FAIRFIELD -- On paper, the state playoffs for Fairfield Prep and 31 other teams began Tuesday. But, in theory, it started roughly six weeks before that for the Jesuits.
A rash of miscues in a 35-27 loss to Daniel Hand on Oct. 18 dropped the Jesuits to 4-2 and put their postseason hopes on fragile ground. They couldn't afford another loss, not in a crowded Class LL race.
"The second we lost the Hand game we knew it was `win out,'" wide receiver John DelliSanti said.
The Jesuits had five games remaining (four at home), the final two of which were against perennial powers Xavier, the three-time defending state champion, and West Haven. Entrenched in arguably the state's deepest league, the SCC, the Jesuits were, if nothing else, battled-tested.
"Some leagues are designed to get people into the playoffs. The SCC is designed to help you win the playoffs," Prep coach Tom Shea said.
Six of his team's 12 games, Shea says, have been against teams ranked in the state's top 10 at one point. Winners of six straight since the loss to Hand, the Jesuits' daunting road will continue Saturday when they face No. 6 West Haven at Trumbull High for the second time in nine days.
The first meeting between the two teams -- a 29-20 Prep win on Thanksgiving -- vaulted the Jesuits into the playoffs. The second meeting, with both teams now 10-2, will be for a berth in the LL state championship.
"We're not surprised we're seeing another SCC team," Shea said. "The challenge with them is they're very explosive."
The Jesuits, like their conference brethren, are quite familiar with that challenge by now.
"It's like we've been in the playoffs (for a while)," quarterback Colton Smith said. "Playing all these teams -- Hand, West Haven, Xavier -- they're all very, very good teams. They're all playoff-caliber teams, but we play in the toughest league, so sometimes teams like them don't make it."
He continued, "When we get into the playoffs, they're just as big games. People are loud, just like in our regular season games. We're used to it."
West Haven's played plenty of big games as well, winning 10 of its last 11, thanks to the electric running of senior Ervin Phillips (1,675 rushing yards, 34 total touchdowns), quarterback Duane Gary and fullback Marshont Little. But, the rigorous schedule's also worn down the Blue Devils.
"We've played excellent competition. The negative to that is the way we feel right now physically," said coach Ed McCarthy, whose team beat No. 3 Hall 51-26 in the quarterfinals. "We've been through a lot of battles. It's really affected us."
One of four SCC playoff teams, seventh-seeded Prep notched its first postseason win in 25 years in Tuesday's quarterfinals, 33-23 over No. 2 Glastonbury.
Smith once again anchored the offense in the win, rushing for 267 yards and four touchdowns. The statistics on the season for Smith, a first-year starter at quarterback, are even gaudier: 1,513 yards passing, 1,649 yards rushing and 34 total touchdowns.
A safety and a backup quarterback as a sophomore -- his first year at Prep after transferring from Newtown High -- Smith has been rewarding for the Jesuits.
"Colton's just been superb," Shea said. "Clearly in football today, you've got to have a good quarterback to be a great team."
He continued, "Gone are the days where you can just get shoulder to shoulder and mow them down the field. `Three yards and a cloud of dust' is gone."
The 6-foot-1, 170-pound Smith was especially valuable under must-win circumstances against West Haven on Thanksgiving. He rushed for 281 yards and one score, helping the Jesuits rally from 17 points down. The week before that, in a 46-27 defeat of Xavier, he ran for 303 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing for another.
"He's really stepped into that role as a starter," said DelliSanti, who leads the team with 35 catches for 774 yards and eight touchdowns. "He's taken command of our offense. When we need to pass, he's there as a throwing quarterback. When he needs to run, he's been a great runner."
The Jesuits are hoping for more of the same on Saturday.