Tough schedules produced worthy reward for a pair of playoff teams
Greenwich coach Anthony Morello found out immediately on the field after the 34-28 overtime Thanksgiving victory against Staples.
Daniel Hand coach Erik Becker and his team, which had beaten Guilford the previous night, already had a firm view of their possibilities. “So there was no official announcement party or anything like that,” he said.
Most involved had agreed it was a step forward. Yet when the CIAC instituted its bonus-point addition to its football playoff system for 2021, the big question was, “How much of a difference will it really make?”
Turns out, a major difference.
If this was 2019, West Haven, 8-2, would have been the final qualifier in Class LL and Fitch, 8-2, would have been the final qualifier in Class L. Instead, it will be No. 8 Greenwich, 7-3, at No. 1 seed Fairfield Prep in the Class LL quarterfinals Tuesday night, while No. 8 Hand, 7-3, will play at No. 1 St. Joseph in a rematch of the 2019 Class L championship.
While the playoff formula is still far from perfect and the new one made it nearly impossible to predict matters, let it be shouted from Groton to Greenwich that, in these two cases, the change in the point system got the de
serving teams into the playoffs.
Both were rewarded for challenging schedules.
“When I spoke with the other FCIAC coaches at our meeting early in the season,” Morello said, “there was a lot of skepticism about it because we’re all playing each other and it’s all going to cancel each other out.
“But it was new and there was no real data to go off for previous years. That was the craziest thing as the season was going along. It was hard to predict where anybody was going to finish with the new system. But we needed it 100 percent.”
The established system gives a team 10 additional points for every win by an opponent it beat. West Haven would have been eighth in Class LL with 1,060 points. Greenwich would have had 1,020. Fitch would have been eighth in Class L with 1,140 points. Hand would have had been 10th at 1,100. Quinebaug Valley would have had 1,110.
The new system gives a team five additional points for every victory earned by its opponents regardless of the outcome of the game played against each opponent. So Greenwich finished with 1,310 and West Haven with 1,275, while Hand had 1,430, Fitch 1,385 and Quinebaug 1,345.
Look, the system is not perfect. Tech schools playing in Class L … Because of COVID, four teams got into the playoffs with fewer than 10 games. Gilbert/Northwestern/Housy played seven on the field and won a sixth game by forfeit against Derby … The SCC tier system allowed Class LL Hamden and West Haven to play markedly easier schedules … With three conferences not in the scheduling alliance, the NVL and Pequot filled Class M and S with playoff qualifiers without any data regarding how they stack up with outside opponents. And I will continue to argue that until the 10 and 5 bonus points are further weighted by the opponents your opponents beat, it isn’t an accurate reflection of the quality of a victory.
Windsor (five seed) at Cheney Tech (four seed) in Class L on Tuesday doesn’t figure on being pretty. One can look at Class LL standings and argue Hand is the 11th- or 12th-best team — not sixth. One the other hand, the SCC tier system pushed up Sheehan and one could argue Sheehan is the fifth best team and not ninth, where it finished in Class S.
All that aside, the new fivepoint rule did pay off.
Hand’s losses were to Fairfield Prep, New Canaan (which beat No. 1 Darien on Thursday) and Shelton. All three are LL playoff teams in the GameTimeCT Top 10 poll.
“I think (the new system) makes sense,” Becker said. “It’s nice to be rewarded for the level of competition we played. Except for Seth Sweitzer, we were all first-time varsity players Week 1 against Prep. The only thing that had been on the field were our jerseys. We’ve come so far since then.”
The NFA-Shelton controversy of 2019, when Shelton beat NFA by three touchdowns, both had 7-3 records and NFA made the playoffs, helped spur the change. Ned Griffen of the New London Day did find four instances over the past decade when the new bonus would have changed the final qualifier. With all the variables, however, it was impossible to know exactly who it would affect and how. Now we do.
“We were definitely tracking it,” Morello said. “It added a little extra element of excitement to this weekend. You’re rooting for teams you didn’t necessarily need to in the past. It was pretty wild.”
Greenwich played Ridgefield, Trumbull, Fairfield Prep, Shelton, St. Joe’s, New Canaan and Shelton.
“Our season has been filled with highs and lows,” Morello said. “We had a great win against Ridgefield and then we lost to Shelton. How we were going to come out the following week against Prep was a big moment for this team. To win was huge in bringing back confidence.
“We had a really tough loss in a great battle against St. Joe’s. Against New Canaan, a third loss, which we’re not accustomed to, was really tough for the players.”
Morello addressed them at 4-3. “You are at a crossroads,” he said. “You can fold up and just have fun on the field the next three weeks and call it a season. Or you can keep grinding.”
Greenwich blew out Danbury and Stamford.
After Fairfield Prep beat West Haven and Masuk beat Newtown, Morello laid down a rule to his staff Wednesday night.
“I told them the minute you walk into the office on Thanksgiving morning, there is zero talk about anything other than Staples,” Morello said. “I’m sure there were fans and people watching on their phones, but I wanted no details, no nothing, until the game was over.”
Virtually all the Class L craziness was solved Wednesday night. Hand, which beat Guilford, 43-18, only needed a Thanksgiving win from Sheehan, North Haven, Notre Dame-West Haven or New Canaan, or a loss by East Lyme or Stonington, to clinch.
“We had pretty good intel at halftime (with a 36-0 lead) and it kind of affected what we did in the second half,” Becker said. “We never, ever look to show up an opponent, but we needed to start thinking like a team that was going to play within a week.”
With the Newtown miracle, folks tend to forget all the hype heading into 2019 championship weekend was No. 1 Hand vs. No. 2 St. Joe’s. Becker wasn’t Hand’s coach for the 17-13 loss, but he knows what is ahead.
“After the game, we shared with our players our likely next opponent,” Becker said. “It is what we expect and certainly what we want, the matchup we love to have.
“I think we’re playing our best football right now. Obviously, it’s going to take a great game to beat an excellent St. Joseph team. We’re capable of a great game. We’re psyched. The DNA of our program is built on winning games like this.”
What would Trumbull do against St. Joe’s? If Fairfield Warde and Foran won, that would have been another 30 bonus points for West Haven. There were lots of LL possibilities going into Thanksgiving. Greenwich’s game ran into overtime. So when Thomas Foster scored the winning touchdown, there were no shortage of happy messengers.
“People were immediately coming over to tell me we’re in,” Morello said. “Originally, I heard we were playing New Canaan. I said, ‘There’s a good rematch.’ Then another game or two was updated and I found out we’re playing Prep. I said, ‘OK, another good rematch.’
“There was so much alumni there, so many former players, that it was like a full community celebration on the field. That was so awesome for the kids, especially the seniors.”
Quarterback Jack Wilson broke a 66-yard touchdown run and off a scramble found Charlie Dixon for a 68-yard TD pass in that 14-7 victory over Prep on Oct. 2.
“Our defense had one of its best games of the season by far,” Morello said. “We’ll take that again. We had a lot of trouble on offense against Prep. We scored on two big broken plays. We were installing new wrist bands at that point, because our signals had leaked out to some teams up north. So we were undergoing some changes for that game. We’ve played six games since and we’re moving a lot better, with a good rhythm, established our running game.
“Prep has improved in all areas. But I think we have, too.”