Conard ends the regular season on a five-game win streak, capped with a victory over crosstown rival Hall in the West Hartford Mayor’s Cup.
By Marlon Pitter. Photos by Ronni Newton, Hunter Marotto, and David Heuschkel
If Peter Simplicio has played his last football game for Conard High School, then he made sure to end his career on a high note.
With Conard and Hall fighting to make the state tournament, the senior kicker made a 31-yard field goal as time expired to lift the Chieftains to a 38-35 victory in the 63rd annual West Hartford Mayor’s Cup Saturday afternoon at McKee Stadium.
“I knew the snap would be good, the blocks … [and] the hold would be good, and I just had to do my job,” said Simplicio. “We say that all the time in practice, and I knew my brothers had my back. It’s surreal. I’m at a loss for words.”
Winning field goal as time expires. What a game! Hall vs. Conard West Hartford. pic.twitter.com/svc3BH52Rq
— Jason Ryan (@jasonryanmd) November 23, 2019
The Conard win ends Hall’s season and keeps the Chieftains’ postseason hopes alive. Both the Chieftains and Warriors entered the game 6-3, just outside of the top eight in the Class LL playoff point rankings at 11th and 10th respectively. Conard, meanwhile, improves to 35-25-3 all-time in the rivalry series, dating back to 1957.
“What I took away from [the game] is that West Hartford has two very good football teams, and football is well and alive in the town of West Hartford,” said Chieftains head coach Matt Cersosimo. “That was an instant classic in my mind, and we knew it was going to be that kind of game from the start to the finish. They were never going to back down. We were never going to back down, and it was going to come down to whoever had the ball last and that’s really what it did.”
“It couldn’t have ended any better,” said Conard senior running back Arsen Shtefan. “It was perfect. 6-3, 6-3. Playoff hopes. It was beautiful. I’m speechless. … It was like a movie to me.”
Hall head coach Frank Robinson said not stopping the Chieftains on third downs late in the game played a factor in the loss for the Warriors.
“I would say, at the end of the game, it was the third downs,” said Robinson. “There were multiple third downs – long third downs – and we didn’t get off the field. I think that was key.”
Both starting running backs led the way for their respective teams – Shtefan for Conard (7-3) and Isaiah Lizardi for Hall (6-4). Lizardi scored four touchdowns and gained 267 yards on 21 carries, while Shtefan racked up 197 rushing yards on 39 carries and four touchdowns (three rushing, one receiving) on the afternoon.
The Warriors recovered a fumble at Conard’s 17-yard line on the Chieftains’ opening drive. Isaiah Lizardi capped off the drive with a 9-yard rushing touchdown to put Hall ahead 7-0 with 8:32 remaining in the first quarter.
After forcing a turnover on downs, the Warriors took over on their own 30 halfway through the quarter. Quarterback Matt Keller raced down the right sideline, scoring a 53-yard rushing TD to extend Hall’s lead to 14-0 at the 4:40 mark.
Shtefan scored his first touchdown from 11 yards out with 1:02 left in the quarter to make it a 14-7 game.
Shtefan finished a five-minute Chieftain drive with a 2-yard touchdown on Conard’s next possession to tie the game at 14 with under seven minutes left in the second quarter.
Conard’s defense forced a three-and-out, and the Chieftains took over with 5:14 left in the half. John Calcaterra broke off big gains on the drive, but Shtefan found the end zone with 1:42 remaining to put Conard ahead 21-14.
Keller found Gabe Salomons on three straight completions, and Lizardi brought Hall just outside the red zone. The Warriors looked to score through the air before the break, but multiple passes to the end zone fell incomplete.
Hall came up empty as Noe Ruelas missed a 38-yard field goal attempt five seconds before halftime. Cersosimo said keeping the Warriors off the board was one of several key moments in the game.
“I thought holding them before the half was really big,” said Cersosimo. “I thought bouncing back from 14-0 was really important because, at that moment, that game could go one of two ways, and our kids weren’t going to allow it to happen, and I give them all the credit in the world. Also, coming out in the second half and facing adversity and giving up two quick touchdowns and being down but then being able to respond from that.”
The momentum from that stop was short-lived, however, as Lizardi ran for a 66-yard touchdown on Hall’s first play from scrimmage in the third quarter to tie the game at 21 apiece at the 11:42 mark.
The Warriors recovered the ensuing onside kick but failed to pick up a first down on the next possession.
Hall set up for a 46-yard field goal halfway through the third quarter, but a low snap forced Ruelas to pick up the ball as the Chieftains stopped him short of a first down.
The Warriors forced a punt and got the ball back just outside of Conard territory. Lizardi gained 54 yards on five carries, finding the endzone from 9 yards out at the 1:40 mark to put Hall ahead 28-21.
The Warriors attempted another onside kick, but the Chieftains recovered it at their own 46-yard line with 1:38 left in the third quarter.
Shtefan and Conard quarterback Israel Lopez split carries on the drive, but Lopez found Jack Kuhnly on a 9-yard touchdown pass to draw the game even at 28 with 10:29 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Conard recovered a fumble on Hall’s next possession and took over at their own 40 with nine minutes left. Facing third-and-18, Lopez rolled right, escaped a Hall defender and found Ethan Speranza on a 22-yard completion along the right sideline for the first down.
Lopez and Shtefan kept the drive moving on the ground, and the pair finished the drive on a 20-yard screen play to take a 35-28 lead with 4:37 remaining.
Lizardi answered with another 66-yard, first-play touchdown on the Warriors’ ensuing possession to tie the game at 35 with 4:19 left.
Lopez found Silas Bridges on third-and-13 for a first down to extend Conard’s final drive. Shtefan carried the ball on five of the Chieftains’ last six plays, advancing the ball to Hall’s 15-yard line to set up the game-winning field goal with three seconds left.
The 2019 season was resurgent for Conard and Hall, as both teams finished 3-7 last season. The Chieftains found themselves sitting at 2-3 during the bye week, but Cersosimo credited the team’s seniors in spearheading a five-game win streak to finish the regular season.
“Our senior leadership has been tremendous since we got out of the bye,” Cersosimo said. “They had a choice to make. They could either start playing football the way they knew they were capable of playing or we could continue to do what we were doing. They made the decision to get going in the right direction, so [I’m] super proud of them, but our seniors really ignited that.”
Robinson also acknowledged his seniors for their contributions to the Hall football program.
“I’m so proud of these guys. They played well all year,” said Robinson. “The seniors were great. They did some things I was not expecting them to do. I was really proud of them. … I think the seniors left a lot. They left a lot of effort, a lot of pride. They were always sticking through to the end. There was no [giving] up.”
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