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It didn't seem possible that Xavier of Middletown could be better than it was last season.
But the Falcons were.
Xavier was a monster this season, brutalizing everyone that got between it and a second-straight CIAC Class LL championship. It smashed unbeaten FCIAC champion Staples of Westport Saturday, 42-7.
"We had some big holes to fill," Falcons coach Sean Marinan said. "We had some younger guys that really stepped up and played well, and that was the concern. I kind of thought, to be honest with you, that not last year but this year would be the year (we won a state title). I was a little surprised last year when we did win it.
"Then, of course, as soon as the season is over, you start looking at what we're losing. Some of those guys who were seniors last year really came on as players their senior year, which is what solidified and completed last year. We had to replace (linebacker) Graham Stewart, who's at Florida, Eric Mischke, Tom Linden. It was like, okay, if we can, we're going to be a good football team."
The Falcons drove Marinan crazy at times last season because the offense was prone to inconsistency. It led to some games being closer than they should've been as well as some anxious moments.
Xavier (13-0) left nothing to chance this season. It held 10 teams to seven points or less. The closest game was a 47-20 win over Cheshire on Sept. 30.
"The kids that stepped in (stepped up)," Marinan said. "Ben Lisle (6-foot-4, 300 pounds), he became a monster at left tackle. That was a concern for us, and he completed the offensive line. We knew Zack Creeron (6-feet, 283) would play well. He was a solid player. Jake Whalen really came on. He improved on both sides of the ball."
Offense was the thing that most separated Xavier from the 2010 team. The Falcons averaged 433 yards of offense per game and 43 points.
Senior running back Mike Mastroiani credited new offensive coordinator Don Crescimanno.
"Last year, our offense was more, 'we're going to run the same play over-and-over again, but you're not going to stop it,'" Mastroiani said. "We're going to just eat the clock away and we're going to beat you physically.
"This year we liked to move quickly and we liked to get as many points as we can. … (Crescimanno) has done a great job. When he came in (before the season) and told us how he wanted a quick-tempo offense, we were a little nervous about that, but we picked up on it. That's how our attitude is. We put in the work, and it showed here tonight. To score 42 points against a team like that is something impressive."
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Hand of Madison has evolved into a pass-first offense over the years.
During the playoffs, the Tigers went back to their roots, running the ball and playing what coach Steve Filippone called, "big boy football."
Hand dominated Coventry/Windham Tech, defending champion Masuk of Monroe and New Canaan en route to winning the Class L title.
"The last two weeks the running game is what's been carrying us," Filippone said. "We've been able to throw the ball effectively when we had to, but really, it's been the running game and the ability to eat clock when we had to late in the game, get first downs, and put the ball int he end zone."
Senior Kevin Frey set the tone for Hand in both the wins over Masuk and New Canaan.
Frey ran for a 68-yard touchdown on the Tigers' first play from scrimmage against Masuk. He finished with 27 carries for 155 yards as Hand ground down the Panthers, 35-14.
The Tigers forced New Canaan to go three-and-out to start Saturday's Class L final.
Frey struck again on Hand's first offensive play as he ran for a 70-yard touchdown on a power off-tackle play.
"We designed that play to use this week," Filippone said. "It was perfectly designed for one use, because after we used it once, we didn't get another yard out of it the whole night, but it worked pretty well for that one shot."
Frey finished with 22 carries for 214 yards as the Tigers bullied the Rams, 34-10.
"Kevin may be as big a reason as anybody as to why we're here," Filippone said.
Hand finished with 41 carries for 321 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Nicolas Vitale ran six times for 55 yards and a touchdown while fullback Matthew Walsh (6-1, 220 pounds) added seven carries for 30 carries and scored.
Lineman Joseph Demichele (6-2, 285) played fullback in short yardage situations. He ran for a 3-yard touchdown in the Masuk win.
"All you guys that vote about No. 1 in the state, I think you have to look at them," New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said after Saturday's final. "Everyone is screaming about Xavier, Xavier, Xavier, you ought to see them (Hand). They're a hell of a football team. They kicked our butt, no doubt about it.
"They're bigger, faster, stronger, and they kicked our butt. There's nothing more you can say."
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Saturday was the first time that Filippone had beaten Marinelli, his closest friend, in the playoffs. Marinelli had won the previous three meetings, including twice in a state final.
"(I told him), 'I'm glad you got the monkey off your back,'" Marinelli said. "Win or lose, there's joy on either side. He's been on that (losing) side with us before, so he did a great job. It's a very good team and they just came out and played a great game."
Filippone said, "I have so much respect for him. I really do. I absolutely love him like a brother. He's been able to walk that walk three times. I got one. He's still got two-up on me. I shouldn't feel so bad, but to beat New Canaan at anything, that's an awesome thing to do. We're just lucky that we were finally able to pull it off."
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Frey said after the game that he and his teammates were cocky leading 20-3.
Filippone took care of that.
"Oh, yeah, I wasn't going to let them come here and lounge around in the secnod half," Filippone said. "There's no way. We've had too much bad experience with New Canaan.
"I'll tell you what it was like (in the locker room) — my brother (Dennis) was in there, my identical twin. And he said to me when I was done, 'Are. You. Okay?' I think he thought I was going to fall down and die.
"They're adolescent males. If you let them sit on their heels, bad things happen. We've got to be the ones to get them lit up."
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Xavier received 11 of 12 first-place votes to finish No. 1 in The Day's Top 10 state coaches' poll. Hand was second and received the other first-place vote. The rest of the Top 10: 3. Ansonia (14-0); 4. Masuk (11-1); 5. Staples (11-1); 6. New Canaan (11-2); 7. Holy Cross of Waterbury (12-2); 8. Windsor (11-1); 9. New London (9-2); 10. Ledyard (11-2).
Xavier received all 25 first-place votes in the New Haven Register's Top 10 media poll. The rest of the Top 10 were: 2. Hand; 3. Ansonia; 4. Staples; 5. Masuk; 6. New Canaan; 7. Windsor; 8. Holy Cross; 9. New London; 10. Notre Dame-West Haven (8-3).
Ned Freeman's computer rankings for CalPreps and MaxPreps: 1. Xavier; 2. Ansonia; 3. Hand; 4. Staples; 5. Masuk; 6. New Canaan; 7. Notre Dame-West Haven; 8. Windsor; 9. West Haven (7-3); and, 10. Norwalk (9-2). Ledyard was 11th, New London 12th and Holy Cross 15th.
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YOUR final conference playoff scorecards:
NVL: 7-1 (two state champions — Ansonia and Holy Cross of Waterbury)
SCC: 6-2 (two state champions — Hand and Xavier)
FCIAC: 5-4 (includes Staples over Ridgefield in the quarters)
ECC: 2-3 (includes Ledyard over Waterford in the quarters)
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Thanks to all the players, coaches, fans and YOU for making this year a blast.
Talk to you in 200-something days.
Vaya con dios.