Ansonia goes for 20th title against newcomer Valley/Old Lyme
PLANTSVILLE - A tradition rich program looking to add yet another title to its impressive resume and an upstart that has put together some fine seasons of late but that is on the big stage for the first time.
These two teams are Ansonia and Valley Regional/Old Lyme and they will meet Saturday morning for the CIAC Class S-Large state title at Willowbrook Park.
The second-seeded Chargers (11-1) out of the NVL have won three straight state titles and are looking for title #20 in their 28th state finals appearance. Valley Regional/Old Lyme (12-0) is the top-seed after running through the Pequot without a loss.
Ansonia defeated Windham, 35-14, to advance to the finals while Valley/Old Lyme breezed past Bullard Havens, 34-0, to earn its first berth in a state championship game.
Both teams are among the best small school programs in the state but that's about all they have in common.
Ansonia seniors like Jaiquan McKnight and Witold Gul, all they know is ending a season with a state championship. Valley Regional/Old Lyme has been working for years to get to this level and a special senior class led by stars like Christopher Jean Pierre and Justin Cheverier have finally delivered the Valleycats to the promised land.
It may seem like Ansonia is predestined to play for a state title every year but a lot of hard work goes into it and it's not an easy thing to do or something the Chargers take for granted.
"I don't think you can ever expect to be here," Ansonia coach Tom Brockett said. "It can get taken away from you really quick. This game can humble you."
The Chargers were humbled this season when they lost at Newtown, ending the program's 48-game winning streak. Ansonia was one game short of equaling Cheshire's state-record win streak.
It was a tough loss for a team that had said goodbye to all-everything running back Arkeel Newsome and was working in some new players to key spots. But instead of sulking, the Chargers bounced back to win six straight and are once again back in the finals.
"They're kids, they are resilient," Brockett said. "You wake up the next day the sun comes out and you have to move on. They are going to have worse things happen than that. Its part of sports, you win, you lose. Our kids bounced back from that."
Valley Regional was the top-seed in Class M last season and won its quarterfinal before losing to Brookfield in the semifinals. This season the Valleycats entered the season on a mission and earned the top seed in Class S with an undefeated season.
"It's been quite a ride. Our goal at the beginning of the season was to get here," Valley coach Tim King said. "We had a great group coming back, a really strong senior class and we were able to take that group and mix in a few juniors who played last year and gel them together."
The Valleycats were rarely tested this season, winning 10 of their 12 games by double digits.
"The senior class got us here," King said. "They have been playing together since youth league and really have been starting as a group since they were sophomores and three of the started as freshmen. When you play together you build that camaraderie and you gel and they know what they need to do."
What Valley needs to do now is knock off the beast. When it comes to Class S, sometimes Class M, all roads to the title seem to run through Ansonia and King and his team seem to be relishing their chance to go down that road and see what happens."
"I think it's awesome. To be able to play for the state title and be able to play against the best is all you can ask for," King said. "You think about and dream about coming from a small school and being able to do it and to have that chance is something special."
It will take something special for the Valleycats to win their first title but they have some special players in Jean-Pierre and Evan Smith on offense with Cheverier, one of the state's best linebackers anchoring the defense. Ansonia has standouts like McKnight, Tajik Bagley and Tyler Bailey as well as experience, which can't hurt but might not be as big of an edge as anyone would think.
"I think it comes down to blocking and tackling, catching the ball, it's the game of football," Brockett said. "Experience is a nice thing to talk about but it comes down to playing the game with passion and that's a lot more important than anything that happened last year."