EAST HARTFORD — They are the first team in Connecticut history to win the state title twice in one season. And if they aren't, man, nobody has ever proved their worth more definitively, more vividly, over the course of a season than the Hand-Madison Tigers.
They won it all at Palmer Field in Middletown on Oct. 12 with the entire state watching when they ended the 30-game winning streak of Xavier-Middletown, 40-20. They won it again Saturday night at Rentschler Field when they squashed Windsor 23-6 in the Class L title game.
"Their body of work is unquestioned," Hand coach Steve Filippone said of his team. "They beat two other state champions. How can you argue with it? We beat the LL state champion [Xavier]. We beat the M state champion [Hillhouse-New Haven]. We won every game we played. If anybody has ever deserved to be No.1, this team deserves to be No. 1."
No argument from Windsor coach Rob Fleeting.
"I know I'm voting them No. 1[in the Day of New London coaches poll]," Fleeting said. "No reason anybody else should be."
No argument here.
Hand-Madison took it. Hand-Madison kept it.
"We played a state championship game Week 5," Filippone said. "This is our second state championship game. The atmosphere around our town, our high school, the media, we had TV crews at our school every day. I mean, 6,000 people crowded into Palmer Field."
The Tigers were at the top of the mountain. And from there, everybody wanted to knock them off. West Haven came close, losing by one point the week after Xavier, but nobody did. And now this terrific senior class at Hand walked off the field for a final time, wearing the bumps and bruises of a most physical game, wearing the title of back-to-back Class L champions and passing on the torch of a 26-game winning streak.
"Our team went through a tremendous amount this year, with one our coaches this year being ill [defensive coordinator Dave Mastroianni has battled cancer] and the ups and downs of a very long season," Filippone said. "When the target is on your back as it has been on our back since Week 5, you've got to battle, especially when you're in the SCC and you're up against a good football team every week."
"And what a lot of people don't realize is [the seniors] won 11 games their sophomore year and came within one game, losing in the semifinals to New Canaan. They've had an incredible work ethic."
This one was not easy. Keith Benjamin (who had 2.5 tackles for losses), the Ormsby boys, Cole and Lance, kept the pressure on quarterback Brendan Bilcheck. Christopher Traore, Brendan Gale, Evan King — Windsor was extremely physical on defense. Jaylen Berry and Devante Dillion had interceptions. The Warriors had a 6-3 halftime lead.
"We challenged our kids at halftime," Filippone said. "We said you haven't been pushed around in the entire season and you've played against some very physical guys. We were getting manhandled. Our offensive line especially rose to the occasion. That first drive of the second half really showed they had made their mind up they were going to take the game over."
The Tigers ran the ball better in the second half. There were holes to be found.
"We did the same things," Filippone said. "We just did it better."
"No X's or O's," said UConn-bound Matt Walsh, who had a whopping 15 tackles, including 10 solo. "It was all from the heart."
Windsor couldn't move the ball. The defense had to tire as the game wore on. One play broke Windsor's heart. With the score 10-6, quarterback Quinn Fleeting had his helmet knocked off. By rule starting this year, a player must leave the field for one play. Sophomore John Nolan — bless him — came in, fumbled the snap and … disaster. Dan Rogers scooped up the fumble and ran 42 yards for a touchdown. With the way the Hand defense was playing, the game was essentially over with 5:43 left in the third quarter.
"I was pretty surprised," Rogers said. "He just dropped the snap. The ball was at my feet. I hate falling on it. I always try to pick it up."
"The young kid was a little nervous," coach Fleeting said. "That happens. It's unfortunate for us. All these years of coaching, I've seen it all. It was, 'Oh, boy.' When he came to the sideline, I said, 'Did you mean to lose it?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'OK, keep your head up. Don't worry about it. We'll be all right."
The Tigers, who finished first in the New Haven Register media poll in 1997 and 2004, were better than all right in the second half. They were terrific. They'll not only get a third No. 1 ranking, they'll also get the last word against some opponents.
"They made a personal insult on us, saying they were going to run the ball on us," said defensive lineman Peter Gerson, headed to Yale. "They were going to get yards. You insult this team, we're going to punch you straight in the mouth. You're going to figure it out fast."
Windsor finished with only 52 yards on 31 carries.
"We three-man rushed them all night," Filippone said. "That's kind of become our style against spread teams. We had three guys who played relentlessly up front. We were able to drop eight. It's hard to throw the ball when you've got eight guys standing out there."
Rogers even reached back to semifinal opponent Masuk-Monroe, which Hand beat 42-23 for a love tap.
"We hit a plateau for a while after Xavier," Rogers said. "When we played Masuk it really went back up. Coming from Weston [as a transfer], Masuk used to beat us pretty bad. I hated those guys. Hand doesn't just like Masuk very much."
So the Tigers beat Xavier. They beat Masuk. They beat Hillhouse. They beat Windsor. The glory is theirs.
"We went through the gantlet of a season," Gerson said.
"We talked to each other at halftime and we weren't going to let this slip away," Walsh said. "We knew we weren't playing our football. We came out and exploded in the second half. We played our best against Xavier. We played our best in the second half tonight. This was our last opportunity to play together. We deserve to be No. 1 the most of anybody."
That they do.