TRUMBULL — Despite a 21-point halftime lead, St. Joseph football coach Joe Della Vecchia was not too pleased after watching his team get penalized seven times for 93 yards. So, after scoring on the third play of the first half in tonight’s Class L quarterfinal against Wilton, the Cadets tried to satisfy the coach and went one better and scored on the second play of the second half.
When it was over — after Jaden Shirden ran for six touchdowns — the Cadets had a 49-7 victory, secured a semifinal berth and kept their undefeated season intact.
Oh yeah, the coach was satisfied, too.
“I was not happy in the first half with all the penalties,” Della Vecchia said. The Cadets, actually, were only a little better in the second half and finished with 13 penalties for 158 yards. “You can’t have penalties in playoff games. But we responded.”
The Cadets opened the second half with a defensive touchdown — a 17-yard fumble return by Alex Pagliarini — and left the rest for Shirden. The senior running back had a career-high five rushing touchdowns and ran for 237 yards, and also returned a kickoff 90 yards for another score. That performance, along with another stellar effort by the Pagliarini-led defense, ensured that the Cadets’ state championship “three-peat” hopes remained alive.
Top seed St. Joseph (11-0) will move on to face another FCIAC foe, New Canaan, in next Monday’s semifinal. New Canaan (9-2), the No. 4 seed, defeated No. 5 Wethersfield, 42-7, tonight. The game is set for 6:30 p.m. at Bunnell High School.
St. Joseph won the regular-season meeting, 58-14.
“It’s playoff time, time to win,” Shirden said after compiling 373 total yards on 19 touches (16 carries, one reception, two kickoff returns). “Time to have fun and win another state championship.”
Shirden had scored four touchdowns on several occasions the last three years but never five. Or six.
“I just want to make the plays and be the best at what I do,” Shirden added.
The eighth-seeded Warriors (7-4), playing in their first state playoff game in 24 years, had no answer for the elusive back.
“We just didn’t tackle tonight, but that’s a credit to (Shirden),” Wilton coach EJ DiNunzio said. “He’s a heck of a back. We couldn’t stop him.”
Wilton surprised a lot of people this year in earning a state playoff berth. The Warriors were led by quarterback Jimmy O’Brien (9 for 18, 81 yards, one TD), running back Drew Phillips (21 carries for 98 yards) and receiver Kyle Hyzy (four receptions, 61 yards and the Warriors’ lone score).
“It took us 24 years to get back here so I couldn’t be more proud,” DiNunzio said. “I got so many guys going both ways and this was against St. Joe’s. I can’t fault my team. We have nothing to hang our heads about.”
As usual, Shirden wasn’t the only Cadet who starred on offense. After all, this is a team that has averaged 51 points per game this season. Quarterback Jack Wallace had a solid if unspectacular game, completing 9 of 16 passes for 154 yards. Receiver Brady Hutchison caught four balls for 93 yards — all in the first half.
Meanwhile, the defense, save for one first-quarter drive, played well. The Cadets allowed 169 total yards but 74 came on Wilton’s opening drive. Pagliarini, Cole DaSilva, Dennis Rotunno and Jermaine Williams all stood out in the Cadets’ 20th consecutive victory dating back to last season.
But no doubt, this was Shirden’s night.
“Jaden is phenomenal,” Della Vecchia said. “I know this is hard to believe but he keeps getting better each week. He has ridiculous moves.”
The Cadets managed to overcome the penalties in the first half to take a 21-point lead. It was the Shirden show early as he raced 53 yards for a touchdown on the game’s third play.
Then, after Wilton surprised the Cadets with a 74-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard scoring toss from O’Brien to Hyzy, Shirden struck again. He took the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to give the Cadets a 14-7 lead.
On St. Joseph’s next possession, Shirden ran the final 17 yards for a score. Later, with 2:38 remaining in the first half, Shirden scored his fourth touchdown of the night, going around left end for a 15-yard score and a 28-7 lead.
After Pagliarini’s score to open the second half, it was Shirden scoring from 91 yards out before his six-yard scamper in the fourth quarter completed the scoring.
Now, it’s on to New Canaan.
“It’s never easy beating a good team twice,” said Shirden, after the Cadets did just that. “It will be a test, like any other game, but we want to stay undefeated. That’s the goal.”
“New Canaan has good players everywhere,” Della Vecchia added. “One thing’s for sure: We will have to cut down on mistakes. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”
NOTES: St. Joseph beat Wilton, 56-14, back on Sept. 27 at Wilton. . . . . The Cadets entered the game having outscored opponents 507-58, an average score of 51-6. Wilton had outscored its opponents 329-193 (33-19). . . . Besides the Class M championship they won last year and the Class S crown in 2017, the Cadets also won state titles in 2014, 2013, 2009 and 2008, along with being the M runner-up in 2016. . . . Wilton last won a state championship in 1985 (LII). . . . St. Joseph’s last undefeated season was in 1983, and the Cadets’ last loss was Sept. 22, 2018, to Darien.