WEST HAVEN — Matt Cognetta could barely raise his right shoulder high enough to point his index finger skyward. The New Canaan High School football team had just won its third straight state championship and seventh in a decade, a hard-fought 42-35 win over North Haven in the Class L final on Saturday that is a leading candidate for the mythical title of game of the year.
Cognetta and his twin brother, Michael, did not arrive at West Haven High School with the rest of the team. They were back home getting treatments — Matt on his shoulder and Michael on his ankle — and absent on the field during warmups.
They got to the stadium not long before kickoff, and by the time the Cognettas left their New Canaan teammates were ready to carry them off on their shoulders.
Michael was limited in his playing time, hampered by the more serious injury but still able to run the ball twice for 23 yards and helped on defense.
Matt, meanwhile, had the best game of his career, carrying the ball 27 times for 224 yards and two scores, as the Rams were forced to adapt their offense in a chess match with North Haven’s defense, and showed a poise and maturity that they were forced to summon.
“Matt Cognetta, he can barely move his arm. Mike with his ankle. Those two won us the game,” said Kyle Smith, unprompted. Smith had a little something to contribute to the outcome with nine catches for 91 yards and a score.
The Cognettas had spent the last 10 days on side by side tables at Innovative Health & Rehabilitation in Norwalk to get them ready for the final game of their high school careers. Their status — well maybe not in their minds — was uncertain for a good part of the week.
“Because they are Cognettas, because their family is so much New Canaan football, I couldn’t take them out if I wanted to,” New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli said after the game. “I can go on how much they have given to the program.”
The victory was Marinelli’s 300th at New Canaan.
Tested only in their lone loss, to Darien, the Rams (11-1) were matched by a North Haven team that was playing in its first state final and proved until the final minutes to be their equal.
Much was made of the contrast in the programs’ respective histories coming in. How New Canaan has won this year with the long ball and North Haven by grinding teams down with the run.
You could throw all the expectations out the door on Saturday night. North Haven threatened because of the skill with which it paired a surprisingly effective passing game (203 yards) to their famed Wing T ground game (224 yards). Trailing, 28-14, they rallied to tie the score midway through the third quarter.
The Indians (12-1) had the momentum at that point, and truth be told given the storybook storyline they had emerged as the nonpartisan favorite.
In the end, they brought out the best in New Canaan, which took the lead with a 15-play, 80-yard drive and, after North Haven again tied the game, won it with another 15-play drive — 14 runs, though quarterback Michael Collins scrambled twice — this one going just 72 yards.
Matt Cognetta carried the ball on 15 of the 30 plays, while it was Michael’s 3-yard run that made the score 35-28.
“It was what they were giving us so we just ran the ball. I think that Anthony thought we were not patient enough,” said Marinelli, referring to North Haven coach Anthony Sagnella. “For a while I would agree with him. We’re used to scoring quickly and not having patience. For our group to settle down and run the ball like that, we’ve done it before but tonight I thought we were at our best.”
Collins, who broke the state record for touchdown passes in a season, has been given ample credit for being a slinger but not enough for having nuance. Look at the 180 yards he threw for and your first impression is “off night.” Scan deeper into the score sheet and you see he completed 22 of 28 passes. That is called managing the game.
“I thought Mike did a tremendous job of taking what the defense was giving us,” Marinelli said.
Matt Cognetta was the workhorse on the final drive, with six carries, including a 9-yard run that set up Ryan O’Connell’s winning score.
“The last game, you’ve got to put everything on the line,” Matt Cognetta said, the state championship trophy in his grip. “Never play as a Ram again. The line did a great job. They really blocked their hearts out. I couldn’t do anything without them. We stuck to what was working at the beginning of the game and we ran right behind Lucas (Niang). It worked well so we kept doing it.”
The Indians got one last chance and a couple of first downs before three incompletions and a fourth-down interception by Andrew DeFranco dashed their hopes.
“We got lucky at the end,” Smith said. “I said they were going to mess up, they are going to mess up and they finally did.”
Matt Cognetta sounded winded after making the postgame interview rounds. He occasionally rubbed his sore shoulder, but always with a smile.
“This is perfect,” he said. “I can’t ask for anything better.”