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Colin McCabe scored five first-half touchdowns in the Hand football team’s 56-0 shutout versus Bunnell in the Class L State Playoff quarterfinals on Nov. 27. The Tigers went on to advance to their second straight state final by recording a 49-7 victory over Windsor 49-7 in the semifinals on Dec. 2. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Quarterback Phoenix Billings and the Hand football team are heading to the Class L state championship game for the second year in a row after posting wins against over Bunnell and Windsor in the first two rounds of the playoffs last week. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
Jesse Lutz and the Tigers’ football squad have an unblemished record of 12-0 as they get ready to play Maloney for the Class L state title on Saturday, Dec. 8. (Photo by Kelley Fryer/The Source | Buy This Photo)
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The 2018 high-school football campaign has moved into its second season, and the stakes are raised, although the song remains the same for the Hand football team. Following a pair of dominating performances on the playoff stage, the Tigers are now one win away from repeating as Class L state champions.
Hand began the postseason as the top seed in the Class L State Playoffs last week. The defending champion Tigers opened up the draw by recording a 56-0 shutout versus No. 8 seed Bunnell in a quarterfinal game at the Surf Club on Nov. 27. Hand held a 49-0 advantage at halftime on the strength of five rushing touchdowns from junior Colin McCabe during the first half.
Then in the semis, Hand hosted No. 4 seed Windsor and prevailed by a 49-7 score on Dec. 2. The Tigers, who have a record 12-0 on the year, will go for their second straight state crown when they play No. 7 seed Maloney (10-2) in the Class L title game on Saturday, Dec. 8.
“The main thing is that we want the kids to experience success because, when they do, they’re more likely to sustain it,” Head Coach Dave Mastroianni said. “We didn’t score on our first drive against Bunnell, but they were fine, and that didn’t faze them. The boys practice really well, and they know what success looks like.”
Junior quarterback Phoenix Billings completed three passes for 91 yards and a touchdown in the Tigers’ quarterfinal triumph over Bunnell (9-2). McCabe ran for 175 yards on just nine carries in the victory.
“Any time a running back has a game like that, you look at the offensive line,” said Coach Mastroianni. “He had two touchdowns where he didn’t even get touched. If he gets a head of steam, then he’s difficult to tackle.”
Hand got on the board with 52-yard TD run from McCabe. Billings and senior co-captain later Chris Bartosic (2 catches, 93 yards) connected on a 60-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-0. McCabe struck again for a tandem of touchdowns from two and three yards away to give the Tigers a 29-0 advantage early in the second quarter.
Later in the period, senior Jack Flanagan picked up a fumble following a sack by junior Ben Corniello and returned it for a score to make it 35-0. McCabe later ran for a 35-yard TD to give Hand a 42-0 lead with three minutes left in the first half. McCabe took one to the house from 22 yards out for his fifth touchdown of the half and a 49-0 Hand advantage with 2:17 to go before the break.
Early in the third quarter, junior Jesse Lutz scored on a 6-yard touchdown run to extend the Tigers’ lead to 56-0. From there, Hand’s defense continued clamping down to preserve the shutout. The Tigers recorded four sacks behind contributions from Flanagan (2.5 sacks), Corniello (1), and senior Macken McDonald (0.5). Corniello was also the team’s leading tackler with six on the night, while senior Kevin Girardi and Flanagan each made five tackles. Hand’s first-string defense forced the Bulldogs into minus-25 yards of total offense.
“They say you can’t coach speed, and we have speed, especially on our defensive line. We have 121 tackles for a loss this year on defense,” said Mastroianni after the Bunnell game. “It’s good to see the defense getting after it, and it’s fun to be around these guys. We are having just an unprecedented year here.”
In the semifinal win versus Windsor, Billings threw three touchdown passes and also ran for a score to lead Hand to its one-sided victory. Billings scored on a 1-yard touchdown rush, after which junior Isaiah McNeilly ran for the 2-point conversion to put Hand up 8-0 just 1:48 into the game. Billings then found senior Will Cosgriff on a 39-yard TD toss to make it 15-0 at the 3:15 mark.
The Warriors fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and the Tigers scooped it up. McCabe then gave the Tigers a 22-0 lead by scoring on a 20-yard touchdown run less than four minutes into the contest. Windsor (9-3) returned the ensuing kickoff for a score to make it 22-7. However, senior Ian Butler later picked off a pass and took it back for a 65-yard touchdown and a 28-7 advantage after the first quarter.
Billings threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to junior Ethan Haberman to increase the lead to 35-7 with 10:38 to play in the opening half. Billings went to Bartosic for a 3-yard TD pass that made it 42-7 with 2:34 remaining until halftime.
With 3:32 to play in the third period, McCabe scored from one yard out to give Hand a 49-7 cushion entering the fourth. That score held up as the final as Hand advanced to the state championship for the second year in a row following another convincing win.
“We challenged our guys before this year to see if last year was a flash in the pan, and we proved we are for real,” Coach Mastroianni said. “We try to go out each game and leave no doubt, and we want to make sure we leave no doubt in our opponent.”
The Tigers will try to defend their state title when they face Maloney in the Class L final on Saturday, Dec. 8. The Spartans advanced to the final by earning a 20-14 win against No. 2 seed Middletown in the quarterfinal round, followed by a 16-6 victory versus No. 6 Platt in the semifinals.
“[Head Coach Kevin Frederick] does a nice job,” said Mastroianni of Maloney. “Their quarterback puts the ball where it needs to be, and we can hopefully defend against that and have our offense cause problems.”
From the Sidelines
The Hand football team also defeated Windsor in the semifinals of last year’s Class L State Playoffs, prevailing by the score of 31-6.
This marks Hand’s 19th appearance in a state championship game.
The Tigers have now won their last five playoff games by a combined score of 206-47.
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