Football: One-more game mantra holds true

Masuk High earned a CIAC Class L state playoff semifinal spot opposite New Canaan with a 43-7 dismantling of Fitch High in Groton on Nov. 28.

Coach Joe Lato’s Panthers (10-1) will host the eighth-seeded Rams (9-2) on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Benedict Field. New Canaan defeated No. 1 seed Middletown, 24-9.

It will give Masuk an opportunity to avenge a 31-28 defeat at the hands of fourth-time defending champions in the semis, but that isn’t what inspired the locals in their quarterfinal matchup with previously unbeaten Fitch.

“There was no talking on the bus ride,” said Jack Roberge, who scored a pair of touchdowns, blocked a punt and had an interception versus the 10-1 Falcons. “It was all business. It was all about winning and being on the field together for another game.”

Lato gave a half-shrug and a full smile when reminded of the rematch.

“The kids were hungry,” Lato said. “And they will be hungry moving forward. We had razor-sharp focus (coming into the Fitch game) and throughout our preparation.”

Matt Hersch completed 13-of-19 passes for 251 yards, including TD strikes to Nick Lorusso (79 yards) and Roberge (38 yards).

Masuk got right after Fitch, forcing a pair of three-and-outs and then blocking a punt on the Falcons’ third series. That gave the offense short fields to work with — the Falcons 38, 36 and 16 yard lines.

Masuk’s first possession ended with a fumble, but the defense that allowed only 46 first-half yards got the ball right back.

Mickey Zuk took a pass for a 19-yard gain and completed the four-play drive with a 4-yard touchdown run. Roberge, who had 125 yards on 22 carries, ran for the two-point conversion and an 8-0 lead at the 6:54 mark of the opening quarter.

Roberge next blocked a Tyler Nelli punt, and Nick Lebinski recovered the ball on the Fitch 16.

The O-line of Curtis Swain, Max Mirizio, Kevin Harper, Alex Lee, Sam Nalaboff and Jack Duignan kept the Falcons on their heels, as a 13-yard forward-lean run by Roberge was followed by Zuk’s three-yard buck off tackle for the TD.

Nolan McCarter’s first of seven conversion kicks made it 15-0 with 4:49 left in the stanza.

Fitch entered the game averaging 35.7 points per, but Masuk intercepted four passes and clogged the running lanes.

“We felt like it was one of the few times this year where our D-line was kind of on the same size level as the offensive line they were going against,” Lato said. “It was a good matchup. I thought our kids really did a good job of coming off the ball and playing really, really fast. We were establishing the line of scrimmage.”

Duignan returned his interception 18 yards for a touchdown. Ben Vickowski’s pick stopped Fitch after it crossed midfield for the first time late in the first quarter. Roberge’s interception came with just under two minutes remaining in the first half. Chris Tillotson’s INT completed the stout defensive play in the final period.

Jeff Pickup, Colin Meropoulos, Mirizio, Harper and Lebinski led the D-line.

Peter Cosmedy was in on nine tackles, had a quarterback sack on Nelli and harried the talented junior throughout the game.

Duignan, Roberge and Zuk were top run stoppers, with Rob Martinsky, Tyler Michalka and Peter Fox stalking Fitch receivers and coming up slow the Falcons’ ground attack.

Duignan INT return was a counter to Fitch’s only score, which came on Zach Lettelier’s blocked punt that the senior returned for a touchdown on the opening series of the third quarter.

Masuk added to its 15-0 lead after one period when Hersch put his pass to Lorusso on the mark. His senior classmate caught the ball in stride on the 42 and went the distance to complete the 79-yard TD two minutes into the second quarter.

Fox took a screen pass from the Masuk 34, broke a tackle at midfield, and raced to the Fitch 19. Three plays later, Roberge caught a shovel pass from Hersch and cut to his right on his way to a 38-yard score.

Masuk led 29-0 with 2:47 on the clock before halftime.

Notes: The Panthers have won their last two trips to title games, 56-13 over Newington in 2008 and 50-20 victory over New Canaan in 2010. They are 3-9 overall, with an 18-12 win over Fitch in 1998.

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