STRATFORD — In a driving rainstorm, Jaden Shirden turned out to be better than all-wheel drive. In the second chapter of what is shaping up as one of the most prolific postseason performances in state history, Shirden rushed for 257 yards and five scores to lead St. Joseph to a 42-0 win over New Canaan in the Class L semifinals at Bunnell High School.
“He was on fire today,” St. Joseph coach Joe Della Vecchia said. “He certainly had a great day. He’s had a great career. I can’t say enough great things about the kid. Not just as a football player but what he’s meant to us as a program and to me as a person. He has a few new things he does every week but he’s still getting better. He still gets better every day and every week and he’s certainly a joy to watch.”
The victory set up the game everyone has anticipated since the start of the season: The top-seeded Cadets (12-0) will play Daniel Hand (12-0), the No. 1 team in the state poll, for the Class L title Saturday at 3 at Veteran’s Stadium in New Britain. The winner will almost certainly finish in the top spot.
“It’s one step closer to where we’ve wanted to be since day one,” said St. Joseph defensive lineman Mike Morrissey.
St. Joseph will try to become the first school to win consecutive state titles in three different classes.
The Cadets ended New Canaan’s seven-game winning streak. They scored twice in the first seven minutes and 19 seconds, helped by the special teams and defense, and were never threatened.
The Rams’ season would have been more memorable if not for the two games against St. Joseph. Including a 58-14 loss in the fourth week of the season, they were outscored by a combined 100-14 margin. They were 9-1 against everyone else.
“Our offense didn’t help,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said. “You can’t get first downs. When you can’t get them off the field and you can’t establish much offensively it’s tough.”
The storied career of Rams quarterback Drew Pyne ended with him wearing a wool beanie on the sideline. Pyne sustained a minor injury in a quarterfinal win five days ago against Wethersfield and was forced to sit out.
St. Joseph quarterback Jack Wallace, in his first game since being named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year, had a quiet night in the pouring rain, completing three of six passes for 40 yards. He was perfect in his primary task: making sure the ball got to Shirden cleanly.
The Cadets went nowhere on their first possession, but after a defensive stop Dennis Rotunno blocked a punt and Tyler Sisko returned it for a score.
“I think that’s huge,” Della Vecchia said. “When you are getting deep into the playoffs and it’s such an emotional game, that’s a big deflater for the other team, and we were able to capitalize on that and that really got us going.”
Christian Sweeney, who replaced Pyne and split time with Reid Brown, had a ball slip out of his grasp for a turnover that Shirden turned into a 31-yard score.
Before halftime, Shirden added scoring runs of 3, 62 and 43 yards for a 35-0 lead.
“We had a lot of fun today,” Shirden said. “We knew it was going to rain and that was our gameplan, we were going to run the ball. I just did my job and the line blocked well.”
Shirden has 11 touchdowns in the postseason; he rushed for five and scored a sixth on a kickoff return in a quarterfinal win over Wilton.
“It’s impressive. It’s a lot of fun to watch,” Morrissey said. “I grew up watching all the great players here. It’s a lot of fun being on the same team with him.”
The second half, played with a running clock, was uneventful save for Shirden’s final score, a 14-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“We knew we were going to run the ball a lot more than we do and he was able to hang onto the ball and the guys up front did a great job of giving him the room that he needed,” Della Vecchia said. “Whatever it takes. We don’t come in with a plan that we are going to run 50 times or throw 50 times. We do what the game dictates us to do and go from there.”
Shirden overshadowed an outstanding performance by the St. Joseph defense, which held the Rams to just 72 yards.
“They played great again tonight,” Della Vecchia said. “They’re a real close group and most of them have been starting for three years so they know where each other is going to be.”
After the game, Marinelli pulled Shirden aside, put his arm around his shoulder and spoke to him for about 30 seconds.
“I told him he’s a great player. I have nightmares about you,” Marinelli said. “You’re a good player, now go win a state championship.”