After battling and besting some of the state’s best squads, the Hand football team now finds itself fighting for its playoff hopes.
The Tigers suffered their second straight loss in a 46-35 decision to SCC Division I East rival West Haven at Ken Strong Stadium on Nov. 8. Following its six-game winning streak, Hand now needs to win its final pair of contests to keep itself alive for a postseason spot, as it sits three points back of New London for the eighth and final spot in the Class L playoff rankings.
“We played poorly on defense; we couldn’t tackle. They had extraordinary running backs, and we couldn’t tackle, so they scored at will, yet the good news was that we were scoring at will,” said Head Coach Steve Filippone. “The one thing is that they didn’t quit tonight. We were down 20 late, then had two onside kicks, one of which we got and the other we were robbed on when the refs said it tipped off of one of our guys. We kept chipping away, and the bottom line is that they kept fighting.”
Sophomore quarterback Nick Van Dell was 20-of-36 for 247 yards and a touchdown, as the Tigers saw themselves down 19-7 at halftime before the Blue Devils countered with a 21-point third quarter. Hand did rally with 21 points in the final frame, but it was not enough to overcome West Haven’s ground game of seniors in running back Ervin Philips and quarterback Duane Gary.
“They have a phenomenal 1-2 punch. Philips is a Division I back; he’s fast, strong, and I think he’s the best back in the state,” said Filippone. “Gary is almost as good as him, but we moved the ball fine on offense, and our kicking game was good. We kicked the ball away from Philips, and we have a young defense [4 sophomores], but it will get better. They are taking their licks and making the mistakes that they will fix.”
The Blue Devils (7-1; 3-0 SCC Division I East) grabbed the bout’s opening score when Philips ran for 64 yards to the end zone. Van Dell (12 rushes for 67 yards, 2TDs) countered with a 6-yard scoring rush to end a nine-play, 85-yard possession to even the game at seven. Philips then ran it in from 30 yards out to give his team a 13-7 edge after one quarter following a missed extra point.
Hand (6-3; 2-1) was able to hold West Haven to only six points in the second, although again it was Philips on a 16-yard run to put the Blue Devils ahead by 12 at the break due to a failed two-point conversion by Philips.
Senior running back Conor Dowd (24 carries, 127 yards, 2TDs) was the Tigers’ answer on their opening drive of the second half with his 16-yard dash to pay dirt, but the home squad responded with a trio of touchdown sprints by Philips of 11, 27, and four yards to yield a 40-14 command heading into the final period, while Hand fumbled the kickoff return following the 11-yard score by Philips.
“That turnover did hurt us, because they scored immediately after it. It was a momentum-breaker,” said Filippone. “But again, they continued to play hard. Mistakes will happen, so you can’t fault these kids. We are doing what we have to do.”
The Tigers then began to attempt a comeback bid when Van Dell connected on a 15-yard scoring pass to senior receiver Tom Wilson (4 catches, 53 yards) to trail by 20. West Haven answered on the legs of Gary through his 47 yard touchdown run, yet Hand (443 all-purpose yards) scored twice on three and 1-yard rushes from Van Dell and Dowd, respectively, to be behind by 11 after Van Dell threw to Wilson for the successful two-point play.
The Tigers tried an onside kick on the ensuing kickoff to keep the game alive, but the Blue Devils grabbed it and ran out the clock.
“The fourth quarter was huge for us. Conor saw a guy coming from behind, so he tucked the ball and flipped into the end zone to prevent being caught, and then he draws a flag for it, then we are kicking off to them from our own 25-yard line,” Filippone said. “And then we clearly recovered an onside kick, so if you take those three things in the fumble, the flip, and the robbed onside kick, then maybe the outcome is different.”
Elsewhere for Hand in the receiving department, senior Josh DeMartino caught six balls for 61 yards, senior Tim D’Annolfo tacked on 58 through his three receptions, and Dowd also caught a trio for 54 yards.
The two-time defending Class L state champions are now 10th in the playoff standings with a 104.44 point average, while New London holds a 107.50 tally. The top eight teams qualify for postseason play. Hand will end its regular season facing a pair of Class L adversaries in Notre Dame-West Haven (4-5) at home on Friday, Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. prior to its annual Thanksgiving eve clash with Guilford (5-4) on Wednesday, Nov. 27 at 7 on the road.
“We are on life support right now; we have to put our nose to the grindstone and work hard in every facet of the game,” said Filippone. “Notre Dame is a power team and has a great back in Cam Tucker, and then Guilford is a great triple-option team, so they will give us trouble. We are still in teaching mode with this young team. It takes a lot of repetitions and mistakes to then make the right decision, and we are hoping to get there in the next two weeks. If we make it and don’t draw New Canaan in the first round, we can compete with anyone in the L Division and be a tough draw for any team.”