Fitch returns to playoffs with Class L home date against Masuk

Fitch's Tyler Nelli (2) follows the lead blocking of Hamear Stephens (8) during a Nov. 10 win over East Lyme. Nelli, Stephens and the unbeaten Falcons host Masuk on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Class L state football playoffs at 6:30 p.m. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Fitch's Tyler Nelli (2) follows the lead blocking of Hamear Stephens (8) during a Nov. 10 win over East Lyme. Nelli, Stephens and the unbeaten Falcons host Masuk on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Class L state football playoffs at 6:30 p.m. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Groton — The Eastern Connecticut Conference has been called a "mid-major" throughout Connecticut high school sports, indicating that its teams' success rates are not a Lexus or Mercedes, but more a Toyota Camry.

Solid, but hardly spectacular.

And from the mid-1980s through the early 2000s, ECC football schools had a reputable state tournament resume. New London, Ledyard and Fitch won multiple state titles, while Killingly, Stonington and East Lyme won one apiece. Not Darien or New Canaan stuff, but enough for a seat at the table.

Lately, though? Oy. No championships since New London in 2008. An unseemly number of noncompetitive playoff games. All of which leads to the question as the 2017 postseason has arrived:

Does Fitch — yes, unbeaten Fitch — belong?

Or are the Falcons (10-0) a product of a mid-major, the little ol' ECC that's so often been relegated to the street corner while the parades march past?

"Funny you should ask that," Fitch coach Mike Ellis was saying over the weekend, preparing fourth-seeded Fitch for Tuesday's Class L quarterfinals at Dorr Field versus No. 5 Masuk. "Thanksgiving was at my sister's this year. I go home that night and there's a text from her at maybe 10. She tells me to make sure I let those kids know they belong where they are."

Ellis spoke of his sister, Lauren, the former field hockey coach at Stonington. Turns out Lauren wasn't the only female member of the family willing to dispense advice.

"Thanksgiving didn't go the way we wanted," Ellis said, alluding to a wobbly 27-19 win over Ledyard. "It was really not the celebration the kids should have had. Where they've come in three years, what they've accomplished. Instead they heard, 'this should be a wakeup call.' (Ellis' wife) Tina is yelling at me 'you were too negative after the game.'

"I was like 'you know what? That's so important.' So we came in Friday and the first thing I said to the kids is that they belong where they are and that they deserve to be here. You saw the looks in their eyes like, 'all right, we're OK.' It was important they know. Class L is really tough. This is not going to be easy, but they belong."

Ellis is right about this much: It won't be easy. Masuk, whose football history with Fitch goes back to 1998, was unbeaten going into its Thanksgiving Eve game with rival Newtown. Even with the 14-7 loss, Masuk has outscored its opponents 444-76 this season, including a crisp, 50-0 win over New London.

Senior quarterback Matt Hersch has completed 140-198 passes for 2,513 yards and 30 touchdowns, throwing three interceptions all season. He averages 279.2 passing yards per game. Jack Roberge leads Masuk in rushing with 953 yards and 10.6 per attempt, while receivers Ryan Shaw (41 catches, 742 yards, 10 touchdowns) and Peter Fox (31-486, five touchdowns) are Hersch's top targets.

Masuk won three games this season 50-0 and another 49-0.

As previously stated: This won't be easy, especially given the number of injuries key players have sustained in recent weeks. But then, nobody really thought the Falcons would get out of September unbeaten – not with Notre Dame of West Haven on the schedule – let alone the entire regular season.

"I don't know how much our kids read the paper and pay attention to what other people say," Ellis said. "That's probably good. But our schedule, with Notre Dame, at Branford, at Westerly, New London and NFA, they're always tough games. I guess what we're going to find out."

Then Ellis paused and said, "People thought we didn't have a shot against Notre Dame and we won. We didn't have a shot against NFA and we won. My dad (assistant Mike Ellis Sr.) keeps saying that no matter what challenge is before them, they overcome it.

"Even on Thanksgiving, they were presented a challenge they didn't face all year long. They overcame it. When I go back and look at some of the other scores in the state from Wednesday night and Thursday, other teams didn't overcome it. It's another challenge. We're going to see."

m.dimauro@theday.com

Fitch defensive back Sal Aiello (20) breaks up a pass intended for Ledyard's Jaiden Bickham during their Thanksgiving Day game in Ledyard. The unbeaten Falcons host Masuk on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Class L state playoffs at 6:30. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Fitch defensive back Sal Aiello (20) breaks up a pass intended for Ledyard's Jaiden Bickham during their Thanksgiving Day game in Ledyard. The unbeaten Falcons host Masuk on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Class L state playoffs at 6:30. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

WHEN FITCH HAS THE BALL

Fitch offense

2 QB Tyler Nelli Jr.

22 FB Hollis Scott Sr.

8 WB Hamear Stephens Jr.

24 WB Tyler Andrews Sr.

4 WR Antonyo Figueroa Sr.

11 WR Justice Farris Sr.

57 OL Austin Beebe Jr.

55 OL Nick Helbig Jr.

75 OL Brandon Hamilton Jr.

50 OL Dean Faulise Sr.

62 OL Oliver Banks Jr.

Masuk defense

55 DE Kevin Harper Sr.

51 DE Max Mirizio Sr.

73 NG Jeff Pickup Sr.

32 OLB Peter Cosmedy Sr.

50 ILB Jack Duignan Sr.

34 ILB Jack Roberge Jr.

22 OLB Mike Zuk Sr.

8 CB Rob Martinsky Sr.

21 CB Ben Vicowski Sr.

4 S Tyler Michalka Sr.

2 S Ryan Shaw Sr.

 

WHEN MASUK HAS THE BALL

Masuk offense

3 QB Matt Hersch Sr.

34 RB Jack Roberge Jr.

2 WR Ryan Shaw Sr.

12 WR Peter Fox Jr.

22 WR Mike Zuk Sr.

25 WR Nick LoRussa Sr.

55 T Kevin Harper Sr.

51 G Max Marizo Sr.

52 C Curtis Swain Sr.

71 G Alexander Lee Sr.

60 T Sam Nalaboff Sr.

Fitch defense

52 DE Alex Perry Sr.

55 NG Nick Helbig Jr.

75 DE Brandon Hamilton Jr.

22 LB Hollis Scott Sr.

13 LB Zach Letellier Sr.

44 LB Pedro Mojica Jr.

47 LB Tyler Andrews Sr.

24 DB Sal Aiello Jr.

11 DB Justice Farris Sr.

4 DB Antonyo Figueroa Sr.

6 DB Kennard Tate Jr.

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