NEWINGTON - The Newington football team was already facing a steep uphill climb in Wednesday nightâ€™s Class L quarterfinal matchup with second-seeded Daniel Hand, but its path to upset the top-ranked team in the state just got even rockier.
The Indians (7-3), who will travel to Hand (10-0) to try and knock out the two-time defending state champs, will be without their starting quarterback in junior Nick Pestrichello, who suffered an injury in his non-throwing shoulder during last weekâ€™s loss to Wethersfield.
Pestrichello had been one of Newingtonâ€™s most dynamic playmakers on the offensive end in the teamâ€™s first winning season since 2012 and first postseason appearance since 2008, posting a QB rating over 111.7 while throwing for more than 1,600 yards on the season. Without Pestrichello, the Indians will turn to sophomore Austyn Howe, one of the teamâ€™s leading receivers who will now be under center against a Tigers defense that hasnâ€™t allowed more than 14 points in a game all season, and has won all 10 games this season by an average margin of 33.6 points per game.
â€śWe had a good practice with Austyn at quarterback,â€ť head coach Jason Pace said. â€śWe know heâ€™s a tough player thatâ€™s going to give it his all out there. The team believes in him.â€ť
Newington certainly isnâ€™t feeling bad for itself after the devastating injury news, mainly because it doesnâ€™t have time to do anything but prepare for Hand. The quick turnaround after Wednesday nightâ€™s disappointing 35-0 loss to their rival Wethersfield has left the Indians with little time to dwell on any past mistakes or current predicaments. The top priority is soaking up every available moment to prepare for the toughest test of the season.
â€śItâ€™s been a challenge getting everyone physically and mentally healthy with a quick turnaround,â€ť Pace said. â€śThe hardest part is just the schedule. You have to squeeze so much into a small window of time and you canâ€™t really take any days off. We gave them off Thanksgiving, but the coaches were here for a few hours breaking down film. Friday and Saturday, we had to go. There were really no days off, which is something we havenâ€™t really done all year. That adjustment, mentally and physically, can be a challenge, especially getting ready for a team like Hand. You look at their entire team and thereâ€™s no weakness. But we have to make sure weâ€™re ready.â€ť
Hand is operating on a similar preparation schedule, but has been performing on a different level from almost any other team in the state since the season began.
The Tigers offense is putting up 45.7 points per game and are coming off a 61-point performance against Guilford in their regular season finale, and also has a 56-13 win against Wethersfield, which handled Newington a week ago, on its overwhelming resume. The electric scoring attack is led by quarterback Phoenix Billings, an All-State selection last season who is likely headed for another after throwing for 1,371 yards in the regular season while posting a QB rating of 124.1. Every opponent that has tried to slow down Billings this season has failed, and the Indians, while confident, arenâ€™t downplaying the challenge that lies before them on Wednesday night.
â€śOur defense is going to have to play a strong game,â€ť junior AJ Ferreira said. â€śWe canâ€™t give up easy routes or passes or anything. [Billings] can run and pass, so weâ€™re going to have to execute as best we can and limit his yardage as much as possible.â€ť
The challenges wonâ€™t stop there. On the defensive end, Hand is stacked with premier talent, including All-State defensive lineman Ben Corniello, who presents a prolific defensive front that Newington will have to create openings against for running back John Amaning, who will likely be heavily relied upon with Pestrichelloâ€™s absence potentially shrinking the playbook in terms of passing plays. Amaning and the Indiansâ€™ offensive line will have to get push at the line of scrimmage against Corniello, which will be by far its toughest assignment to date, even after taking on No. 10 Maloney earlier in the season.
â€śWe know theyâ€™ll be big up front,â€ť Pace said. â€śWe have to make sure we do what weâ€™ve done for most of the year and donâ€™t get down if things donâ€™t go our way. We have to stay positive. We understand itâ€™s going to be a great challenge, but with that comes a tremendous opportunity. We can showcase the team we are and the type of people we have in our program. Thatâ€™s the opportunity thatâ€™s out there, to show the caliber of team we are, and that we can play football with anybody.â€ť
Staying positive and keeping focus will be key for Newington on Wednesday, as it was a major factor in its humbling loss to the Eagles last week, where a fumble deep in their own end turned into a touchdown and ignited a rout for Wethersfield. Traveling to Hand will be even more of a hostile environment, where the Tigers havenâ€™t lost in their last 19 tries.
The odds are stacked against Newington, but they were before the season began as well. The Indians are hoping to prove their doubters wrong just one more time, and pick up what would be one of the biggest upsets in the state this season.
â€śWeâ€™re going to focus on taking it one play at a time,â€ť Pace said. â€śIf one doesnâ€™t go our way, we shift our focus to the next one. If we carry that focus the entire game and have that mindset, and play with toughness and determination, we can have some success. The mindset is that itâ€™s a playoff game, and we have a tremendous challenge ahead of us. Theyâ€™re the No. 1 team in the state for a reason. Theyâ€™re that good. If youâ€™re a program that has that kind of success, you expect it. We have to figure out what we can do to have our own success in that game.â€ť
Ryan Chichester can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or email@example.com