After two uncharacteristically shaky performances in the past two games, the big question heading into Monday night’s Class L semifinal at Dunning Field between New Canaan and Notre Dame-West Haven was: “Will the real Michael Collins show up?”
It only took one snap to get the answer.
On New Canaan’s first offensive play, the New Canaan quarterback threw a 79-yard touchdown pass deep over the middle to a wide-open Kyle Smith, setting the tone for the rest of the game and leading the Rams to a 51-27 win over the No. 7 Green Knights.
“We were just glad to get him back,” New Canaan head Coach Lou Marinelli told NewCanaanite.com. “People were really concerned, but this week he came back strong. He had a good week of practice, so we thought we had something good.”
What New Canaan had in Collins was something great Monday night. The senior signal caller finished the game completing 32 of 44 passes for 447 yards and five touchdowns in his final home game at Dunning. It was a fitting way to bid adieu to the New Canaan faithful as Collins set a new state record for touchdown passes in a single season, breaking the old mark of 51 set by Brookfield’s Tanner Kingsley in 2012. Collins now has 53 touchdowns on the year with one final game left to play—the Class L title game.
“It was emotional to come out here and play our last game,” Collins said. “It was great for the seniors to be able to get a last home game, I was happy about that. And I honestly couldn’t be happier about the win.”
Collins now has 3,234 yards passing on the season, eclipsing Matt Milano’s school record of 3,214 set back in 2010. Four of Collins’ five touchdown passes went to senior Kyle Smith, who finished the game with 16 receptions for 222 yards, the second-highest single game totals in both categories in school history behind only the great Pete Demmerle’s legendary performance against Rippowam in 1970. Peter Swindell also had a big night, catching eight passes for 186 yards and a touchdown. He also converted six of seven PAT’s and booted a 42-yard field goal.
Despite all the individual accomplishments, the most important stat for the Rams is that New Canaan returns to the state championship game for the third straight season and the ninth time in the past 10 years.
“It’s awesome,” Smith said. “Going to the state championship for the third straight year, winning our last game on Dunning—there’s no way to describe it.”
New Canaan was able to outlast a game Notre Dame-West Haven team, who kept the game close throughout most of the first half before the Rams pulled away in the third quarter. The Green Knights were led by junior receiver Nico Ragaini, who caught 10 passes for 164 yards and 2 TD’s and also ran for 91 yards and 2 rushing TD’s in a losing effort.
“They deserve a lot of credit to come down here and play in this atmosphere,” Marinelli said of the Knights, who ended the 2015 season at 9-3. “They kept on coming and coming and coming. I take my hat off to Coach [Tom] Marcucci and his staff and those kids. I thought they played their rear ends off.”
After the Collins-to-Smith bomb gave New Canaan a quick 7-0 lead, the Rams wasted little time adding to it. A six-yard touchdown pass from Collins to Smith capped off a quick five-play, 55-yard drive that gave the Rams a 14-0 advantage with 7:10 to go in the first.
The Knights would answer, as on the first play of the second quarter QB Christian Lupoli hit Ragaini for an 11-yard score, cutting the Rams lead to 14-7.
The Rams responded immediately, as senior Matt Cognetta took the ensuing kickoff 79 yards for a score, re-establishing the Rams lead to 21-7 with 11:42 to go in the half. After a defense stop, a 42-yard Peter Swindell field goal on the ensuing Rams possession extended the New Canaan lead to 24-7 with 9:21 left.
The Knights would not go away easily. Ragaini scored his second of four touchdowns on the night with a four-yard run, capping off an 11-play, 78-yard drive to make it 24-14 with just under 5 minutes left in the half.
On what might have been the turning point of the game, New Canaan was able to convert on a third-and-25, as Collins hit Swindell on a 39-yard completion and a first down at the Notre Dame-West Haven 40. Two plays later Collins hit Smith for the record-tying TD and a 31-14 lead that the Rams would take into the half.
Collins broke the state record in style with a 37-yard TD pass to Swindell with 6:39 left in the third that gave the Rams a 37-14 lead. Perhaps one of the best passes of the night, Collins dropped the ball perfectly over Swindell’s shoulder, hitting the receiver in stride for the score. New Canaan extended that lead to 44-14 a little more than five minutes later as Smith reeled in a 15-yard Collins pass with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter.
The Knights scored on the first play of the fourth quarter as Lupoli hooked up with Ragaini on a 59-yard passing play to make it 44-21 Rams with 11:47 to play. New Canaan junior Graham Braden capped off a New Canaan drive with a 9-yard touchdown run, extending the Rams lead to 51-21 with 8:03 left. Ragaini capped off the game’s scoring with an 80-yard run off a jet sweep that made it 51-27 New Canaan.
The No. 6 Rams (10-1) will next face No. 1 North Haven (12-0), who knocked off No. 5 Wethersfield 21-14. The two teams last met two years ago in the Class L state semifinals, with the Rams coming out on top 17-0.
“They’re really tough kids,” Marinelli said. “They like to control the ball, they run that ugly [Single-wing] offense. And they do it well, as well as anyone in the country. We’re just really pleased that we get to go, but we are going to have our hands full.”
#7 Notre Dame-West Haven vs. #6 New Canaan - Class L State Semifinals, Dec. 7, 2015 at Dunning Field, New Canaan, CT
*NC – Michael Collins 79-yd. pass to Kyle Smith (Peter Swindell kick)
*NC – Collins 6-yd. pass to Smith (Swindell kick)
*ND – Christian Lupoli 11-yd. pass to Nico Ragaini (Jared Gallbrunner kick)
*NC – Matt Cognetta 79-yd. kickoff return (Swindell kick)
*NC – Swindell 42-yd. FG
*NC – Collins 23-yd. pass to Smith (Swindell kick)
*ND – Ragaini 4-yd. run (Gallbrunner kick)
*NC – Collins 37-yd. pass to Swindell (kick failed)
*NC – Collins 15-yd. pass to Smith (Swindell kick)
*ND – Lupoli 59-yd. pass to Ragaini (Gallbrunner kick)
*NC – Braden 6-yd. run (Swindell kick)
*ND – Ragaini 80-yd. run (kick failed)
*Michael Collins - 32-44, 447 yds., 5 TD - sets single-season state record for TD passes (53)
*Kyle Smith - 16-222, 4 TD receiving; INT
*Peter Swindell - 8-186, TD receiving; 6-7 PAT; 1-1 FG; 2-89 punting (59-yard long)
*Lucas Niang - 1 sack
*Total offense - NC - 498, ND - 445
*Turnovers: NC - 0, ND - 1
*First Downs: NC - 23, ND - 20
*Third Down Conversions: NC - 12-18, ND - 3-11