CHESHIRE - As the clock ticked down to 00:00, the Southington football team let out a cheer and when it finally got its hands on the Apply Valley Classic trophy, those cheers grew louder.
Then as the minutes ticked by, the noise that had reverberated around the stadium became softer and more subdued.
It was understandable. The Blue Knights might have won their sixth straight Apple Valley Classic, beating Cheshire 30-22 Thursday, but their season had ended much sooner than expected.
A win by Fairfield Prep earlier in the day left Southington’s playoff chances to bonus points and the Jesuits got the 10 necessary when Sheehan beat Lyman Hall. So, for the first time since 2011, the Blue Knights would be nothing more than spectators, if they choose to be, for the Class LL playoffs.
“It was a great group of kids to coach,” Southington head coach Mike Drury said afterward. “They did the right things, the things we talk about all the time. It was really a fun group of kids to coach. We had a couple of things that didn’t bounce our way, but I’m proud of the way they handled themselves this year.”
In the end, though, it wasn’t the Fairfield Prep or Sheehan games that cost the Blue Knights a chance to play in December. It was those unfortunate bounces Drury had eluded to.
A touchdown on the final play against East Harford handed Southington its first loss of the season, while an overtime loss to South Windsor in Week 9 had put the team’s season on life support and in the hands of others. Never a good position to be in.
“We’re going to look back on it as a season that got cut short,” said Blue Knights defensive back Matt Thompson, who was the defensive MVP of the game after a third-quarter interception return.
“So what we’re going to focus in on next year, is getting dialed in. The reason we lost those games is because we weren’t focused. We weren’t playing attention to plays and we didn’t stop the big plays and allowed them to get back in the game. We slept on those teams and we paid the price.
“Next year, we have to play every game like it’s the Cheshire game and treat every game like the championship game.”
But for the seniors, it was a bittersweet moment. They had the satisfaction of never losing to the Rams, but had never had to experience a season without some extra games tacked on. It was easy to see the disappointment on their faces afterward.
“It’s definitely a bummer we couldn’t get in the playoffs,” Southington quarterback Will Barmore said. “But our season was in our own hands. We lost two tough ones, but it was a lot of fun, a great learning experience.”
And while the season ended too prematurely for Southington’s liking, if there was any consolation, it’s that there were plenty of highlights as Thursday morning turned into the afternoon.
Through the ebb and flow of the game, the Blue Knights jumped out to a large lead, only to see it dwindle down with the fourth quarter clock. With just 39 seconds left, Southington held an eight-point lead before holding on for the win.
In large part, it was due to the run game, the defense and special teams.
The Blue Knights’ defense intercepted Cheshire quarterback Jake Raba three times - the first by Anthony Vecchio, Thompson had the second with Shaun Wagner coming up with the third - after feeling disrespected by some online chatter earlier in the week.
Kicker Evan Johanns kicked three first-quarter field goals (20, 35 and 30 yards), which ended up proving to be the difference in the game.
Then there was running back Ryan Montalvo, who picked up the Apple Valley Classic MVP after rushing for a career-high 175 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries, often picking up a passing game that managed to drive down the field, but stalled in the red zone.
“Drury pushes me to a different limit and I love it,” Montalvo said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at without him today. The O-line was literally parting the sea. All I had to do was what Drury told me all year and the holes were there.”
“We felt good about driving down the field,” Barmore said. “We didn’t think they could stop us running or throwing the ball. And Johanns was key, he was big for us in setting the tone with some big kicks. Obviously, would have loved to have those as touchdowns, but we set the tone and punched them in the mouth on that first drive.
“Shout out to the O-line. They played a hell of a game. They dominated.”
Overall, there were plenty of good moments for the Blue Knights, both on the season and in the Apple Valley Classic against the Rams. But for a program expected to contend for a state title every year, it was a tough way to end it.
But the players, especially the seniors, certainly enjoyed the ride.
“Coach Drury, all the coaches, we have the best coaching staff in the state regardless of what our record says and they’re going to push us to be our best,” Montavlo said. “I wouldn’t trade in my four years at Southington for any other school.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or email@example.com On Twitter: @DavidGlovach