By BRIAN JENNINGS
Vance Upham had some memorable days in his illustrious career, but topping the list was this Thanksgiving Day when he scored four touchdowns to cap Southington’s undefeated season. On Thursday, Nov. 24, Upham led the Blue Knight football team to a 47-20 victory over Cheshire in the 23rd annual Apple Valley Classic at Fontana Field.
“We prepared for this and knew that it was going to be a grind, and that’s just what it was,” said Upham. “We kept four quarters in our head and couldn’t slack or come out with less energy. They were loading the box and doing a bunch of stuff with four linebackers. We did a lot of film on them though and knew what to do against them, smashing it up front against them.”
Upham finished the game with 212 yards rushing on 26 carries and broke Southington’s single season and career rushing record, passing out Southington legend Vinny Clements. After playing three seasons (1964-66) with the Knights as a team captain and all-state running back, Clements set the school’s single season rushing record with 1,502 yards and 17 touchdowns on 216 carries in 1965. By the end of his football career at Southington, Clements had amassed 3,417 rushing yards and 42 touchdowns.
Upham crushed the single season mark by 103 yards, finishing the regular season with 1,605 yards and 23 touchdowns on 178 carries. Upham broke the career rushing record by 70 yards after Thursday’s game, now at 3,487 yards and 41 touchdowns after three seasons with the Knights.
“I found out a couple weeks ago from my sister that I had a chance to break the record, but I wasn’t really thinking about it at all coming into this game,” said Upham. “It feels even better getting this win on Thanksgiving though.”
Upham wasn’t alone in the heroics, as quarterback Will Barmore tossed three touchdowns and Brandon Kohl ran for a score to complement the defense, which allowed only 237 yards of total offense.
The Knights received the opening kickoff, but after six plays, Matthew Nugent recovered a fumble for Cheshire at Southington’s 40-yard line. Elijah Allston capped off the turnover by giving the Rams a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter with a two-yard touchdown run, after almost giving the ball back to the Knights on a fumble that was called out of bounds on the previous play.
A couple possessions later, Vance Upham cut the deficit to a point after rumbling downfield for a 79-yard score on the first play from scrimmage before the end of the quarter, sequenced by a missed extra point.
Ethan Bronson booted a 30-yard field goal through the uprights on the first play of the second quarter, extending Cheshire’s lead, 10-6. Anthony Plantamuro kept Southington’s next drive alive by picking up the first down with a two-yard run on a fake punt on a fourth-and-three. Will Barmore capped off the drive with a 55-yard touchdown pass to Upham to put the Knights up by three with a little over eight minutes remaining in the first half.
The Rams answered on their next possession after Jack Raba completed a 22-yard pass to Eric Angelone for the score, putting Cheshire back on top, 17-13. Following punts by both teams, Barmore was intercepted by Angelone on a third-and-24 to set up the Rams at their own 15-yard line with a just under a minute before halftime. A deep bomb from Raba to Angelone would have spotted Cheshire up around Southington’s 30-yard line with just under a minute to go, but the ball hit the ground on the catch.
The Knights got the ball back and quickly marched downfield. Barmore connected with Richie Rivera for a 29-yard completion, setting up Southington at Cheshire’s 23-yard line. On the next play, Barmore escaped Cheshire tacklers as he scrambled out of the pocket, only to find Plantamuro in the end zone for the touchdown to end the first half with the Knights ahead, 20-17.
“One of the biggest things on that play was our line blocking,” said Southington coach Mike Drury. “We had guys peeling back and giving Will that extra time. He was able to avoid the rush and was doing all the stuff we work on in practice every day. He delivered a strike to Anthony.”
Joe Koczera recovered a fumble by Allston on Cheshire’s first possession of the second half, but an interception thrown by Barmore to Tom Wnuck negated the turnover. Bronson capped off the drive with a 34-yard field goal, tying the contest at 20-20. However, a three-yard scamper by Upham moments later put the Knights back on top, 27-20, before the end of the quarter.
A holding penalty on Southington called back a 47-yard touchdown run by Upham early in the fourth quarter, and Cheshire took over on downs at their own 32-yard line after Barmore was sacked on a fourth-and-five a couple plays later.
Following a Cheshire punt, Barmore escaped Cheshire tacklers as he rolled out of the pocket and found Rivera for a 27-yard touchdown pass on a fouth-and-13, as Rivera broke a few tackles running down the sideline. The score put the Knights up, 34-20, with just under three minutes remaining in the game.
Matt Meade forced a Cheshire fumble on the ensuing kickoff—recovered by Ian Agnew—which led to a one-yard touchdown run by Upham. Ian Hall forced a Cheshire fumble on the next kickoff—recovered by Sean Scanlon—setting up Brandon Kohl for a 48-yard run to the end zone untouched.
Koczera led the blitz, collecting 11 tackles—including six assists—and a sack.
“It’s always a legendary game. I think I played good and had all of my assignments down,” said Koczera. “We covered the bubbles and screens well, and we started to stop the run more, so they had to pass. We also had our pass coverage locked down.”
Barmore paced the attack, completing 16 of 29 passes for 272 yards, but the junior quarterback credited the running game for setting up the pass.
“Just having Vance and Brandon back there and that offensive line gives me more confidence than any other quarterback in the state,” said Barmore. “I know that I could always turn and give the ball to them for some positive yards. It sets up big plays in the pass game, which you saw today.”
Jack Raba paced the Rams, completing 25 of 42 passes for 196 yards.
Not only did Southington secure a CIAC Class LL quarterfinal home game next week, but it continued its mastery in the regular season with its third-straight unbeaten regular season at 10-0.The only blemish in recent years was last year’s semifinal loss to Darien, snapping a 30-game winning streak.
“I thought the quarterbacks did a really good job, in terms of making plays with their feet and arms,” the coach said. “But there were a lot of penalties. We’ve been really great with penalties all year, but we just had a couple situations where maybe there was a lack of technique or focus for one second. We want to clean that up though.”
The victory knocked the Rams out of playoff contention and marked the fifth consecutive win in the series for the Knights. Cheshire had won the previous five meetings from 2007 to 2011.
“They’re stout in the interior, but we were able to work some of our quick passing game in the second half,” said Drury. “We’re a four-quarter team though. We were ready and prepared for that. We like that and grind it down to the end. Our running backs just kept going, and our offensive line just stayed focused and kept doing their job, winning the battle and playing with tempo.”
Southington will play No. 5 Norwich Free Academy (8-2) at home in the quarterfinals (1st round) of the Class LL Tournament.
“It’s good to come out undefeated in the regular season, but now we are 0-0,” the coach said. “It’s a restart on everything. It’s a loaded Class LL field, but this is fun, and these guys have been waiting for this all year.”
Apple Valley Classic Awards
Offensive Awards—Vance Upham rushed for 103 yards and caught a 55 yard touchdown reception. Jack Rava completed 25 of 42 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown. Both were named offensive MVPs.
Defensive Awards—Joseph Koczera had 5 solo tackles with six assists, a sack, and a fumble recovery. Matthew Nugent had a fumble recovery and a sack. Both were named as the defensive MVPs.
MVP—Upham paced the game’s scoring, but he also added two tackles and broke up a pass. For his efforts, he was named the Southington and Cheshire Chamber of Commerce Apple Valley Outstanding Player of the Game.
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Brian Jennings, email him at BJennings@SouthingtonObserver.com.