East Catholic Shuts Out RHAM in Season Opener

By Danny Atkinson

HEBRON-On a hot humid day on the road, East Catholic football showed its toughness and skill in the season opener against CCC rival RHAM. The Eagles overwhelmed the Sachems on the ground and dominated its offensive line in a 34-0 victory, making a statement after losing stars from last year’s playoff team.

Senior Marc Zazzaro scored the first two touchdowns and the defense intercepted RHAM quarterback Jack Tillinghast twice while pressuring him constantly. East Catholic also recovered a fumble. The Sachems also made some impressive plays on defense, forcing two turnovers.

“Getting a shutout in the first game is a pretty big achievement,” Eagles head coach Steve Calande said. “We prepared all week to face RHAM’s Wing-T offense and did a very good job against the scheme.”

East Catholic scored on the first offensive play of the game. Zazzaro broke a run outside with the help of the offensive line’s powerful blocking and did the rest, sprinting down the sideline for a 56-yard touchdown. The Eagles executed a two-point conversation to grab an 8-0 lead. Zazzaro took advantage of the defensive set to find open space downfield.

“When they came out in a 5-2 defense, I called a play suited for a 5-2 that was well blocked and Mark ran hard. Him scoring was a great moment for everyone,” Calande said.

“That first play knocked the wind out of us,” RHAM head coach Tom Hammon said. “There was one mistake where the safety missed the tackle and that was it. Zazzaro is a beast.”

Both defenses played well the remainder of the first quarter. The RHAM defensive line was able to get solid pressure and made challenging tackles. Meanwhile, East Catholic made life frustrating for Tillinghast and his receivers. The senior was sacked twice and forced into many difficult passes that were broken up by the secondary.

East Catholic and Zazzaro also scored a touchdown on the first drive of the second. After the Sachems went three and out, the Eagles earned one first down and then found themselves at third and one on the 26-yard line. That’s when they executed a counter run perfectly, as the blockers gave Zazzaro ample time to weave by the off-balance defense and then take the ball to the house for a 74-yard score. A two-point conversion gave East Catholic a `16-0 lead with 8:50 remaining in the half.

Zazzaro gave his offensive line all the credit for his touchdowns and success throughout the game.

“Everything I owe to them right there. They did a wonderful job of making holes throughout the game and sticking with blocks,” Zazzaro said. “Even once I broke through the first layer of defenders, they were there downfield making blocks.”

RHAM put together its first sustained drive following the touchdown, advancing down to the East Catholic 32 thanks to some solid runs by Tillinghast and Dylan Depersia and a penalty. The frustrations continued however, as Tillinghast’s fumbled snap was immediately recovered by the Eagles and run back to midfield with 4:49 to go.

The Sachems defense was not ready to let East Catholic put the game out of reach, making a huge play in the red zone at 3:28. RHAM got strong pressure on quarterback Aric Graves and Sam Macmillan intercepted his pass near the goal line, jumping the route and making a beautiful catch.

The Eagles entered halftime with a 16-0 lead. RHAM gained just 22 yards on 19 first half plays.

The third was topsy-turvy, but East Catholic ultimately stayed in control. The Sachems started with the ball and moved into Eagles territory on a pinpoint 15-yard pass to Macmillan. Their momentum came to a screeching halt following an intentional grounding call. East Catholic’s backfield then pounded the ball down to the 31, where RHAM’s defense forced a fumble recovered by Macmillan at 6:30.

The host’s good fortunes immediately disappeared. On second down, the defense bore down on Tillinghast and he quickly threw a rocket that was intercepted by Josh Mendoza, who ran it down to the 16. The senior continued to haunt the Sachems, running the ball in on fourth down from two yards out just less than three minutes later, with a two-point conversion giving his squad a 24-0 advantage.

“Getting pressure on the QB is the name of the game in high school. There’s only so many blocking schemes opponents have and if you overwhelm them you can win a lot of games,” Calande said.

Hammon did not mince words when discussing the struggles of his offensive line and the lack of big offensive plays.

“I don’t think my line executed worth a flip and played very poorly. We didn’t respond to the heat even though we trained to be conditioned to it,” he said. “We never capitalized on anything the defense gave us with its turnovers. Not playing well is ultimately on me.”

East Catholic’s final touchdown was scored by Michael Soper with 11:05 remaining on an 8-yard run, followed by a two-point conversion.

After the Eagles went on a long final drive, RHAM’s defense built a wall at the goal line, stopping them twice from a yard out and forcing a turnover on downs. The offense could not move forward however, with East Catholic forcing a safety to gain their final two points.

Calande and Zazzaro both discussed the importance of winning the season opener in such an impressive fashion.

“With all the kids that graduated, I know the younger guys had doubts about their own abilities. They’ve done a great job today and in the preseason and our older guys have been there to lead. I am very pleased with everyone’s effort, and we can be successful this season if we stay healthy.”

“This builds everyone’s confidence and sets a good tone going forward. Hopefully we can keep maintain that momentum and trust our hard work, and I’ll express the importance of that to the rest of the team,” Zazzaro said.

East Catholic will host Avon next Saturday for a 1:30 game. RHAM will play at Tolland Friday at 6:30.

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