Heading into Friday’s opener at Ridgefield, Cheshire High School Head Coach Don Drust wasn’t expecting perfection from his football team.
“It is week one. You know that it is going to be a little crazy,” explained Drust. “Going in, we weren’t going to be perfect and we talked about that. There are going to be bumps in the game, but it is about adjusting to that and sticking to the game plan.”
Clinging to a 12-10 lead at the end of the first quarter, the Rams put the hammer down on opening night. CHS shut out the Tigers, 27-0, in the last three quarters of a 39-10 victory on the road.
“It was a huge game for us. This was a statement game for everyone around the state to take notice of us,” said senior Jeffery Gonzalez. “We had a long bus ride to get here, but we balled out tonight.”
In a versatile performance, senior Matt Jeffery scored touchdowns through the air and on the ground. He also handled kick-offs and punts.
“Matt is special. I don’t think anyone is surprised by the things he can do,” stated Drust. “I’m fortunate to see his preparation in practice every day. A lot of people see what he does on Friday nights, but they don’t get to see the work he puts into it.”
Momentum seesawed at the outset of Friday’s game. On the opening drive, Ridgefield drove down and took a 3-0 lead on a 37-yard field goal by senior Cole Montanaro with 7:32 remaining in the first quarter, but it took the Rams just 16 seconds to respond and take a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish.
On the following play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Aniston Marsh rolled out and threw the ball down the middle to Jeffery, who shrugged off Ridgefield senior Aidan Candullo and then sprinted for a 73-yard touchdown. The point after touchdown was not successful, so the Rams led 6-3.
“I thought that was the turning point of the game. They had just gone down and scored, but then we took the lead right back,” explained Jeffery, a co-captain with senior lineman Evan Russo. “I didn’t know he (Candullo) was there until he jumped on my back. I kept my feet moving to get away from him and ran to the end zone.”
The Rams defense wasted no time giving the ball back to their offense. In pressuring Ridgefield junior quarterback Max Keppler, the defensive line tipped a pass and senior linebacker Jack Brewster made an interception at the Tigers 23-yard line.
“It was huge for momentum,” recalled Brewster. “The D-Line collapsed the pocket and I just had to catch the ball. Those guys up front deserve the credit.”
On the ensuing possession, Gonzalez had an 8-yard run and then he carried defenders into the end zone on a 15-yard touchdown scamper with 6:18 remaining in the opening quarter.
CHS attempted a two-point conversion, but the Tigers kept them out of the end zone on a run play.
“We knew that this was going to be a big run game,” reflected Gonzalez. “The O-Line (offensive line) played their (butts) off.”
Ridgefield responded on their next drive. Sparked by a 36-yard reception by Montanaro, the Tigers cut the deficit to 12-10 on a 3-yard touchdown blast by junior Jay Shim with 2:40 left in the first.
Cheshire threatened on the ensuing drive, as Gonzalez exploded for a 39-yard run. The Rams looked on the verge of scoring again, but Ridgefield senior lineman Declan Weir stripped the ball on a run play and then made the fumble recovery at the 21-yard line.
Despite the turnover, CHS forced a punt on defense and then they used their ground game to extend the lead to 19-10. With 8:38 remaining in the second quarter, Jeffery scored his second touchdown on a 2-yard run.
“It is great to get into (our) hammer (formation) and find the end zone,” said Jeffery. “With Jeff (Gonzalez) and me back there, we are going to be tough to stop.”
Ridgefield senior Kyle Colsey made an interception at the end of the second, but the Tigers still found themselves down by nine points at halftime.
To start the second half, Ridgefield forced the Rams into a punt. The Tigers used their passing game to drive into Cheshire territory, but on a 4th and 2 at their 42-yard line, Russo knocked down a pass to force a turnover on downs with 5:29 left in the third quarter.
The play proved key, as Gonzalez broke free for a 37-yard gain to the Tigers 21-yard line. Soon after, junior Nick Miller earned his first touchdown on a 1-yard blast with 1:52 remaining in the third.
“The O-Line played hard all night for us,” said Miller.
The Rams gained separation during the final quarter. First, Marsh found senior Lucas Chymbor, for a 35-yard touchdown with 10:03 left.
On the next possession, the Tigers had a 2nd and 1 at the Rams 15-yard line, however, Cheshire recorded a sack for a loss of 12 yards. Ridgefield ended up turning the ball over on downs.
“Coach Drust is great at making adjustments during the game. We communicate to him what we are seeing on the field,” stated Brewster. “We shut them down after the first quarter.”
For the final touchdown with 3:06 remaining, Miller found the end zone on a 6-yard run up the middle.
Through graduation and school transfer, Cheshire lost their entire starting offensive line from last season, but in the opener, seniors Isaiah Fuentes and Alex Kailan and juniors Daniel Hayden, Dan Mascolo, and Jerry Piscitelli combined to pave the way for six touchdowns.
“They worked hard all summer,” reflected Drust. “Coach (Mike) Ciotti does a great job getting those guys ready to play.”
Cheshire also had a new look in special teams. In his first start, sophomore AJ Lauria made an extra point.
Jeffery enjoyed having the opportunity to kick off and punt, along with making two extra points.
“When I was kid, I used to do that all the time. It is good to get back into it this year,” stated Jeffery. “With me being back there, it is something else that teams have to prepare for.”
During the off-season, Jeffery was looking forward to the opening game. As a member of the Eclipse Lacrosse Club, he is close friends with Ridgefield players like Colsey.
“Being on Eclipse, I like playing with and against those guys,” said Jeffery. “We are friends, but I wanted to win tonight. We got it done.”
After starting the year on the road, the Rams come home next Thursday to face Shelton (1-0) at 6 p.m.
“We are pumped up,” stated Gonzalez. “The home opener is always a big game in Ram Land.”