A year ago, the Granby Memorial football team closed out the 2018 football campaign on a snowy field in Canton with a victory and a 7-3 record – one win shy of earning a spot in the Class S state tournament.
Their opponent, Canton, was on the short end of another defeat and a 1-9 record.
After a 43-year absence, football returned to Canton in 2007, thanks to efforts of parents and Friends of Canton Football. But even during a three-year span (2012-14) when the Warriors won 24 games under head coach Paul Philippon and went to the Class S playoffs, the team struggled with low numbers. In that championship season of 2014, Canton went 10-2 and won the Pequot Conference Uncas Division title with just 27 players in uniform.
Granby finished the 2018 season with 31 players. Canton had 32. The two agreed to form a co-op team last spring. “Student safety was the No. 1 reason the administration wanted to pursue a co-op program,” Canton Superintendent Kevin Case said last spring.
Now, together, they’re going to the Class M playoffs.
Granby/Canton (8-2, 8-2 Pequot Conference) will be traveling to Waterford on Tuesday night in the Class M quarterfinals to face the No. 2 Lancers at 6:30 p.m. It’s the second CIAC tournament appearance for the Bears, who last qualified in 2015.
The Bears returned some talented players from last year’s team such as quarterback Jackson Rome, all-purpose back Samuel Attianese and linebacker Simon Matthews. The addition of 20 players from Canton provided added competition for playing time and depth that neither program had a year earlier.
Granby/Canton opened the season with a thrilling 27-26 decision in overtime over Stafford/East Windsor/Somers and a win over Ellington before dropping a hard-fought 14-7 double OT loss to eventual Pequot Conference champion Rockville, 14-7.
But the Bears won six of their final seven games to secure the tournament berth.
“We’re firing on all cylinders right now,” Granby/Canton head coach Erik Shortell said after the Bears blanked Old Saybrook/Westbrook, 42-0, in the regular season finale last week. “I’m exciting. We’re peaking at the right time.”
Rome has been the catalyst offensively. He has rushed for a team-leading 1,152 yards and 18 touchdowns on 143 carries. He has completed 55-of-90 passes for 786 yards, five TDs and six interceptions.
Attianese has run for 753 yards and 10 TDs while catching 19 receptions for 287 yards and two touchdowns. Dylan Disabella has run for 369 yards and 3 TDs. Colin Makin has caught 12 passes for 171 yards and one TD.
Defensively, the Bears have forced 27 turnovers in 10 games – 19 interceptions and 12 fumbles. Simon Matthews, Makin, Sam Schock and Attianese have three each. Attianese is the team’s leading tackler with 67 tackles and two fumble recoveries.
Sophomore Malik Brown Smith has 63 tackles and two sacks while Donte’l Williams had 61 and a team-leading 3½ sacks. Matthews has 53 tackles.
“It was great on how the kids came together,” Shortell said. “We’re a team now. It doesn’t matter what town the kids came from what we did in previous years. They just gelled. It is on them for doing for their jobs and doing them well.”
Waterford (9-1, 4-0 ECC Division II) is making just their third-ever CIAC playoff appearance. The Lancers’ last playoff appearance came in 2011 with a 26-0 loss to ECC rival Ledyard in the Class M quarterfinals. Waterford dropped a 2000 semifinal to New Canaan, 41-14.
The Lancers are led by quarterback Ryan Bakken, who has completed 111 passes for 1,811 yards and 32 touchdown passes. Mike Vincent has pulled in 23 receptions for 491 yards and 12 TDs while Sam Menders has caught 27 passes for 428 yards and eight TDs. Payton Sutman has caught 23 passes for 486 yards and eight touchdowns.
Bakken is a three-sport star at Waterford. He is a guard on the basketball team that beat New Britain for the Division II title last March and is an infielder on the baseball team that beat Berlin, 1-0, for the Class L title in June. According to Mike DiMauro of the New London Day, Waterford has the opportunity to become the first school in CIAC history to win basketball, baseball and football titles in the same calendar year.
Christian Hightowner is Waterford’s leading rusher with 514 yards and three TDs on 91 carries while Jackson Harshnberger has rushed for 5 TDs and 417 yards on 90 carries.
Granby/Canton (8-2) at Waterford (9-1)
Date: Tuesday, Dec. 2, 6:30 p.m., Waterford High field
Series: First meeting
Of note: Someone will walk away from this game with their first-ever CIAC tournament win. Waterford is 0-2 in two appearances while Granby lost their lone appearance to Seymour in 2015. Canton lost to Capital Prep/Achievement First in their only tournament appearance in 2014.
Granby/Canton in 2019
Granby/Canton 27, Stafford/East Windsor/Somers 26, OT
Granby/Canton 41, Ellington 14
Rockville 14, Granby/Canton 7, 2 OT
Granby/Canton 21, SMSA/Classical/University 7
Granby/Canton 27, Haddam-Killingworth 7
Windsor Locks/Suffield/East Granby 27, Granby/Canton 20
Granby/Canton 27, Coginchaug/Hale Ray/East Hampton 6
Granby/Canton 22, Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton/Lyman Memorial 14
Granby/Canton 54, Gilbert/Northwestern 14
Granby/Canton 42, Old Saybrook/Westbrook 0
Waterford 33, Plainfield 13
Waterford 62, Montville 20
Waterford 35, Stonington 7
Waterford 40, Bacon Academy 14
Fitch 35, Waterford 28
Waterford 34, Windham 22
Waterford 14, Griswold/Wheeler 7
Waterford 35, Ledyard 12
Waterford 26, Woodstock Academy 15
Waterford 35, East Lyme 34, OT
Class M tournament
(8) SMSA/Classical/University (8-2) at (1) Rockville
(5) Weston (9-1) at (4) ATI (9-1)
(6) New Fairfield (8-2) at (3) Killingly (9-1)
Sunday, Dec. 8 semifinals
Rockville/SMSA winner vs. ATI/Weston winner
Granby-Canton/Waterford winner vs. Killingly/New Fairfield winner