Connecticut high school football teams have been battling for playoff championships for 36 years but never before have three schools from one town made the grade.
That hard-earned honor goes to West Hartford with , and defending the town’s honor in the first round of the playoffs Tuesday night.
In the Class LL tournament, Hall (9-1, 3rd seed) hosts No. 6 Newtown (8-2) while Conard (9-1, fourth seed) is home to No. 5 Norwalk (8-1).
Northwest Catholic came within a point of presenting West Hartford a third home game but a Thanksgiving Day loss to Rocky Hill scuttled those dreams. The Indians (8-2) dropped to the fifth slot, forcing them to travel to No. 4 North Branford (9-1) in Class S.
Kickoffs for all three games are slated for 6:30 p.m.
“It’s really different. The buzz is there. It’s great for the town,” Hall coach Frank Robinson III said. “There are obviously a lot of good football players in this town.”
Said Conard coach Rob Cersosimo: “I think it’s absolutely awesome. Both Hall and Northwest continue to do a great job and I’m very proud of them. Everybody’s very excited about West Hartford football and it’s great to see. I know that our fans are very excited.”
Hall has been idle since ending Conard’s bid for an undefeated season at McKee Stadium Nov. 20. Newtown is coming off a 46-7 loss to Masuk in the Southwest Conference championship game on Thanksgiving Eve. The Nighthawks’ only other setback came in Week 4 against Pomperaug, 16-9.
The only game separating the Warriors from an unbeaten season came in Week 4 against New Britain, 19-0.
“They’re very physical and have some very dynamic players,” Robinson said. “They have a great running back (Lou Fenaroli) who consistently gets 200 yards per game so he’s definitely a force we have to slow down.
“Part of the reason is that their offensive line is so good. [Quarterback Drew Tarantino] has a 70 percent completion ratio and their receivers do a great job catching the ball and running routes. Our defense is going to have to play great again for us.”
The Warriors, considerably healthier than they were in last year’s quarterfinal game at Norwich Free Academy, got an exceptional game in the trenches against Conard.
“Whether we tackle well is going to be a big key,” Robinson said. “Once [the 5-foot-10, 225-pound Fenaroli] gets moving, he’s tough to take down so we have to do a great on the defensive line and the linebackers need to fill the holes hard. His strength is that he’s gonna run you over. He’s a pretty special kid.”
Fenaroli has carried 225 times for nearly 1,600 yards. He has scored 24 touchdowns on the ground and three on pass receptions. Through nine games, Tarantino threw for 10 touchdowns with just one interception.
Hall’s linebackers are Chris Bonilla, Jesse Maltz, Christian Bohn and Ian Dugger.
Hall is piloted by senior quarterback George Lund, who is credited with 16 touchdown passes and 1,332 yards through the air (105-for-207). Dugger (53 receptions, 829 yards, 12 TDs) is his favorite target followed by Devin Ortiz (32-411-3) and L.T. Nembhard (16-175-1).
Newtown last qualified for the postseason in 2008, suffering a 42-28 loss to eventual champion Glastonbury. Hall qualified last year but down three starters, dropped a 30-14 decision to NFA. Hall’s previous appearance came in 1986, a 35-18 loss to West Haven.
Conard seeks to bounce back from the Hall loss with its power running game led by Ricky Cotton (168 carries, 1,238 yards, 17 TDs), Dominic Spaulding (39-298) and Anthony Lugo (33-271). Quarterback Owen Snyder has thrown just 57 passes all season (25 completions, 517 yards, 9 TDs).
Lugo, with 10 receptions, and Luis Colon are the primary breakaway threats.
Norwalk features a multifaceted ground game with quarterback Delshaun Wilson (98-499-5), Johnny Anzalone (65-469-5) and Tomar Joseph (62-409-7). Wilson has competed 67.5 percent of his passes (81-for-120), 12 for touchdowns. Derek Edwards has been on the receiving end of 36 aerials for 504 yards and seven scores.
“Norwalk is a very, big physical team,” Cersosimo said. “We’re excited for the opportunity we have to play them. We have to play tough Conard football if we are to be successful. We have to play great defense and move the ball on the ground. We need to play with a vengeance.”
The Bears’ lone defeat was against New Canaan, 28-14, in Week 5. Their most significant wins came against Stamford in Week 2 and playoff-bound Ridgefield on the road in Week 6.
Conard lost to Trumbull, 27-9, in a quarterfinal road game last year. The Chieftains last played a postseason home game in 2009, losing to Notre Dame-West Haven in Class L.
Norwalk, usually an FCIAC also-ran behind the likes of Greenwich, New Canaan and Staples, hasn’t reached postseason play since 1998. The Bears were beaten by Southington in the semifinals when the playoffs were two-tiered. They were expanded to eight teams per class and three tiers last year.
Northwest Catholic is guided by senior quarterback Tyler Calitri. Anthony Carter is the leading rusher and Nick Gaynor is a multiple threat. Gaynor, however, has been slowed by a high ankle sprain. The Indians’ other loss this season was also by a point to Bloomfield in overtime.
North Branford shared the Pequot League Sassacus Division championship with Valley Regional/Old Lyme. The Thunderbirds, who won nine straight after an opening-day, one-point loss to Valley, average nearly 400 yards and 40 points per game.
The Indians went to the Class S final in 2009 but lost to Hyde.