ANSONIA – For 45 minutes, the Ansonia Tigers did everything they could to win their home playoff game on Saturday night.
Ansonia’s grind-it-out, ball-controlled offense was efficient and effective against Sidney Lehman Catholic in maintaining its lead throughout the game until the Cavaliers final possession.
In the lead by two points, Ansonia just needed to have one more defensive stand when the Cavaliers put their offense back on the field with 3:35 to play and starting on their own 22-yard line. Instead, Lehman – led by senior quarterback Elliott Gilardi – marched down field on 10 plays to the Ansonia 7-yard line where with 27.4 seconds left Michael Denning kicked the 24-yard, game-winning field goal as the Cavaliers pulled the rug out from under the Tigers with a 29-28 victory.
“They made one more play than we did,” Ansonia coach Eugene Hoening said.
Indeed they did.
“This is a big win for us,” Lehman coach Richard Roll said. “We knew they could run the ball. They did the job on us up front. They did, so kudos to the Ansonia coaching staff. They ran their offense well, but I’m really happy for Michael (Denning) to kick that field goal after missing a few extra points in the game.”
The Tigers did get one final possession after the Cavaliers kicked the go-ahead field goal and got the ball in good field position at their own 46 to start, but the clock became their biggest enemy with only 21 seconds left to try and get into field goal range themselves. Ansonia ran three straight plays that were incomplete passes and then facing fourth and 10 yards Hunter Buckingham connected with Devyn Sink on a screen play that went for 12 yards and gave the Tigers one last chance at a score with 3.5 ticks remaining. Buckingham threw a short pass to Hunter Muir who flipped it quickly to Sink on a hook-and-ladder play, but Sink got shoved out of bounds as the clock hit zero.
“Our game plan worked,” Hoening said. “We possessed the ball, we made first downs and we kept it out of their hands, but they made some big plays and we needed to make just one more and didn’t.
When you invest this much time and effort of course it hurts,” he continued. “It ought to hurt, but I want to congratulate them and I hope they go far in the playoffs. That’s a heck of a team and they have some great skill people. When you get to playoffs everybody is good. There are no holes. There were plays in other games where we would have broke one off but they tackled us.”
The first quarter was scoreless, but Ansonia got the ball for the third time in the game with 1:09 left in the first quarter and drove 62 yards on seven plays that carried into the second quarter capped by a 1-yard run by Buckingham for the touchdown and 7-0 lead. Brock Shellhaas and Matthew Shook each had 9-yard runs that went for first downs to extend the drive.
On their next possession, Ansonia did it again. Starting at their own 15-yard line, the Tigers used nearly three minutes to drive the length of the field that ended in a 28-yard touchdown run by Shook and a 14-0 lead. On second and 7 from the Lehman 46 on that drive, Shellhaas broke open an 18-yard run down to the 28 and then Shook ran it in on the next play.
Lehman finally got on the scoreboard on their next possession. The Cavaliers started at their own 33 and took six plays to get to Ansonia’s 40-yard line where facing a fourth and 7 they decided to go for it and Gilardi connected with R.J, Bertini for a 40-yard touchdown. The extra-point kick failed however and the Tigers lead was 14-6 with 4:01 left in the first half.
Lehman got the ball one more time in the first half and moved the ball well on the first two plays, but Austin Helmke broke through the line for a 6-yard sack of Gilardi thwarting the Cavaliers drive.
But they had the ball first in the second half and took full advantage as Tyler Sollmann ran for 8 yards on the first play and then after an incomplete pass Sollmann burst open for a 57-yard touchdown run cutting the Ansonia lead to 14-12 as the Cavs missed another PAT.
Ansonia answered the score however when Reece Stammen capped a 74-yard drive with a 2-yard plunge into the end zone for a 21-12 Ansonia lead.
But again, the quick strike Lehman offense did it again when Sollmann raced 46 yards on the first play to the Ansonia 24-yard line. Gilardi then hit Bradly Haynes for a 21-yard pass down to the 3 and Sollmann finished the drive on the next play with a 3-yard touchdown run and the lead was again down to two for the Tigers, 21-19.
The Tigers upped their lead to 28-19 to start the fourth quarter when Shook scored his second touchdown of the game on a 25-yard run with 7:14 left in the game.
The Cavaliers marched down the field quickly again, however and scored when Gilardi ran it in from 15 yards out with 5:21 left on the clock. It was all Gilardi on that drive as he threw two passes for 31 yards and ran it twice for 26 yards including the touchdown run. Lehman also was the beneficiary of a pass interference call that set them up with a first down on the Ansonia 15-yard line. Gilardi ran it into the end zone on the next play.
Gilardi completed 14-of-20 passes for 186 yards and one touchdown. He also ran it 11 times for 56 yards and a touchdown. Sollmann was Lehman’s leading rusher with 17 carries for 166 yards and two scores. He had 125 of those yards and both touchdowns in the second half.
“Gilardi had a great game and so did Tyler,” Roll said. “They both rose to the occasion for us tonight.”
For Ansonia, the offense ran the ball 60 times for 370 yards and four touchdowns. Shook was the leafing rusher with 121 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns. Shellhaas also cracked the century mark with 108 yards on 13 touches. Stammen carried the ball 19 times for 72 yards and a score, while Sink added 52 yards on the ground and Buckingham had 28 yards rushing and a touchdown.
“The seniors really put it all their for us tonight,” Hoening said. “They went above and beyond and exceed my expectations. Just a great bunch of boys to work with and we’re going to miss every one of them, and that is the problem with seniors when you get them where you want them then they graduate.
“Now they will be the boys in 4-5 years when we talk about a position where a kid is not getting something done we’ll say, ‘Well so-and-so when he played he could do that.’ Now these boys will take that role. We’ll use them as examples. One of the neat about coaching is you’re taking the finest a community has and you get to rub shoulders with a lot of great people. I’ve coached teachers, other coaches, doctors, people in business, fathers, people who contribute to the community. I work with the best a community has to offer. What better job is there than that?”
Ansonia finishes the season with an 8-3 record. It was the Tigers second straight playoff appearance and seventh overall. They are 3-7 in the postseason.