The Cheshire High School football team was well aware of the stakes heading into last Friday’s game against Harding. With a win, CHS would clinch their first playoff berth in a decade and then carry a seven-game win streak into the regular-season finale against Southington.
Fueled by a fast start, the Rams qualified for the post-season in a big way. CHS (8-1) jumped ahead 27-0 in the first quarter and extended the lead to 48-6 on the way to earning a 48-28 victory over Harding.
“We were pumped up for this game,” said senior Jake McAlinden. “We knew that we could qualify for the playoffs and weren’t going to pass up on that opportunity.”
McAlinden and sophomore Christian Russo both ran for two touchdowns, while senior Colby Griffin caught a pair of touchdowns. The offensive line of seniors Will Bergin and Sean Cangiano and juniors Dan Bourdeau, Colin Crowe, and Chisom Okoro opened up the running and passing games for the Rams.
“Those guys up front have worked hard all year. I’m proud of them,” said Head Coach Drust.
Cheshire wasted no time putting up four touchdowns in the opening quarter. After forcing Harding to punt, CHS needed just two plays to take a 7-0 lead. Junior Ryan Mancl took a 21-yard reception to the Rams 48-yard line and then McAlinden maneuvered through the defense for a 52-yard touchdown run just 3:12 into the game.
“That was an amazing start,” said McAlinden, who ran for 109 yards to put him just 20 shy of 1,000 for the season. “The guys up front set that up and I got great blocking down the field.”
Cheshire took the ball right back, as sophomore Ben Wable made an interception and ran to the Harding 20-yard line. Following an 8-yard run by McAlinden, senior quarterback Jason Shumilla threw a 12-yard touchdown to Griffin with 6:40 left in the first. CHS didn’t convert on the extra-point attempt, so they led 13-0.
“The O-line (offensive line) gave me time to throw the ball and Colby broke open, so I hit him for the touchdown,” said Shumilla, a co-captain with Bergin.
In being pushed into fourth down on the next possession, Harding tried to fake a punt, but the Rams tackled junior Bibby Heron for a loss to take over at the 35-yard line.
“We were all ready to play tonight,” said Okoro. “It felt great to shut them (Harding) down from the start of the game.”
Cheshire used a gadget play to set up their next touchdown. Griffin made a catch and then lateraled the ball to Bergin, who rumbled down to the Harding 1-yard line. McAlinden found the end zone on the next run play with four minutes left in the opening quarter.
“That was awesome,” said Bergin, of helping to set up the touchdown. “Colby gave me a good ball and I came up a yard short of getting in the end zone. I wanted to score, but it was still great to see Jake punch the ball in there.”
The Rams defense made another stand on the next drive. The Presidents tried to convert on a fourth and 14, however, Cheshire stopped them again on a run play at the Harding 36-yard line.
CHS stayed aggressive, as Shumilla threw a 35-yard pass to junior Nick DiDomizio. After an offsides penalty, Russo scored on a 1-yard touchdown run with four seconds left in the first quarter.
Down 27-0, the Presidents battled to find the end zone with 7:17 remaining in the second. Senior quarterback Najzar Curry threw a pass to junior Marcell Robinson, who deflected the ball up in the air and senior Xavier Reid caught it for a 20-yard touchdown. Since Harding didn’t convert on the two-point conversion, the Rams held a 27-6 lead.
While losing the shutout, CHS responded with two touchdowns to end the first half. Senior Jacob Dubois recovered a fumble with 2:29 remaining in the second quarter. McAlinden broke free on a 19-yard run and Shumilla found Griffin on an 11-yard touchdown with 1:30 left in the half.
After missing the majority of last season due to injury, Drust has been pleased with how Shumilla has led the offense.
“He is as good of a person as you will ever meet,” stated Drust. “Jay is a great representative of our program in the school and community. He has earned all of his success.”
The Cheshire defense extended the lead with 1:11 left in the half against Harding. When Curry threw a pass behind the line of scrimmage, the ball landed in front of senior Alec Frione, who scooped it up and ran 35 yards to the end zone.
“I saw that it was a screen pass and since it was a live ball, Jacob Dubois told me to pick up. We are taught to play to the whistle,” explained Frione. “It felt great to score there for the team.”
CHS opened the second half with their final touchdown. Shumilla passed to Frione for a 51-yard gain to the 5-yard line. Two plays later, Russo ran for a 4-yard touchdown (48-6) with 8:01 left in the third quarter.
Junior Cole Feinauer recovered a fumble on the ensuing drive, but Harding forced an incompletion on fourth down to take back possession.
The Rams went to their bench from there and Harding rallied to score three times in the fourth quarter. First with 11:12 left, Curry threw a 41-yard touchdown to Robinson and then kept the ball himself on a two-point conversion run.
Curry followed up with touchdown runs of 21 (5:33) and 41 (1:58) yards. He found the end zone on another two-point conversion keeper, but CHS stopped him on the final two-point play to wrap up the scoring.
Defensively for CHS, Okoro had nine tackles (four for a loss), while Bergin tallied five tackles and two sacks. Both players forced fumbles.
Griffin and Russo had seven tackles each. With the home win, Drust earned his first playoff berth as head coach.
“I’m a firm believer that when you work really hard and do all the right things, good things happen,” stated Drust. “I’m really happy for the kids.”
Before the game, Cheshire held a ceremony to honor active military personnel and veterans for their service. Drust feels that it is really important to keep life in perspective.
“We have a great platform because a lot of people come to our games, so we want to take advantage of that,” said Drust. “The work of those (service) people allows us to play football on Friday nights, go to practice, and have kids attend school in a town like Cheshire.”
After ending their playoff drought, the Rams carried momentum into their Thanksgiving game against Southington. The 24th Apple Valley Classic was played past press time, but you can find a story at www.cheshireherald.com.