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In its Oct. 4 matchup against unbeaten rival North Haven, the Hand football team was cast in a rare underdog role, yet the two-time defending Class L state champions never received the script.
The Tigers took down the Indians and handed them their first defeat on the year in a 21-6 victory at the Surf Club. After two consecutive weeks when Hand found itself either down or tied late in the first half, it built itself up a 14-0 command at halftime thanks to a 19-yard touchdown connection between sophomore quarterback Nick Van Dell and senior Tim D’Annolfo, and then a 35-yard interception return by junior safety Tommy Wilson before the Tigers’ defense hunkered down and held the Indians to one score with eight minutes to play.
“This was the best way to get ourselves a confidence booster,” said Wilson. “Our defense played more physical and relentless, and it was awesome to get that interception, because it got our momentum going. Our defense never gave up, never took a play off, and gave it their all.”
The third and final Tigers’ trip to the end zone came when Van Dell and senior Jake Mirando hooked up on a 6-yard catch. Van Dell finished his outing 12-of-22 for 111 yards and two throwing scores, while senior running back Conor Dowd accumulated 82 rushing yards on 20 attempts.
“This game was indicative of the growth that we are making,” said Head Coach Steve Filippone. “We are starting to get things right that we previously got wrong the last few weeks. [Defensive Coordinator] Dave Mastroianni did a great job of game planning and getting the kids ready. Our defense did a great job of covering people, and I think we did things that were a little different than what they saw versus Xavier.”
Hand (3-1) earned the opening drive of the contest and took full advantage of the opportunity with a 14-play, 71-yard possession that ate up the first four minutes of the matchup, which culminated in D’Annolfo’s scoring catch. Dowd figured as a key component in that initial score with his five carries for 34 yards during the drive.
“Before the game, I talked to our offense about having a good first half team,” said Dowd. “They stepped it up and played great on both sides of the ball. Ultimately, this win helps put us back on the map after that New Canaan loss. With us getting back on the right foot, it gives us some steam heading into the next couple of games.”
North Haven (3-1) could not get its offensive wheels churning with two punts from inside Tigers’ territory and a turnover on downs in the half, and Hand again pounced on the Indians early in the second when Wilson picked off a North Haven ball and took it to the house to give the Tigers a two-score edge at the break.
“Scoring early was huge,” said Filippone. “It was a confidence booster for the offense and it kept our defense off the field. It was a team effort; our defense bent, but didn’t break and the offense did what it had to do. We also won the kicking game and guaranteed that they would get pinned with lousy field positioning.”
While the Indians did not complete a pass until a minute remained in the third, Hand increased its command to 21-0 with less than four minutes to go in that period with Van Dell and Mirando pairing up for the touchdown.
North Haven denied the Tigers’ a home shutout bid when it got on the board with eight minutes remaining through a 10-yard scamper into the end zone, yet Hand’s defense continued its hard work the rest of the way to preserve the crucial triumph.
Elsewhere for the defensive unit, junior safety Scott Sweitzer also had an interception, and senior lineman Pat Rogers earned a sack. Sophomore punter Reid Sweitzer aided the field position battle with his punt average of over 50 yards for the night.
Hand will not have too much time to savor this win, as it next travels to face a strong SCC Division I East rival in Cheshire (2-2) on Friday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. before the Tigers return home on Friday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. to host Fairfield Prep (3-1).
“There is not one slouch in the remainder of our schedule,” said Filippone. “If we get lucky and win five of our last seven, then at 8-3 we might qualify for the playoffs. We played at 25 percent of our potential versus New Canaan, upped it 10 more percent versus Hillhouse, leveled off versus Cross, and jumped another 20 percent in this game. We are poised to get better.”