TRUMBULL -- Two rosters stacked with playmakers, but perhaps it was only fitting a diminutive sophomore cornerback, who only converted to the position a few weeks ago, was the one who sealed Fairfield Prep's spot in the Class LL championship game.
Clinging to a three-point lead, the Jesuits needed one more defensive stand to lock up their first trip to the final in 25 years. Brendan Beiser provided it, intercepting Duane Gary's wobbly throw at the Prep 8-yard line, and 69 seconds later, Prep was celebrating a 29-28 victory over West Haven in the semifinals Saturday afternoon at McDougall Stadium.
"Beiser, I love that kid right now," said Prep senior Nicholas Crowle (19 carries, 95 yards), who scored the game-winning touchdown on a 28-yard run with 3:53 left to give Fairfield Prep a 29-26 lead. Quarterback Colton Smith (20 carries, 101 yards) ran out of the end zone on fourth down on the game's final play, preventing West Haven (10-3) from getting another chance with the ball, after Prep was unable to run out the clock with three runs.
"I thought it was over, but then I realized we couldn't take a knee, so it made me pretty nervous," added senior linebacker Max Trudeau. "But man, when (Beiser) caught that ball it was like all that hard work hit me right in the heart and finally it paid off. It was extreme happiness."
No. 7 Prep (11-2), which was a cellar dweller in the SCC when coach Tom Shea took over four years ago, advances to play No. 4 Southington in the championship game Saturday at 6 p.m. at Central Connecticut State in New Britain.
"Our seniors have been working on this for four years," Shea said. "We started out, we were one of the worst teams in the state and now we might be one of the best teams in the state. I'm so proud of how far they have come, and I hope they have more."
Prep, which won the Thanksgiving meeting against West Haven (29-20) nine days ago, needed to give its all to fend off Ed McCarthy's squad for a second time. Gary (nine carries, 124 yards) delivered two big plays in the second quarter, hitting Zatrell Lyons on a 29-yard touchdown pass and adding a 65-yard TD run with 17 seconds left, to make it 13-9 Blue Devils at the half.
"They just made one more play than we did," said McCarthy, who also relied on a senior class that couldn't win a game their first season in rebuilding West Haven. "It was a tough loss. We wish them luck -- they are going to win it. They deserve to win it."
The Jesuits, ironically, used a safety to get their offense going for the second straight game against West Haven. Anthony Johnson, who was playing with a cast after breaking a thumb against Glastonbury in the quarterfinals on Tuesday, sacked Gary to make it 7-2. On the ensuing drive, Smith capped an 11-play march from midfield with a 9-yard touchdown run.
Hank Healy's extra point helped give Prep a short-lived 9-7 lead, but Gary's run erased it. Syracuse-bound Ervin Philips (17 carries, 129 yards) pushed the lead to 19-9 two plays into the third quarter when the tailback broke free for a 65-yard TD run.
The Jesuits erased the 10-point deficit with two touchdowns in a little over two minutes to finish the third quarter up 22-19. Smith scored on a 3-yard run and then John DelliSanti returned a punt 65 yards for the go-ahead touchdown with 2:35 left in the quarter.
Philips' 3-yard scoring run, along with a Gibbs' PAT, with 7:56 left in the game gave West Haven the lead back at 26-22. But Prep answered with Crowle's touchdown.
"It means so much," said Smith, who was 9 of 19 passing for 74 yards (DelliSanti six catches, 56 yards). "A few years ago we were 0-10 and it's just unbelievable, I can't even describe how I feel right now."
Class LL semifinal at Trumbull
FAIRFIELD PREP 0 9 13 7--29
WEST HAVEN 0 13 6 8--28
WH--Zatrell Lyons 29 pass Duane Gary (Tayvon Gibbs kick)
FP--Safety, Anthony Johnson tackles Gary in end zone
FP--Colton Smith 9 run (Hank Healy kick)
WH--Gary 65 run (pass failed)
WH--Ervin Philips 65 run (pass failed)
FP--Smith 3 run (Healy kick)
FP--John DelliSanti 65 punt return (kick failed)
WH--Philips 3 run (Gibbs kick)
FP--Nicholas Crowle 28 run (Healy kick)
WH--Safety, Colton Smith ran out of end zone
Records: West Haven 10-3, Fairfield Prep 11-2