Jack Kircher (#4) and Andrew Bauersfeld (#25) pressure Notre Dame's Chris Elias (#15) during New Canaan's 20-17 win over Notre Dame-West Haven in the Class L semifinal, Dec. 5, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
Drew Pyne (#10) awaits the snap from New Canaan center Will Ahrens (#55) with left guard Tiernan Brady (#64) providing blind-side protection in New Canaan's 20-17 win over Notre Dame-West Haven in the Class L semifinal, Dec. 5, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
Lou Marinelli addresses the team following New Canaan's 20-17 win over Notre Dame-West Haven in the Class L semifinal, Dec. 5, 2016. Credit: Terry Dinan
In a season filled with ups and a few downs, praise and scrutiny, hype and over-analysis, it seems only fitting that Drew Pyne’s finest moment in his young New Canaan career came on the heels of what could have been his lowest.
New Canaan’s poised freshman quarterback rebounded from an interception deep in Rams territory and—buoyed by a dramatic defensive goal line stand—engineered a 95-yard second half touchdown drive for a lead the No. 2 Rams (11-1) would not relinquish in a 20-17 Class L semifinal win over No. 6 Notre Dame-West Haven (8-4) Monday night at Dunning Field.
“That was incredible,” New Canaan senior co-captain Ryan O’Connell said of Pyne’s performance. “Drew has been phenomenal for us this year. I’m very proud of him, as is the town of New Canaan. He’s been everything we expected and more.”
Pyne finished the game completing 22 of 30 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns while picking up 39 yards rushing. O’Connell—seeing his first significant time on offense since injuring his ankle last month against Trumbull—also had a great overall game, scoring a rushing and receiving touchdown along with an interception on defense. All of this came against a tough Green Knights defense that held New Canaan to its lowest scoring output of the season.
“That’s a hell of a football team,” New Canaan head coach Lou Marinelli told NewCanaanite.com. “They gave us all we could handle and more. That kid Nico Ragaini—if he’s not the best player in the state, he’s in the top two.”
Ragaini—Notre Dame’s star running and defensive back—almost single-handedly took down the Rams, scoring on a punt return and nearly taking his interception of Pyne into the end zone on New Canaan’s first possession of the second half. New Canaan’s defense, however, was able to contain Ragaini and the Green Knight’s offensive output, allowing just 49 yards rushing and 250 total yards on the night.
“Our defense is unbelievable,” Pyne said. “They just don’t give up anything. I go up against them every day in practice and they just make me ten times better. Our offense feeds off them and they feed off us so we’re just a good team together.”
The Green Knights took an early 3-0 lead in the game, as Jared Gallbronner connected on a 22-yard field goal to cap off Notre Dame’s first offensive drive of the game with 6:29 to play in the opening quarter.
New Canaan looked poised to take the lead on its ensuing possession, as the Rams drove down to the Green Knights’ 2-yard line. That was as far as they got, however, as Notre Dame’s goal line stand forced a turnover on downs.
The Rams finally broke through in the second quarter as Pyne—taking advantage of a short field thanks to a 14-yard punt return by junior Sean Knight—found O’Connell over the middle for a 14-yard touchdown and a 7-3 lead with 9:03 to play in the half.
Notre Dame took a 9-7 lead on Ragaini’s electrifying 60-yard punt return with 2:48 to go in the second quarter. The Knights looked as though they were going to add to that lead early in the third, when Ragaini’s pick set Notre Dame up with a first-and-10 on New Canaan’s 7-yard line.
Notre Dame got as close as the one-yard line, when on fourth down New Canaan dropped running back Josh Witkowski for a four-yard loss, giving the Rams the ball back on their own five-yard line. It was one of five times the New Canaan defense held Notre Dame without a touchdown inside the red zone.
“They’ve been doing it all year for us,” Marinelli said. “They’ve been able to come up with big plays. I haven’t seen as many goal-line stands as I saw today, and to come up time and time again—I thought it was just tremendous.”
Mixing short passes from Pyne with solid gains from running back Garrett Braden the Rams quickly moved upfield, converting three third downs as they drove to the Notre Dame 6-yard line. From there Pyne found a wide-open Jack Hoelzer in the end zone for a touchdown, capping off the 14-play, 95-yard drive for a 13-9 lead with 3:44 to play in the third quarter.
A Ryan O’Connell interception ended the next Green Knight drive, and a turnover on downs negated the following Notre Dame series, giving the Rams possession on their own 10-yard line with 6:43 remaining in the game. After allowing one Ram first down, Notre Dame appeared to have stopped New Canaan at its own 28. But on fourth-and-2 junior punter Grant Morse took a fake punt seven yards for a Rams first down, keeping the drive alive.
“It wasn’t something that we called, it’s something he reads,” Marinelli said. “We were able to hook the contain guy, because he came inside so we ran outside. It was a huge play by Grant Morse. He saw it and took it.”
On the very next play, Braden—who led New Canaan with 165 yards rushing on 18 carries—raced 51 yards to the Notre Dame 12. Three plays later O’Connell scored on a six-yard run, giving New Canaan a 20-9 lead with 1:22 left to play.
Notre Dame made things interesting in the final moments of the game, driving 62 yards in seven plays as Christopher Elias scored on a 9-yard touchdown run. With the two-point conversion, the Green Knights were suddenly within a field goal, trailing 20-17 with 22 seconds left. When Rams junior Patrick Metzger recovered the ensuing onside kick, New Canaan had secured the victory.
With the win, New Canaan advanced to its fourth consecutive Class L final to be played Saturday at 2:30 P.M. against top-seed Windsor High School in New Britain. The Warriors (12-0) defeated No. 4 Middletown 40-14 in the other Class L semifinal and are the last team to have beaten New Canaan in the postseason—a 10-game streak that goes back to December 2, 2012 when Windsor beat the Rams 27-21 in the Class L semi.
Meanwhile the Rams will be seeking their fourth straight CIAC title in what will be New Canaan’s tenth appearance in the state championship game in the last 11 years.
“This is what you work all year for,” Marinelli said. “For our kids to come out and keep hanging in there, hanging in there—it was a great high school football game.”
Class L State Semifinals: #6 Notre Dame-West Haven @ #2 New Canaan - Dec. 5, 2016
*ND - Jared Gallbronner 22-yd. FG
*NC - Ryan O'Connell 14-yd. pass from Drew Pyne (Grant Morse kick)
*ND - Nico Ragaini 60-yd. punt return (PAT no good)
*NC - Jack Hoelzer 6-yd. pass from Pyne (pass failed)
*NC - O'Connell 6-yd. run (Morse kick)
*ND - Chris Elias 9-yd. run (Mike Piechota 2-yd. pass from Elias)