After a putting together pair of dominant showings in the first two rounds of the Class L State Playoffs, the Hand football team is going to the title game and now stands just one win away from adding to its championship-laden legacy.
Fresh off a 9-1 regular season, the Tigers entered the Class L State Playoffs as the No. 2 seed and hosted No. 7 North Haven in the quarterfinals on Nov. 28. The Tigers emerged with a 35-13 victory over the Indians behind three rushing touchdowns from senior Brian Casagrande.
That win sent Hand back to the Surf Club to face No. 3 seed Windsor on Dec. 3. The Tigers won another lopsided decision by walloping the Warriors 31-6 to improve to 11-1 and advance to their first state final since they won the title in 2012. Hand will face No. 5 seed Masuk (11-1) for the Class L crown at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 9 at Willow Brook Park in New Britain. Masuk defeated four-time defending Class L champion New Canaan 28-14 in its semifinal contest.
“It’s just great to see people excited about football here. There’s been enthusiasm here that we haven’t seen in a while, and it’s contagious to the players. The game looks fun and the players are having fun, which is our goal here. It’s all great to see,” Hand Head Coach Dave Mastroianni said. “All year long, Masuk has been what people have said they are going to be. Anyone that beats New Canaan is an eye-opener. They have a right to be there, and we are going to try and make one last good showing for our town.”
In the semifinals, Hand forced Windsor (10-2) to punt on the opening drive of the game. The Tigers then punted, but Windsor fumbled the ball on the return, and junior Chris Bartosic scooped up the ball to set them up at the Windsor 11-yard line. Casagrande then muscled into the end zone from three yards out to make it 7-0 with 6:43 to go in the first quarter. Hand added to its lead with a 26-yard field goal from sophomore Isaiah McNeilly to make it 10-0 through one.
After the two sides exchanged possessions, Hand took over at its own 44, and sophomore quarterback Phoenix Billings raced 55 yards down the field to the end zone for a 17-0 Tigers’ command with 6:03 to go until halftime.
Senior Nick Woods later grabbed an interception and set Hand up at the Windsor 30-yard line. After Casagrande ran for the first down on 4th-and-2, Billings found Bartosic on an 18-yard TD toss to increase the cushion to 24-0 with 3:30 to play before the break. Hand then turned the Warriors over on downs and went on to convert a 4th-and-11 before the first half expired.
Following a couple of drives by each team to open the second half, Hand took advantage of a botched Windsor punt to start off at the Warriors’ 13-yard line. Billings threw a touchdown to senior Michael Tarantino on the very next play for a 31-0 advantage that held up entering the final frame.
In the fourth quarter, Windsor was on the doorstep of scoring its first points of the afternoon, but once again, the Tigers’ defense was opportunistic and recovered a fumble with less than seven minutes to go. The Warriors finally got on the board with a 62-yard touchdown run against Hand’s JV defense, but it was too little, too late, as the Tigers punched their first ticket to a state final in five years.
“In high school sports, it’s about who makes the least amount of mistakes,” said Coach Mastroianni. “And we studied Windsor and knew they could make mistakes, and our varsity defense shut them out.”
Previously, facing North Haven in the quarterfinal round, Hand prevailed 35-13 as Casagrande gained 117 yards and scored three touchdowns on just nine carries. Billings completed seven passes for 106 yards and a pair of touchdowns, along with rushing the ball nine times for 35 yards. Sophomore Jesse Lutz added 54 yards and 15 carries for the Tigers.
“Brian established himself as the best player on the field that night,” said Mastroianni on Casagrande’s performance against the Indians. “It was great to see him go out there and establish himself. He deserved that kind of game in that atmosphere.”
On the first drive of the night, Hand took a 7-0 edge on Casagrande’s 3-yard TD rush just three minutes into the game. The Indians (8-3) started the ensuing drive at the Hand 49-yard line after a nice kickoff return, but couldn’t any produce points with their good field position.
After junior Julian Banerji returned a punt to the North Haven 25, Billings launched a 25-yard touchdown strike to Tarantino (2 catches, 39 yards) with 3:07 left in the first to put Hand up 14-0. Now down two scores, North Haven got back into the game by scoring on a 2-yard run with nine seconds left in the quarter to make it a 14-7 game after one period.
“We focus a lot on special teams every day. Julian has been dynamic for us the last two years back there on returns,” said Mastroianni. “He has a feel for it, because he doesn’t fear touching the ball. I tell him at the very least, field every ball. Special teams is a huge facet of the game, and good teams have been making good special teams plays this season. We try to get momentum from special teams to help the offense.”
In the second quarter, an unsuccessful fake punt attempt by North Haven gave the Tigers good position, and they quickly worked their way inside the Indians’ 10-yard line. Casagrande then ran it in from three yards out for his second TD of the night, making it a 21-7 Tigers’ lead with just more than three minutes remaining before intermission.
The Indians didn’t settle for a 14-point deficit at halftime. A crucial pass play from Mark Montano to fellow senior Steven Erbe got the ball to the Hand 1, after which the Indians crossed the goal line on a short run to make it a 21-13 contest.
Hand held North Haven scoreless on its initial drive of the second half. Hand then faced a 4th-and-1 when Casagrande sprinted 49 yards to paydirt for his third score and a 28-13 command with eight minutes to go in the period.
The Tigers later struck again on fourth down with a 24-yard TD pass from Billings to Chris Iannuzzi to put a bow on a 35-13 win that sent them to the semis.
“Getting this win versus North Haven, which is such a class act program with a great coaching staff, it was a learning experience,” Coach Mastroianni said. “We dominated the line of scrimmage against North Haven, and we shut down an offense that no one has been able to shut down this year. The boys left the field confident after that win.”
“We knew we had to win the numbers battle,” Mastroianni added. “We knew North Haven was going to do what they do. We banked on the fact that they would run their core list of plays. We tried to make them beat us with something else besides that.”
Hand tallied 323 yards of total offense and 455 all-purpose yards versus North Haven. Banerji and senior Ryan Coady each had a sack on defense for the Tigers. Casagrande made his mark on defense with a team-best 15 tackles and was followed by junior Kevin Girardi with 11. Sophomore Ben Corniello added eight tackles for a Tigers’ team that needs no additional motivation, according to Coach Mastroianni.
“At the beginning of the season, there was a lot of preaching from me, but now it doesn’t need to come from me,” said Mastroianni. “We’ve done a lot for ourselves with our team dynamic. One of my coaches said to me the other day how this senior class is special, because they show they enjoy being out there with each other. I don’t have to be the cheerleader out there, because the boys take care of themselves when they make mistakes. Their success solidifies what they’ve bought into, and I couldn’t be more proud of who they’ve become.”