New Canaan edges North Haven for third straight state championship
WEST HAVEN — The sea of red and white jerseys were at midfield at Ken Strong Stadium.
There were hands everywhere reaching for the prize in the middle of the mass of players.
Seemingly every member of the New Canaan High School football team was grabbing at the 2015 Class L state championship plaque. As they all should. Because all the Rams had a hand in New Canaan’s dramatic 42-35 Class L title game triumph over North Haven High Saturday.
“When we were moving on our last drive, there was no doubt in the huddle,” said New Canaan junior running back Ryan O’Connell. “The (immense, overflow) crowd was so loud. But we just stuck to what we know. We do what we do. We never stop fighting for each other. That’s New Canaan High football.”
It was O’Connell’s 1-yard touchdown run with 3:34 left to play that capped a 15-play, 72-yard, 6:11 march featuring 14 runs that provided the margin of victory as No. 6 New Canaan (11-1) slew No. 1 seed and previously-unbeaten North Haven (12-1).
“To show the patience we did on the last drive was special,” said New Canaan High head coach Lou Marinelli. “All our guys did a tremendous job. This is a special team. I would have had a hard time trying to explain if this group had lost.”
CLASS L KEYS TO THE GAME
KICKIN’ BACK: New Canaan senior kicker Peter Swindell was a perfect 6-for-6 on conversion kicks after each Rams’ TD. Including the one where he had to be convert twice after a New Canaan received a formation penalty. Swindell’s expertise was matched by North Haven’s senior kick Sabrina Fronte (5-of-5).
POISE IN THE POCKET: New Canaan quarterback Mike Collins, owner of a state-record 53 TD passes, did not force throws into North Haven’s prevent-prevent-prevent, eight-men-in-pass coverage defense. Collins opened New Canaan’s game-winning drive by running five times in the opening six plays to elude the North Haven pass rush.
COUNT ON KYLE: New Canaan reciever Kyle Smith did a great job making himself available for short passes from Collins. The senior had nine receptions for 91 yards including a 9-yard TD connection.
MOVIN’ THE CHANINS: New Canaan’s offense changed a seven-minute deficit in time of possession in the first half to a seven-minute margin (28:55 to 21:21) in the second half, keeping its defense fresh down the stretch.
Thankfully, no explanations were needed. Instead Marinelli and his Rams were able to celebrate a third consecutive state title and seventh CIAC championship in the last 10 years. New Canaan and Marinelli are 11-4 in state finals.
“I couldn’t ask for a better birthday present,” said O’Connell, who had two rushing touchdowns in the win. “It’s fitting that coach Marinelli’s 300th win at New Canaan comes in a state championship final. This crown is a testament to our seniors. They are awesome in knowing how to find ways to win football games.”
While New Canaan never trailed, the Rams watched as North Haven fought back to tie the score on three occasions including 35-35 with 9:45 remaining.
North Haven had been known for its running attack as this magical season brought the Indians to their first-ever state final. In fact, North Haven had minus-3 yards passing in its 21-14 L semifinal triumph over Wethersfield.
But North Haven head coach Tony Sagnella unleashed junior quarterback Jake Steinman Saturday. Steinman completed 10 of 21 passes for 146 yards including a 36-yard TD strike to Nick Ponzio. Ponzio also caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from single wing QB Michael Montano.
“We had so many games this year where we were way ahead early,” Sagnella said. “With the big lead it often didn’t make sense to pass. But we knew what Steinman could do.”
The North Haven defense also did its part against New Canaan’s vaunted passing attack. Penn-bound senior quarterback Michael Collins (state-record 53 TD passes entering the final) completed 22 of 28 throws for 180 yards and just one TD.
“North Haven’s defense dropped eight guys back in pass coverage all game long,” NC’s Marinelli said. “To me, it looked like 12 or 13 guys sometimes. In those conditions, there was often no place to throw.”
But New Canaan found a way.
Running backs Matt Cognetta and Mike Cognetta didn’t travel to West Haven High on the team bus. They came separately because they spent the early morning getting physical therapy for their accumulation of injuries this season.
That didn’t stop Mike Cognetta from contributing four rushes for 31 yards including a late third-quarter TD burst for a 35-28 NC edge.
However, it was 5-foot-8, 185-pound senior Matt Cognetta who saved his best for his final high school football game.
Matt Cognetta collected 224 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries — including a 53-yard scoring run just three minutes into the contest. The Cognettas combined for seven carries on the Rams’ game-winning march that ate over six minutes of clock.
“I was a little tired. But I had to make a great ending for the seniors,” Matt Cognetta said. “I was asking for the football all game long. It’s New Canaan tradition to win state titles. There was no chance we weren’t going to bring this one home too.”
“The Cognetta family is New Canaan football,” Marinelli said. “Their trademarks are being hard nosed and tough. That’s what makes them special. There was no way I was taking them out.”
After taking the 42-35 lead, the Rams defense had to make a stop without Thomas Williams, who left by ambulance in the first half with a serious leg injury.
North Haven managed two first downs but three incomplete passes and NC senior Andrew DeFranco’s fourth-down interception with 1:25 ended the Indians’ first-ever trip to the state finals.
“It takes time and great courage to set a goal and then push yourself to achieve it. I’m so proud of my team. We take much more from this than bumps and bruises,” Sagnella said. “We wanted to play New Canaan for the title. The mission we were on the job was to play the very best opponent in the final. And New Canaan was unquestionably the best. And we measured up to the challenge.
“Lou (Marinelli) and I are friends. New Canaan is a marquee football program,” Sagnella continued. “I admire the resume that Lou has accomplished. We are following their blueprint.”
NEW CANAAN 42, NORTH HAVEN 35
NEW CANAAN 14 14 7 7—42
NORTH HAVEN 7 14 7 7—35
Records: New Canaan 11-1; North Haven 12-1.
NC—Matt Cognetta 53 run (Peter Swindell kick)
NC—Ryan O’Connell 3 run (Swindell kick)
NC—Kyle Smith 9 pass from Michael Collins (Swindell kick)
NH—Michael Montano 6 run (Fronte kick)
NC—Matt Cognetta 1 run (Swindell kick)
NH—Ponzio 36 pass from Jake Steinman (Fronte kick)
NH—Michael Montano 29 run (Fronte kick)
NC—Mike Cognetta 3 run (Swindell kick)
NH—Montano 6 run (Fronte kick)
NC—O’Connell 1 run (Swindell kick)