Masuk ends Fitch's unbeaten season in Class L quarters
Groton — Tyler Nelli, Fitch's quarterback, was familiar with the Masuk defense by the end of Tuesday night. It smothered him, even while he was punting.
The Fitch High School defense, meanwhile, was faced with stopping Masuk 1,000-yard rusher Jack Roberge and/or 2,000-yard passer Matt Hersch at any given time.
But even a 43-7 loss to No. 5 Masuk in the Class L state playoff quarterfinals — the Panthers led 29-0 at halftime — didn't detract from what Fitch accomplished this season, finishing the regular season 10-0 and earning a playoff berth as the No. 4 seed.
The Falcons, following a postgame farewell from coach Mike Ellis, stuck around the Fitch field house to eat pizza together, many of the players sharing an embrace or two.
"It can't take away from what we accomplished," Ellis said. "These seniors, to have them end the way they did ... to go no wins, (five wins), four wins, 10 wins. For the most part, these guys, they believe they are part of a family.
"It's disappointing because I wanted to represent the (Eastern Connecticut Conference) better than we did. But they're a great team. We had a lot of trouble protecting up front. We were getting punts blocked. We could not change the field against them for the longest time."
On its first three series, Masuk had the ball at the Falcons' 38, 36 and 16, scoring on two of those to make it 15-0 with 4 minutes, 49 seconds still left in the first quarter.
Michael Zuk rushed for the Panthers' first touchdown from the 4. Roberge ran for the two-point conversion.
On Fitch's next possession, Nelli had his punt blocked by Masuk, giving the Panthers the ball at the 16. They scored in two plays, getting another touchdown run by Zuk.
A long Fitch drive, aided by a 25-yard run from Hollis Scott, a facemask penalty and a pass interference call against Masuk, ended in an interception. This time Masuk had the ball deep in its own territory, but still managed to score on an 81-yard touchdown pass from Hersch to Nick Lorusso to begin the second quarter.
Roberge scored the final points of the half on the receiving end of a shovel pass from Hersch, racing 38 yards to the right side of the end zone for the 29-point lead. Roberge finished with 126 yards rushing, two touchdowns — one rushing and one receiving — and an interception.
Roberge talked about winning for the community following a 14-7 loss to Newtown on Thanksgiving Eve, the only blemish on Masuk's record this season. The Panthers advanced to meet No. 8 New Canaan in Sunday's semifinals, earning a trip to the semis for the second straight season.
"There was no talking on the bus ride up here," said Roberge, a junior. "We were just focused, locked in. I was playing a little bit mad. Losing to Newtown hurt so much."
"They're moving forward," Masuk coach Joe Lato said. "They want to stay together and keep playing. They had razor-sharp focus. ... At halftime, we were trying to just get out of the game. But we know they never quit and they didn't."
Lato was referring to Fitch.
Just when the Falcons appeared a bit downtrodden to end the first half, they came out for the second half and scored first. Zach Lettelier blocked a Masuk punt, picked it up and carried it in for a Fitch touchdown, pulling within 29-7.
Fitch forced Masuk to punt on its next series before the Panthers quickly pushed the margin to 36-7 on an 18-yard interception return for a touchdown by Jack Duignan. Masuk scored for the final time with 5:38 to play on an 18-yard run by Roberge.
"We told them before the game, 'Play the game and have fun,'" Ellis said of Fitch. "That's the problem. At the beginning they weren't having fun. They were nervous. Just play the game, play the game. Then to see Zach block a punt, to see Tyler (Andrews) go down with a hurt elbow, still catching passes.
"I don't think (the seniors) thought coming in, they'd ever be in a playoff game. ... Now you just can't be happy to be here anymore."
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