The Shelton High football team ran its winning streak over arch-rival Derby High to 10 games on Thanksgiving Day, but it was not easy.
The Gaels had to score a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to erase an eight-point deficit in handing the Red Raiders a 27-21 defeat before 3,000 on a beautiful Thanksgiving Day at Finn Stadium in the 102nd meeting between the two Valley schools.
Shelton (6-4) has not lost to Derby (6-4) since 2002, has won 15 out of the last 16, and now leads the overall series 52-43-7.
The Shelton defense needed every one of the six turnovers it recorded, and the offense needed to put together its two longest drives of the day to score the two fourth-quarter touchdowns and keep its winning streak over Derby alive.
“That was a hell of a game,” said Shelton coach Jeff Roy, who has never lost to Derby in his nine seasons at the Shelton helm. “That’s the way a Thanksgiving Day game should be.”
Derby scored two touchdowns in the third quarter — runs of 14 and 40 yards by Tyrae Small — to take a 21-13 lead, and Shelton’s winning streak was very much in danger.
But the Shelton offense, which had amassed just 119 yards and four first downs to that point, came to life.
Behind the blocking of offensive linemen Donald Schiffer, Eric Howard, Chris Sinko, Tom Gottschalk and Austin Peel, the Gaels moved the ball from their 35-yard line, to the Derby 19, all on runs.
“We told the guys, even though they are loading the box, we still have to run the ball,” Roy said.
Facing third-and-three from the Red Raider 19, sophomore quarterback Mark Piccirillo dropped back to pass and found junior tight end Kyle Drost, who made a diving catch at the Derby one-yard line.
Piccirillo kept the ball himself on the next play and dove over the goal line behind the right side of his offensive line for a touchdown.
Piccirillo’s two-point conversion pass was knocked down, but Shelton was showing signs of life down by just two points, 21-19, with 11 minutes left in the game.
After an Ed Groth touchback on the kickoff, Derby’s Small (220 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries) sprang free for another big gainer all the way to the Shelton 37.
But the Gael defense stiffened, including getting a sack from Gottschalk on second down, and forced Derby to punt.
From his 20, Piccirillo faked a handoff and ran through the middle of the Derby line and into open space. With nothing but green turf in front of him, it appeared Piccirillo was on his way to an 80-yard touchdown run to give Shelton the lead.
But speedy Derby defensive back Dillon McMahon caught up to Piccirillo around the Derby 10-yard line and stripped Piccirillo of the ball.
The ball never hit the ground as McMahon was able to pull it into his own body, turn around and get back to the Derby 23.
Piccirillo said after the game that he had watched film of Derby’s defense, and knew that they would try to strip him from behind if they caught up to him. But Piccirillo didn’t know McMahon was right behind him. “I didn’t even hear him,” he said.
The huge change in momentum swung back to Derby, as the Red Raiders picked up a key first down on third-and-six, with sophomore quarterback Michael Kreiger finding Sal Frosceno for eight yards and a first down.
Frosceno lost four yards on the next play from scrimmage, but the Shelton sideline was tagged with an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after complaining about a would-be holding penalty on Derby.
That moved the ball up to the Red Raider 46.
Kreiger ran for a big gainer inside the Shelton 35, but was stripped of the ball by senior William Karcher as he was falling to the ground.
Ed Kochiss recovered the
ball at the Shelton 27, thwarting what could’ve been a game-ending drive by Derby and giving Shelton new life with 5:06 remaining.
Piccirillo, so close to giving Shelton the lead before losing the ball on Shelton’s last drive, took advantage of his second opportunity.
He started the drive with a 21-yard pass to Drost to the Shelton 48. Matt Feigenblat gained 10 yards on the next play, and Piccirillo kept the ball for four yards.
Facing second-and-six from the Derby 38, Piccirillo faked a hand-off and dropped back to pass. The defender responsible for covering Drost bit on the play-fake, and Drost was wide open. He caught Piccirillo’s pass at the Derby 21 and sprinted the rest of the way untouched into the end zone.
Piccirillo added the two-point conversion run, and the Gaels led 27-21 with 3:43 left in the game.
“I didn’t think he’d be that open,” said Piccirillo who was named the game’s Silver Turkey Award as MVP after completing 8-of-16 passes for 126 yards with a touchdown, and rushing 15 times for 130 yards and two scores. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to make this throw.’”
Drost ended the day with four catches for 102 yards, all in the second half.
“That was an adjustment,” said Roy of targeting the 6-3 Drost in the second half after the Gaels did not throw to him in the first half. “We wanted to get the ball in his hands.”
Derby still had a chance to come back, but had to do so without Kreiger, who was hurt on the fumble, and without back-up quarterback McMahon, who broke his thumb on the first play of the game and continued to play on defense, but could not throw the ball.
Derby coach George French had to turn to emergency quarterback Frosceno, who was picked off by Michael Pingree at the Derby 48. The Gaels were able to run out the clock from there.
“Now I can have a happy Thanksgiving,” Roy said.
Turnovers were critical Thursday, with the Red Raiders giving the ball away six times, and Shelton twice.
Derby turnovers set up Shelton’s first 10 points.
Karcher recovered a fumble at the Red Raider 18 that set up a Piccirillo touchdown run on the next play.
A Gottschalk fumble recovery at the Derby 37 with two minutes left in the first half led to a 33-yard Groth field goal to give Shelton a 10-7 lead at the intermission.
Groth also converted a 32-yard field goal to open the second half and extend Shelton’s lead to 13-7.
Groth had another stellar outing in his final game for Shelton, converting both field goal attempts, both PATs, recording five touchbacks on kickoffs and averaging nearly 44 yards on four punts.
“It’s a huge advantage to have the other team have to go 80 yards every time,” said Roy of Groth’s kickoffs.
Defensively, the Gaels allowed 363 yards and the most points Derby has scored against Shelton since 2006. But it made the big plays it needed to come up with the win.
Defensive stars included Gottschalk (fumble recovery, sack, six tackles), Pingree (interception), Michael Ortoli (sack, six tackles), Jeremy Taramelli (fumble recovery), Karcher (fumble recovery, five tackles), Jacob Grasso (fumble recovery), Donald Schiffler (five tackles), Jim Farrell (four tackles), Troy Vasilescu (six tackles) and Tyler Vasilescu (five tackles).
Most importantly, Shelton’s 16 seniors ended their high school football careers with a victory.
“It’s a great way to go out our senior year,” said Groth. “It’s a great honor.”
Piccirillo, tabbed to be the back-up quarterback at the beginning of the season, finished the year with 1,558 yards and 15 touchdowns passing, and 560 yards and three touchdowns rushing.
Kochiss led all receivers with 547 yards and seven touchdowns on 31 receptions.
Farrell (51) narrowly edged Ortoli (49) for the most tackles on the season.
Groth finished the season with eight field goals and led the team in scoring with 46 points.
Shelton has had a winning season in eight of the nine years Roy has been head coach, including seven in a row. The Gaels are 63-31 in those nine seasons.