NEW BRITAIN - It might only be the fifth week of the high school football season, but thereâs already a playoff atmosphere coming to Veterans Stadium tonight.
And it has all the makings to be a good showdown.
Unlike in seasons past when New Britain and No. 11 Southington entered the game heading in opposite directions, usually with the Blue Knights undefeated and the Hurricanes flip-flopping between wins and losses, both head into tonightâs matchup with the same goal.
Both are 4-0.
âWeâre not treating this as another game,â Southington linebacker Angelo Plantamuro said. âThis is a playoff game. Weâre treating this week like championship week and when we come out Friday, weâre coming for real.â
Itâs a game thatâs sure to feature some big plays and hard hits and one that could have postseason implications down the line.
New Britain and the Blue Knights are both currently in the top eight of the Class LL playoff rankings, with an undefeated East Hartford remaining as their common opponent. The Hurricanes are also set to face Berlin (4-0) at the end of the season, while Southingtonâs schedule remains relatively easy.
â[What] weâve done [so far] isnât good enough,â New Britain running back Shawn Robinson said. âI still feel like weâre disrespected out there. We still have to make a name for ourselves. People look at us and go, âfluke.ââ
The Hurricanes would certainly like to prove they are a real contender. They last reached the playoffs in 2014 and success against the Blue Knights has been minimal, to say the least.
New Britain has just one win against Southington since 2006 - a 3-0 victory in 2008 - while the Blue Knights have won 11 of the last 12 meetings, including last seasonâs 42-20 victory to make it nine straight. During that span, the Hurricanes have been outscored 362-130.
But unlike last year, which ended in a third straight 5-5 season, New Britain has put itself in position to break that trend.
Led by their running game - consisting of tailbacks Robinson, Kaiyon Gunn and Tyrik Hetmyer, as well as quarterback Tahje Yopp - the Hurricanes have scored 164 points this season (41 per game), outscoring their opponents 76-27 in the first half and 87-6 after halftime. They scored just 316 points through all of 2017 and at this point last season, had managed 148.
It will be important for New Britain to continue to run the ball effectively. And while opposing teams know what the Hurricanes are going to do, they havenât been able to come up with a way to stop it. New Britainâs lowest rushing output on the season was 196 in the 44-0 win over South Windsor, but only because the game got out of hand so quickly.
On the season, Robinson, Gunn and Yopp have each run for more than 330 yards and at least four touchdowns. Gunn currently leads the Hurricanes with 483 rushing yards and has eight total touchdowns. Robinson has rushed for 350 yards and has five total scores, while Yopp has collected 336 yards and five touchdowns of his own on the ground.
âShawn Robinson is a physical big back, who is elusive as well,â Southington head coach Mike Drury said. âHe runs with physicality and runs with purpose. He has the ability to cut it up field or pound it in there. Gunn, whoâs really come on this year, has a lot of speed and is dynamic in his ability to make guys miss in the open field. Then thereâs Yopp, whoâs another guy who is dynamic with the ball. They all bring a different dynamic to the field. It will certainly be a challenge for our defense, but our guys are excited and ready to play.â
Of course, the Blue Knightsâ offense has had plenty of success of its own. Southington comes in averaging 32.5 points per game, although it relies more on its air attack and the arm of quarterback Jacob Drena than its run game.
Although tonight will be just his fifth varsity start behind center, Drena has shown heâs more than capable of leading the Blue Knightsâ scheme. The senior has completed 64.7 percent of his throws for 1,071 yards with 13 touchdowns to five interceptions, and so far has been able to come up with the big play when needed.
Jacob Flynn, Will Downes and Carter Uhlman are his favorite targets and are a dangerous trio of receivers. Flynn leads the team with 417 yards and six touchdowns on 16 catches. Downes (18 catches, 262 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Uhlman (12 catches, 165 yards, 3 touchdowns) arenât too far behind. Both Flynn and Downes have touchdowns of over 75 yards this season.
âTheyâre a throwing team,â New Britain linebacker Robert Zapor said. âThey can definitely throw it. We have to execute and stay disciplined. The biggest thing is in past years we havenât been disciplined playing against them. We have to execute our plays.â
While both offenses will be a focal point in tonightâs matchup, the teamsâ respective defenses have been playing well in their own rights. Opponents are only scoring 8.3 points against the Hurricanes and 8.5 against Southington.
Both are also capable of taking the ball away. New Britain has intercepted six passes this season, four coming from Gunn alone. The Blue Knights have four picks as a defense and gotten to the quarterback 12 times.
âAll around, theyâre just an athletic team,â Drena said. âThey have athletes everywhere and probably the most athletic team weâve played yet. They have a good style of defense. They play hard, hit hard and theyâll keep coming at you. The biggest thing for us is to attack their weaknesses and play to our strengths.â
Thatâs been a point of emphasis for the Hurricanes as well, important game or not.
âYou gotta have the same mindset for every opponent,â New Britain head coach Tebucky Jones said. âWhen you prepare the same way for every opponent, the rest will take care of itself.â
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org