By JOHN GORALSKI
Southington was pushed back to their own 20 yard line on the second possession of the game. A penalty had driven them back 10 yards on first down. Quarterback Jasen Rose scampered out of bounds for a 10-yard loss on the second down.
Sure, the Blue Knight football team was enjoying an early 7-0 lead in the Class LL-Large championship game, but deep in their own zone on third down, with 33 yards to go to get a fresh start, it was the first gut check for the Blue Knight offense.
So coaches signaled for Alex Jamele.
“At Southington, we think we can score on every single play,” Jamele said with a wide smile after the game. “Coach gave me the sign from the sideline. Jay and I looked at each other, and we knew that we had a big play coming. I think that the whole offense executed their jobs on that play. It was set up by the offensive line. Then, Jay had the great ball. The receivers ran their routes, and the running backs blocked for them.”
Of course, Jamele did his thing, too. The senior co-captain stutter-stepped on the sidelines to break free of his defender and nearly raced the length of the field after the catch. The 64-yard catch on third down pinned NFA deep in their own zone. Two plays later, Jamele tip toed in for a wide open score.
“That’s a play we put in this week, and we repped the heck out of it,” said Blue Knight football coach Mike Drury. “We knew that we would be in a situation where we may need it. We sort of set it up the play before. Jay threw a great ball, and obviously he had Alex out there making the play.”
That was the last time that NFA would threaten the defending champs. Southington seemed to score in different ways on every possession. Matt Maxwell opened the scoring on the first drive with a wide-open 16-yard catch to cap a long, plodding drive. Jamele sparked the second score with his third-and-long catch.
Maxwell broke a 49-yard passing play in the waning minutes of the second quarter, and the Knights kicked it into a higher gear. Jamele returned a punt 62 yards on the next NFA possession. Dan Parzych converted an 18-yard field goal to give Southington a 30-0 lead at the half, and Southington surged to a 49-0 lead by the end of the third quarter.
Drury said that he wasn’t surprised by his team’s explosive performance in a state championship game.
“Regardless who they faced, week in and week out, they’ve shown that they’re a great football team,” said the coach. “Defensively, you look at us and we might not be the biggest football team, but those guys fly to the football. They’re very smart and tough football players. Offensively, they were really prolific this year, and they continued it through the playoffs.”
NFA never had a chance. Southington’s defense dominated on the field. The Wildcats managed just 98 yards of total offense. NFA’s prized running back, Khaleed Exum-Strong, was held to just 2.9 yards per carry (55 yards), and the Wildcats didn’t complete a pass until the final minutes of the game.
“It’s a gang-tackling mentality, and our guys are great tacklers,” said Drury. “Look at the battle up front. We were smaller, but we’re quicker and have really good strength. We just stayed consistent with our game plan. Coach [Rob] Thomson put together a phenomenal game plan for these guys, and we were able to counteract a lot of what they were trying to do.”
Dan Williams paced the blitz with 14 tackles. Matt Thomson added 10 tackles. Zack Spooner (7 tackles), Matt Koczera (6), and Jake Thayer (5) contributed to the rush. With the game’s only interception, Jamele caught as many NFA passes as the entire Wildcat receiving corps.
“It wasn’t just one guy, and that’s what this is all about,” Drury said about the relentless defensive pressure. “This is the game that you show off. This is when you do what you do, and we showed that.”
Offensively, the Knights used eight different players to amass 495 yards of total offense. . Vance Upham carried the ball just 15 times but finished with 102 yards and the game’s only rushing touchdown. Maxwell finished with eight catches for 127 yards and three scores. Kyle Borawski caught four passes for 50 yards, and Alessio Diana finished with 21 yards rushing and another 20 in the air.
“When you have so many studs around the ball, it makes it a lot easier than it looks,” said Rose, who finished with 24 completions for 348 yards and five touchdowns. “You guys have seen the catches that they make. It’s pretty nice.”
Jamele finished his final game with seven catches for 126 yards and two scores. He returned the punt return for a third score, and forced the only turnover of the game. Jamele’s second touchdown catch pushed his career total to 50 touchdown receptions to set a new Connecticut state record.
“It feels good,” Jamele said about the record, “but a state championship feels 10 times better. Nothing beats that.”
The biggest question of the game centered around the state’s 50-point rule. Southington was forced to take a knee during their final two extra point attempts. At the start of the fourth quarter the Knights downed their punt at NFA’s one-yard line. Drury called for his defenders to go off-sides on purpose to avoid a chance at a safety, which would have pushed Southington’s lead to 51 points.
“Things happen, but you want to try to make sure that you don’t break 50,” Drury said when asked about surrendering the extra points. “It is what it is. You’ve got to do it because that’s the rule.”
With the victory, Southington (12-0) scored their third state title since the championship format was established in 1976. This was Southington’s eighth appearance in a championship game, and the first back-to-back title in program history.
Southington finished as the only undefeated team in either Class LL bracket, and the Knights are one of five undefeated teams in any division. With their lopsided victory in the championship game, the Knights should have no problem holding onto the top seed in the final state poll.
“That’s for everyone else to decide,” said Drury, “but I think the guys played a great game today to be in the conversation.”