.
Rose rolled out to the right on the next play, stiff-armed a defender, and plunged into the end zone. Just like that, the Knights were back on top.
Rose’s last-minute touchdown sealed a 36-29 win for the Knights over Cheshire on Thanksgiving Day, and Southington took an 11-9 lead in the Apple Valley Classic series. But it wasn’t easy.
Both teams squandered chances. The Rams had an early touchdown called back on a penalty, and Alessio Diana opened the scoring with a four-yard touchdown run minutes later.
Southington got the ball back a couple possessions later on an Austin Morin interception, but three major penalties and a fumble would kill the drive. Cheshire recovered the ball at their own 44.
Southington may have went into the half up by a touchdown, 14-7, on four-yard touchdown run by Alessio Diana and a 38-yard touchdown reception by Anthony Plantamuro, but turnovers and penalties were the highlight of the first half.
“Formation-wise, they put us in some tight positions,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “Sometimes we just have to rally to the ball a little bit better, especially open field stuff.”
Cheshire didn’t go quietly. After Southington took a 28-14 lead with a four-yard touchdown catch by Jake Testa with just over five minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Cheshire mounted a comeback.
On the Rams next possession, Will Graikoski hit Andrew Criscuolo for a six-yard touchdown catch on a drive that started from their own 18-yard line. The Rams recovered an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff, and capped a five-play drive with a 19-yard pass from Graikoski to Michael Jeffery.
Cheshire didn’t settle for a tie. A short Graikoski pass to Cricuolo put the Rams up by a point 29-28 to set up the final drama.
“They have that younger quarterback [Graikoski] there that came in,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “We knew that he could really come in and push the ball down the field. He did a really good job for a sophomore coming in a game like this. They had some great plays.”
Rose finished the day completing 20 of 30 passes for 262 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. Rose also rushed for 38 yards and a touchdown.
Alessio Diana paced the offense with 83 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. Diana also catch three passes out of the backfield for 81 yards. Austin Morin hauled in 10 catches for 80 yards, including one-yard touchdown. Plantamuro received three passes for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Logan LaRosa anchored the defense with 16 tackles and 11 assists. Ryan Montalvo contributed with 15 tackles nine assists, John Meade with 10 tackles seven assists, and Paul Schweiger with 10 tackles and eight assists.
The win moved the Southington to 10-0 to finish up the regular season, making it 30 wins in a row for the program. The Knights will take on No.6-seed Conard (8-2) in the first round of the Class LL tournament as a No.3-seed at home on Tuesday, Dec. 1.
“They scored on us last time we played them,” said Drury. “They’re a tough, very well-coached team. They’re playing very good right now. They just had a huge game against Hall. I’m sure they’re excited and are ready to play.”
2015 Apple Valley Classic Awards
Offensive Awards—Jasen Rose went 20-for-30 (66.7 percent) for 262 yards, and three touchdowns as the Southington quarterback, and he carried the ball for another 38 yards on the ground. R.J. Oris carried the ball 26 times for 84 yards to lead the Cheshire running game. Both were named as the offensive MVPs.
Defensive Awards—Logan LaRosa led the Blue Knight blitz with 16 tackles. He also broke up two pass plays and forced a fumble. R.J. Oris anchored the Cheshire defense and contributed one of the team’s three fumble recoveries. Both were named as the defensive MVPs.
Rose was selected as the Most Valuable Player of the 2015 Apple Valley Classic.
“The awards are a good feeling, but it’s mainly about the win,” said Rose. “It’s a team game and that W wouldn’t have come without the rest of them.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@ SouthingtonObserver.com.
CLICK TO ENLARGE (Photos by JOHN GORALSKI and BRIAN JENNINGS)