The Lonesome Polecat: Hand of doom, so you think you can fix the playoffs, rankings, and other jibber-jabber

Howdy,

Chris Bartosic began getting varsity snaps as a Hand sophomore two seasons ago.

It was a pretty cool accomplishment because not many underclassmen get to do that anywhere, most especially playing for a program such as Hand.

What wasn’t cool was the Tigers finished 2-8, the worst record in the program’s 47-year history.

“After the 2-8 season, I was hoping we’d at least go .500 by my junior year,” Bartosic said after Saturday’s CIAC Class L final.

“That obviously changed.”

Man, oh man, did it ever change for the Tigers.

Bartosic, along with his fellow senior co-captains John Flanagan and Julian Banerji, accepted the championship trophy for Hand after it wrecked Maloney, 54-14.

The Tigers set a finals record with 54 first-half points.

“After that 2-8 season, we put it upon ourselves that that was not happening again,” Flanagan said. “We put in the work in the offseason and, as you can see, it showed as we won back-to-back.

“We’re outworking teams. Our practices, we are going 100 percent, banging bodies. We’re just working hard.”

It was the 13th CIAC state title for the Tigers (13-0). Only Ansonia (20) and Class M champion St. Joseph (14) have won more.

Hand finished second to LL champion Greenwich in The Day's state coaches’ poll with both playing at a different level than the rest of the state.

The consensus opinion from coaches and observers across the state agreed that it was a down year for high school football, thus Hand and Greenwich were akin to releasing a T-Rex into a sloth preserve.

The Tigers scored a state and program record 653 points. That’s 11th all-time in state history, according to the Connecticut High School Football Record Book, as is their 50.2 points per game. They outscored their opponents by a state-best 547 points.

Just call it Hand of doom.

“They don’t get to hear how great I think they are as what they did production-wise,” second-year Tigers head coach David Mastroianni said. “It is mind boggling what they did.

“There were definitely times where I was on the headset during games and I’d look at the staff or stay to the staff, ‘Wow, did you just see that? I really tried to take time to appreciate it because I may never get to again.”

Losing seasons have been an anomaly at Hand. It’s had 38 winning seasons and just five losing ones. Only Cromwell (.772) and Ansonia (.760) have a higher winning percentage that the Tigers (.748).

The timing of Hand’s worst season was unfortunate because then-head coach Steve Filippone told his team during the preseason that it would be his last.

Filippone had one of the most successful careers in Connecticut high school football history with a 223-82-5 record and seven CIAC titles.

Mastroianni was hired as the program’s third head coach after being with the program since 2007. He had been the defensive coordinator since 2009.

“He brings efficiency,” Bartosic said. “The practices, they’re on a time schedule. Everything he does for us, it’s crazy.”

Mastroianni said, “We had the pieces in place, and we just needed reminders of our culture and where we came from and how we do things. I think that got lost a little bit. And success snowballs and failure snowballs. We went 2-8, and we were shoveling you-know-what against the tide. That’s where we were at with it, and that was no fault of the kids. We were snake bit. I think we lost four or five games by less than a touchdown.”

There were also concerns about Hand’s dwindling enrollment. It had always embraced playing in the same division as the biggest and best teams in the Southern Connecticut Conference. There were teams with larger enrollments than Hand who were unwilling to play that kind of schedule.

The Tigers dropped from Tier I to Tier II last season. It had 567 boys this season, placing it 11th out of 21 SCC teams.

Hand lost its second game last season to Shelton, 21-19, which bode well for it given the latter won the SCC Tier I.

The Tigers haven’t lost since. They tore through the Class L playoffs and finished 12-1.

“Without our captains last year, we wouldn’t have been able to get to (a final),” Bartosic said. “They started us off in August two years ago and it was an unbelievable ride.”

Brian Casagrande, Connor Castaldo and Kevin Hughes were the Tigers’ 2017 senior co-captains.

“We didn’t have any chemistry,” Bartosic said about the 2016 season. “We never went to the beach, we never did anything together as a team. My junior and senior year, we would do everything together as a team. We would go to each other’s houses and watch Sunday night football; college football on Saturdays. It was just an unbelievable time all year.”

Mastroianni said, “I’m a big player-ownership guy. Not to the (Seattle Seahawks head coach) Pete Carroll-level, but I believe it’s up to our guys. I say to them all the time, ‘As you go, we go.’ So I’m going to try to put them in the right spots. I’m going to give them as much guidance as I can.

“Ultimately, when the clock starts, it’s them on the field. When the bell rings, it’s them in the classroom. When people are watching in the community, it’s them, not me. So I think they’ve really taken some accountability for themselves and ownership of themselves, and this is the result of it.”

Hand, believe it or not, trailed Maloney on Saturday. The Spartans elected to kick off and recovered an onside kick at the Tigers’ 42.

Elliot Good threw deep on the game’s first offensive play with the ball being deflected by a Hand defender and into the arms of Maurice Brackett for a touchdown and 6-0 lead just 10 seconds into the game.

The Tigers responded with a shock-and-awe first-half performance.

Colin McCabe ran for a 31-yard touchdown and Isaiah McNeilly ran for the conversion to give Hand an 8-6 lead with 10:28 left in the quarter.

Phoenix Billings followed with a 14-yard run. Ben Corniello had a safety. Billings threw back-to-back touchdown passes to Bartosic and Kevin Girardi to push the Tigers’ advantage to 32-6.

That was just the first quarter.

Julian Banerji returned a 47-yard punt for a touchdown less than a minute into the second quarter. McCabe ran for a 46-yard touchdown. Billings threw a 22-yard touchdown pass to Ethan Haberman with over four minutes left in the half to give Hand an inconceivable 54-6 lead.

“Somebody was like, ‘It’s 54-6, by the way,’” Mastroianni said. “And I look up and I’m like, ‘Oh. Yes it is. It happened so fast. This year, it’s all happened so fast. We’d get up on teams and we’d get up on them in a hurry. Next thing you know, the game is out of control again.

“Our guys like to build on the momentum. They like to put their foot on the gas, and they get pissed at me when I tell them to take their foot off. But that’s my job. It’s always nice to have a team where you say, ‘slow down’ instead of ‘speed up.’”

• • • •

All the routs in this year’s playoffs have set off a lot of jibber-jabber about how to fix it.

There’s been a lot of suggestions. We honestly have to think about it more. Maybe we’ll have some ideas later. Maybe we won’t.

Yes, this season’s state finals were gruesome, but they weren’t the worst. Those of us who lived through the 1999 finals can attest to that. To wit:

CLASS LL: Greenwich 47, Southington 27.

CLASS L: Fitch 50, Farmington 7.

CLASS M: Weaver 69, Darien 26.

CLASS S: Bloomfield 56, Ansonia 0.

The combined score of those games was 222-60 for an average of 55.5-15. That S final was the biggest finals blowout, too.

Saturday was bad with a combined score of 183-39. That averages out to a 36-point margin of victory.

Yeah, that is 4.5 less than the average margin of victory in 1999, but you get the point.

There’s been an outcry about St. Joseph playing in Class M because it can get students from all over. Class L would be ideal as it has roster numbers that rival teams in that division.

Here’s the thing — if you want to make it “fair” by moving a school-of-choice up, then you have to do it for every school of choice. Period. Charters. Magnets. Vo-Ag. Whatever. As long as you have the ability to bring in talent from other towns, you get moved up.

How far, we haven’t gotten that far yet.

There’s been a suggestion to get rid of the quarterfinals.

Nope. This year alone, three of the eight finalists were seeded seventh or eighth. Hillhouse was the eighth seed when it won 2010 Class M, the first season with a quarterfinal round.

It’s been suggested to have a “super division.” It sounds great. In theory.

“Competitive imbalance” have become popular buzzwords in state high school sports the past two decades. Sometimes it’s used because one team has a far, far higher enrollment than the other. Too many times, it’s been used as a convenient excuse to get out of playing good competition (which we’ve certainly seen around these here parts in the ECC).

That written, IF it’s wrong for smaller schools to play much larger ones, then it’s just as wrong to ask a non-LL school to play those programs in the state playoffs because some of those LL teams (such as Greenwich) can platoon.

Football isn’t like other sports. Notre Dame of Fairfield or Sacred Heart can play in the Division I boys’ hoop tourney, for instance, because the sport has less than half the starters needed for football, and only three-or-four reserves are needed.

We’re not particularly enamored with forbidding the techs and putting them in their own division. They're paying their membership dues like everyone else. And they wouldn’t need their own division because they’re self-contained during the regular season. Why have tech school playoffs when the best team was determined in season?

There’s been talk in the past about putting the co-ops and techs together. You could do that, but do we REALLY want a fifth football playoff division? Yeah, maybe you eliminate one of the four existing divisions and make the co-op/tech division the new fourth division, but would that then put teams that are “too large” in the same division with teams that are “too small to compete” with them in the other three classes?

To quote Dave Mustaine, “If there’s a new way, I’ll be the first in line, but it better work this time.”

Honestly, we don’t see any sure-fire quick fix.

Yes, the playoffs had a lot of routs this season. Everyone should’ve expected it, though.

Greenwich, Hand and St. Joseph were far and away the best teams in their respective divisions. Bloomfield (and Ansonia) were a level above the rest of Class S. Whoever faced those teams was going to get drilled and they were.

Greenwich, Hand, St. Joseph, Bloomfield and Ansonia accounted for routs in almost half of the 28 playoff games (13).

As mentioned before, it didn’t help that the entire state was down. The usual suspects in Class L weren’t as good as they usually were, making them chum for Hand. And Greenwich would mangle almost every team in the state.

Again, we’ll think about it more.

• • • •

BEHOLD, the FINAL Day of New London Top 10 state coaches' poll of 2018: 1. Greenwich (13-0, all 13 first-place votes); 2. Hand; 3. St. Joseph (12-1); 4. New Canaan (10-3); 5. Newtown (11-1); 6. Shelton (10-1); 7. Darien (9-2); 8. Fairfield Prep (10-2); 9. Bloomfield (12-1); and, 10. Southington (10-1).

• • • •

The GameTimeCT.com/New Haven Register/Hearst Inc. Monolith Top 10 media poll: 1. Greenwich (24 of 28 first-place votes); 2. Hand (four first-place votes); 3. St. Joseph; 4. New Canaan; 5. Bloomfield; 6. Newtown; 7. Shelton; 8. Darien; 9. Fairfield Prep; and, 10. Berlin (11-2).

Berlin was 13th in the coaches’ poll, whereas Southington was 13th in the media poll.

• • • •

Ned Freeman’s cold, calculating computer rankings for CalPreps: 1. Greenwich, 2. St. Joseph; 3. Hand; 4. New Canaan; 5. Newtown; 6. Darien; 7. Shelton; 8. New Britain; 9. Fairfield Prep; and, 10. Staples (7-3 — more on it in a moment).

Class M runner-up Berlin was 11th, followed by Bloomfield and Southington.

• • • •

Dig the ballot Polecat HQ filed for the GameTimeCT.com/New Haven Register/Hearst Inc. Monolith media poll:

1. Greenwich: Began voting it numero uno after Week 1, and it exceeded our expectations.

The Cardinals played at a defensive level not seen in over a decade, allowing a state-low 54 points, the fewest since 2003 L champion New Britain allowed just 52 in 12 games.

Greenwich’s 4.2 points against average was the best since 1995 L champion Cheshire (2.75 average, 33 points allowed in 12 games). It also shut out two Top 10 teams (New Canaan and Newtown) and routed New Britain (49-13), which was ranked 10th before states, in the playoffs alone.

Hand was dominant this season and would make you blurt out “wow” over-and-over during its games.

It was tough to gauge just how great the Tigers were, however. They played an SCC Tier II schedule and, as such, weren’t playing the best teams in the league that reside in Tier I (and, yes, Hand would’ve beaten them, too). Class L was nowhere near as tough as it’s been in the past, thus allowing an already great team to maim all who opposed them.

Greenwich played in the toughest league in the state and thrashed everyone it played, including top 10 teams.

CalPreps has tracked Connecticut football since 2003 and rated the Cardinals’ season as the best during that time.

Computer models aren’t everything (as much as we agree with CalPreps’ more often than not), and we don’t know if Greenwich was as good as, say, 2015 Darien, 2011 Xavier, 2010 Masuk, or 2003 New Britain (1997 Bloomfield remains our standard by which all are judged).

Regardless, Greenwich dominated at a level that doesn’t happen often, making it a worthy numero uno.

2. Hand

3. St. Joseph

4. New Canaan: Became the defacto SCC Tier I champion with back-to-back wins over Shelton (42-34) and Fairfield Prep (38-7), the division’s two best teams, in the LL playoffs.

5. Newtown: Thought about making it fourth as beat Darien, 25-15, to end the latter’s three-year run as LL champion in the quarterfinals.

New Canaan managed to score against Greenwich during the regular season, though, in a 42-14 loss (the most points the Cardinals allowed all season and their closest game). Newtown could not.

6. Darien: Gets credit for beating St. Joseph. Were 10 yards away from beating New Canaan in the final minute of a 17-14 Thanksgrabbing Day loss. And, hey, the Blue Wave were pretty dominant in the state’s best league before that loss.

7. Shelton: It beat Fairfield Prep (10-7)…

8. Fairfield Prep: …which beat Southington (28-21)…

9. Southington: ….which beat New Britain (27-24)….

10. New Britain: ….which beat M runner-up Berlin (33-14) to end the regular season. And Berlin blanked S champion Bloomfield on the road on Nov. 2.

11. Staples: The only other team that gave St. Joseph trouble (it lost to the latter, 17-14, on Nov. 2). That was far better than anyone fared against the Cadets in the M playoffs, another example that the combination of the Class L playoff teams (and Staples), Hand and St. Joseph were ahead of the rest of the state.

Staples’ other two losses were to Greenwich (29-0) and Darien (24-0). Hand might be the only team who wouldn’t have lost to both, and most others lost far, far worse than the Wreckers did against that duo.

Greenwich head coach John Marinelli, unsolicited, vouched for Staples on Monday night long after we submitted our ballot, too.

12. Berlin: Really liked the Redcoats. It would’ve ruled M had St. Joseph not been moved up from S.

13. Maloney: The CCC Division II teams cannibalized one another, so we’ll give the Spartans the edge over Windsor based on beating the latter in Week 1, 26-20.

14. Windsor (9-3): The Warriors may not have been strong as they’ve been in previous seasons. They did play their best ball late, though.

Windsor held then-unbeaten Middletown under 100 yards in a 7-0 win to end the regular season. It opened the L playoffs by routing North Haven, the third-best team in the SCC Tier I, 34-14, before being the next team in Hand’s way and getting mulched like the rest in the semifinals.

The Warriors also played one of the state’s toughest schedules (its opponents were a combined 81-49).

15. Bloomfield: Opine that the WARHAWKS weren’t better than the previous 14 teams. Also couldn’t vote it above Berlin because of their 37-0 home loss to the Redcoats.

Bloomfield still deserves credit for winning a state title, though.

• • • •

PLAYOFF PICKS TOTE BOARD

SEAN PATRICK STAR: 24-4.

PETEY P: 21-7.

CALPREPS: 21-7.

POLECAT: 20-8.

All hail Sean, king of the #cthsfb mountain.

• • • •

CONFERENCE TOTE BOARD

FCIAC (four, two state champions): 8-2 (that included hot FCIAC-on-FCIAC action between Greenwich and New Canaan in the LL final).

CCC (eight teams, one state champion): 9-7 (that includes hot CCC-on-CCC action between Maloney and Middletown, and then Maloney vs. Platt)

SCC (five, one state champion): 5-4

PEQUOT (four): 3-4 (that includes hot Pequot-on-Pequot action between Stafford/East Windsor/Somers and Cromwell/Portland, and then Haddam-Killingworth vs. S/EW/S)

ECC (two): 1-2

SWC (three): 1-3

NVL (four): 1-4

CTC (two): 0-2

The FCIAC continued its playoff dominance as this was the sixth straight year that it won two state titles.

The combination of Darien (three), Greenwich (one), New Canaan (four), and St. Joseph (four) have won 12 state titles over that time.

The combination of Bloomfield, Southington and Windsor have won five state titles for the CCC since 2013. Hand, Hillhouse and Xavier have won for the SCC.

• • • •

Thanks for reading all season.

I appreciate it more than y’all will ever know.

Adios....

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