Shelton High’s football team, sparked by a pair of big special teams plays, jumped out to an early 21-0 lead and never trailed en route to a 55-21 win over host Newtown High in the Class LL state playoff quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
The sixth-seeded Gaels ended the season of previously unbeaten and third-seeded Newtown, and moved on to host No. 7 Ridgefield in the Dec. 5 semifinals, beginning at 6:30 p.m.
Shelton quarterback David Wells completed a pair of touchdown passes and had four rushing TDs to lead the Gaels.
This was an emotional win for Shelton coach Jeff Roy, whose uncle, Tony Donofri, suffered a heart attack and passed away earlier in the day. Roy was in tears as he hugged friends following the game.
“He was a great man and he loved watching me coach,” Roy said. “He was like a second father to me.”
Newtown was without two of their top players, Ben Mason and Hunter Cobb, for most of the night. Mason missed the entire game with an injury, and Cobb, who was hurt in the regular-season finale, played sparingly.
Roy noted that the Gaels were hoping to face a healthy team, but acknowledged that injuries are part of the game and noted that his squad is injury-free. “Luckily, we’re healthy right now,” he said.
After being stopped on its opening series, Shelton capitalized on the first of a pair of costly special teams mishaps by the Nighthawks. The Gaels recovered a fumble on a Newtown punt return when Dan Barone pounced on the loose ball on the Nighthawk 23 yard line, and scored just 3:28 into the game. Wells connected with David D’Amore on a 16-yard score on third and three for a 6-0 lead. The extra point attempt was blocked.
On the first play of the second quarter, Wells extended the lead on a six-yard scamper and tacked on a two-point conversion run making it 14-0.
Just 1:07 later, it was 21-0 thanks to a 5-yard blocked punt return by Robert Wood after Robert Valeri got his body on the kick attempt.
“That was key. We jumped out and we were able to score on those first couple of series,” Roy said.
Newtown got on the board with 7:15 to go before the half. Quarterback Justin Dunn threw to Jack Miller for a 28-yard scoring play, as Miller used his speed to run the ball for the final 25-or-so yards after receiving the short pass.
After a stop on defense, the Nighthawks went back to work on offense and closed to within 21-14 when Dunn again threw to Miller — this time for a 34-yard score.
The Gaels answered on a 7-yard Wells’ QB keeper in the final minute of the first half, making the score 28-14 at the break.
Shelton used several trick plays, mostly with direct snaps to Ronnie Rich, to keep the Nighthawks guessing. Anthony Schiavo had some key catches to help the offense move the ball.
It took Newtown only 1:10 to open the second-half scoring on a trick play of its own. A direct snap to Miller and handoff to Mark Hall was followed by Hall completing a pass to an open Dunn in the paint for a 6-yard score.
Shelton again answered. Wells scored on another keeper, this one from one-yard out, with 6:16 left in the third.
The Gaels recovered a fumble on the next play from scrimmage and, just one play after that, Wells hit D’Amore on a 41-yard score, making it 42-21 with 5:49 to go in the quarter.
Roy liked the way his team responded to Newtown’s comeback attempts. “Our kids have answered all year,” he said.
Wells added a 17-yard run into the end zone late in the third, and Rich capped the scoring on a 1-yard TD rush.
The Gaels, who defeated Newtown in last year’s state semifinals, are one win away from a return to the pinnacle game.