CT Class L State Championship: St. Joseph Cadets Win a Thriller


Today, the Connecticut high school football title game we have all been waiting for took place. Unfortunately, Xavier football did not participate in this game, but this was such a spectacle, it needs to be written about. All coaches and fans around the state have been dreaming of a St. Joseph Cadets (Trumbull) vs. Daniel Hand Tigers (Madison) matchup all season. These two juggernauts squared off for the CIAC Class L Championship at Veterans Stadium in New Britain. Both squads completed perfect regular seasons (both at 12-0) and stormed through the playoffs. Hand crushed Newington and Maloney (Meriden)  on the way to this game and the Cadets cruised through their matchups with Wilton and New Canaan. Before today, neither team faced competition of their level, aside from Hand’s scare against Shelton. This title game was also the first time since 2005 (when Xavier beat Southington) that the top two teams in the state faced off for a title. In the end, it was a 17-13 St. Joseph victory, but Hand fought hard until the very end. 

This game featured top talents on both sides. The quarterback battle between UConn baseball commit Phoenix Billings and the CT Gatorade Football Player of the Year Jack Wallace was highly anticipated. Each team also featured a stud running back in Hand’s Colin McCabe and St. Joseph’s Jaden Shirden. Not to mention both squads have incredible defenses, both of which dominated in this game. 

I arrived with around 5 minutes left in the first quarter. From the moment I entered the stadium, I could tell this would be a defensive showdown. St. Joe’s had just held the Tigers on fourth down, but the Tigers quickly forced a fumble on their side of the field to take back possession. Then, in the second quarter, Phoenix Billings scrambled out to the right on 3rd & 16. He forced a ball down the sideline that was intercepted by junior Preston Kral, who weaved his way to the end zone for a Cadets score. 

It took until late in the second quarter, but Hand responded. A huge sack by Columbia commit Ben Corniello gave the Tigers good field position. Then, Billings threw a 28-yard dot to his senior tight end, Ethan Haberman. On 2nd & Goal, Billings found wide receiver Isaiah McNeilly for the 8-yard touchdown pass on a screen. With only about 30 seconds left in the half, Wallace and his guys were able to move the ball up to the Hand 28 yard line, but Austin Jose missed the 45-yard field goal as time expired. So, the game was tied 7-7 after the first half. 

Hand received the ball to start the third, but it only took the Cadet’s defense three plays to force a punt. On the first play of St. Joe’s first drive of the second half, Jaden Shirden ripped off a 39-yard run to the Hand 22 yard line. Their drive stalled there, but Jose nailed the kick to put the Cadets up 10-7. The Tigers had a “3 & out” again, giving St. Joseph the ball at the Hand 44. A 21-yard pass from Wallace to receiver Brady Hutchinson set the Cadets up at the Tiger’s 8 yard line. Then, magic happened for the Tigers. Ethan Haberman, who contributed on offense earlier, picked off Wallace from his linebacker spot and returned the interception to the Hand 30. 

After that swing in momentum, both teams settled down and played great defense. Then, with the help of a good punt return and holding call on the Tigers, St. Joe’s got the ball all the way up at the Hand 18. An explosive, 15-yard touchdown run by Shirden on the second play of the drive put the Cadets firmly in the driver’s seat with 4:47 to go and a 17-7 lead. Hand would not go away, though. They turned the ball over on downs the following drive, but got the ball back with 2:23 to go on the Hand 36. Billings delivered to Haberman on the first play of the drive, reaching the Cadet side of the field. However, because of a tackle for loss and then a penalty, Hand found themselves in a 4th & 22 situation with 1:15 to play. Then, magic struck for the Tigers once again. Billings chucked up a prayer into a sea of receivers and defenders. Hand receiver Seth Sweitzer came out with possession and ran the ball all the way to the Cadet 2 yard line. From there, Billings took a QB sneak into the end zone, and a missed extra point made it 17-13 St. Joseph. However, that was the end of the magic for Hand, as they failed the onside kick attempt and the Cadets ran the clock out. It was a tough game of defensive excellence that makes for an instant classic. 

So, St. Joe’s completed their three-peat while ending Hand’s 36 (!!) game win streak. Hand forced four turnovers in the game, but the offense could not get anything going against the staunch Cadet defense. McCabe was essentially shut out of the game, and Billings could not get much going in the air either. The Tiger defense was also superb, but Jaden Shirden was able to rip them open on a few key runs. It was an amazing game that should go down as one of the best high school championship games in CT. As this football season comes to a close, we look forward to next season for Xavier and the whole state. For now, we turn our attention to the winter sports season, which is bound to be fun at X.