By KEVIN ROBERTS
On several different occasions this season, Southington football’s opponents have tried to slow them down. For the first half of the 23rd Apple Valley Classic on Thanksgiving Eve, Cheshire was able to do just that. The Rams used a solid run game and stingy defense to lead the Blue Knights 7-3 at halftime, and that subdued the home fans on what was a windy and bitterly cold night.
Southington made adjustments at halftime, then piled up 20 straight points over a nearly nine-minute stretch in the second half to claim a 23-13 victory over its archrival. The Blue Knights finished the regular season 10-0 and clinched a Class LL quarterfinal round home game. No. 4 Southington took on No. 5 Fairfield Prep on Tuesday night.
“All of a sudden, it gets a little windy, it gets a little cold, peoples’ brains stop working,” Blue Knights coach Mike Drury said to laughs from the reporters who gathered around after the game. “We just had to make sure we tightened it up, and the kids came out and responded in the second half.”
In the first half, Southington had trouble completing passes, and Cheshire’s run defense shackled the ground attack. The Rams found traction running the ball, and freshman Christian Russo punched it into the end zone from three yards out on the first play of the second quarter to give the visitors the lead. A Jotham Casey extra point put Cheshire up 7-0.
The first four Blue Knight drives of the game resulted in three punts and a turnover on downs. Only a 22-yard field goal by Evan Johanns with 32.6 seconds left in the half kept Southington from being shut out in the first half for the first time all season. If Troy Kieras didn’t block a Ram field goal in the second quarter, the Blue Knights may have trailed by a touchdown at the break.
“The kids executed, they played hard, and that group, that locker room believed,” Cheshire coach Don Drust said. “When you have belief and execution and play really hard, good things can happen.”
The Rams were looking to ruin the Blue Knight undefeated season and send them on the road for the playoffs. In the first half, things looked good for those supporting the red and white. The halftime break gave the blue and white a chance to regroup.
“Honestly, when it comes down to it, we make the adjustments, we look at things, but it really comes down to willpower and what you got inside, what you got in your heart,” senior quarterback and captain Jacob Drena said.
The Blue Knight defense forced a Ram punt on the first possession of the second half. Southington’s first drive resulted in its first touchdown of the game, a four-yard run by senior running back and captain Tanner LaRosa with 5:22 left in the third quarter. The extra point snap was bobbled and Southington failed to convert on an attempted pass, but it led 9-7 and never trailed again. LaRosa broke off a key 39-yard run on the scoring drive.
“He was great. It seemed like every play he was breaking at least two or three tackles,” Drena said.
LaRosa ran 17 times for 143 yards and two touchdowns, and most of those yards came in the second half. When Southington scored on its first possession of the fourth quarter, LaRosa was right in the thick of it. He used a big-time second effort to pick up a first down early in the drive, then ran for another first down later on. Finally, with Southington facing 4th-and-2 at the Cheshire 10, LaRosa ran left and scored. The Johanns extra point put the Blue Knights up 16-7 with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter.
“It’s great to have a guy back there with me, because we get all this press,” Drena said. “We get a lot of Drena throwing the ball, or [Will] Downes catching this, [Jacob] Flynn catching that, but Tanner’s really lighting it up. When you have a good running game, that’s what opens it up for me.”
Downes (team-high eight receptions for 73 yards) had a key catch and run on the drive while fellow senior Jacob Flynn picked up a first down with a grab and subsequent second effort. Flynn (team-high 91 yards receiving) hooked up with Drena on a beautiful deep throw on the next Southington possession, then Jamie Lamson caught a five-yard touchdown pass. The Johanns extra point gave the Blue Knights a 23-7 lead with just 2:37 to go. Colby Griffin scored for the Rams with 15.6 seconds left for the game’s final points.
2018 Apple Valley Classic Awards
Offensive Awards—Southington’s Jacob Drena completed 24-of-41 passes for 252 yards and a touchdown. Cheshire’s Christian Russo ran 13 times for 52 yards and a touchdown. Each was named as the offensive MVP for their respective team.
“He made plays, he made a lot of plays all season. He’s done a lot of good things for us, but at this point, he’s not a freshman anymore,” said Drust about Russo.
Defensive Awards—Southington’s Will Downes had six tackles, one interception and one pass break-up. Downes was named his team’s defensive MVP while Alec Frione earned the honor for Cheshire.
Player of the Game—Southington’s Tanner LaRosa earned the Player of the Game trophy.
“He’s been running like an animal this whole year,” Drury said. “The line did a great job blocking, and playmakers make the plays.”
To comment on this story or to contact sports writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com