NEW BRITAIN — In a season where it was overshadowed by a prolific offense that had games decided well before halftime, it was the defense that was going to have to come through if the St. Joseph football team was going to soar over the final hurdle and a dream more than three months in the making.
And as it has all year, though to far less fanfare, the defense delivered. The Cadets’ relentless pressure compensated for four turnovers and two missed field goals, leading to a 17-13 Class L final victory over Daniel Hand in the first state championship between the two top ranked teams since 2005.
“It was a great defensive game we played,” said Mike Morrissey, who spent a good part of the day in the Tigers’ backfield and made a quarterback hit that led to the game’s first points. “We knew if we weren’t going to score we couldn’t let them score. That’s all it was. And then once they got going it was game over.”
St. Joseph (13-0), which became the first team in state history to win successive titles in three different classes, should jump up a spot and finish as the No. 1 team in the final state poll. The Cadets’ last unbeaten season was 37 years ago.
“We proved we can play wherever they put us,” Morrissey said. “We don’t decide where we play, S, M or L. Wherever we play we’ll step up and we’ll get the job done.”
Though the Cadets’ defense was unyielding in the second half, victory was not secured until the final moments.
Faced with a fourth-and-22 situation from its 47, Hand quarterback Phoenix Billings had a long bomb deflected into the arms of receiver Seth Sweitzer down to the St. Joseph 2. Two plays later Billings sneaked in for a score.
Though the extra point was missed, the Tigers (12-1), who had won 36 straight games and were trying for their own three-peat, had hope, down 17-13 with 1:04 left.
But the Cadets recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock.
“We had a chip on our shoulder all year and we were going to just keep going at it, keep going at it,” Cadets coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “We were on a mission.”
Both scores by the Cadets had the defense’s fingerprints either directly or indirectly on them.
Morrissey hit Billings as he released a pass. The ball ended up in the hands of Preston Kral, who returned the interception 42 yards for a score and 7-0 lead.
“We knew we had to pick up our offense and we came out fired up and ready to go,” said St. Joseph defensive back Davee Silas, who had a sensational game. “It was a beautiful day.”
The Cadets had a chance to seize control but suffered turnovers deep in Hand territory. They then found themselves tied when Billings completed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Isaiah McNeilly with 37 seconds left in the half.
St. Joseph, which played most games with a running clock in second halves, now was faced with proving it could win a dogfight.
“We told them we fumbled the ball twice in the first half. We were dominating the game I think,” Della Vecchia said. “It was our mistakes. Keep playing the way we play.”
The Cadets went back to their successful postseason formula of Shirden and defense. Running back Jaden Shirden did a bulk of the work in the second half, finishing with 179 yards on 32 carries.
Austin Jose’s 38-yard field goal gave the Cadets a 10-7 lead with 6:26 left in the third quarter.
Then the battle of field position helped the Cadets to their decisive score. Quarterback Jack Wallace punted the ball on a fake fourth-down try to pin the Tigers on their own 8 late in the game.
Silas read a swing pass to Hand’s Jesse Lutz and hit him for a six-yard loss.
“I just saw the quarterback look at his receiver, flew to the ball and just had to make a play and set my team up for a touchdown,” Silas said.
Hand had to punt and was called for a hold on the play. The Cadets got the ball on the 18, and two plays later Shirden had his 12th postseason touchdown.
“Jaden said there are holes there, he just needed a little bit more time to get through them,” Della Vecchia said. “So we just kept giving Jaden the ball.”
Morrissey said there was more patience than panic at halftime.
“Game’s not over. We played hard the first half we had to place twice as hard the second half,” Morrissey said. “That’s what we did and that’s why the score reflects the way it does. To go down as one of the best teams in St. Joe’s history, a very storied program, and got the job done, it’s amazing and it’s all for the teams before us.”
Della Vecchia said he needed time to process hope turning into reality, but that he planned to give the local media market a boost.
“I don’t know when it is going to sink in but it’s amazing,” Della Vecchia said. “I’m so happy for our kids. I’m happy for everybody ever involved in this. It’s a phenomenal feeling and I know it’s going to be better tomorrow when I start reading the papers because I haven’t read a paper in 10 years. I’m going to read them tomorrow.”