Flashback to Thanksgiving Day 2014. Coginchaug Regional played host to Cromwell in the regular season finale and the home team was anything but giving, blanking the Panthers 50-0 in Durham.
Fast forward to last Friday when Cromwell/Portland welcomed Coginchaug for the season opener and totally turned the tables, shutting out the visiting Blue Devils 55-0 on a hot, humid day at Pierson Park.
“We battled the elements. We were cramping up all over the place, but our guys continued to get back in the game,” Cromwell head coach Chris Eckert said following convincing victory, “The effort was awesome on the field. I think we need to improve on our technique and our execution with the plays, but I think we’re getting better and I thought we got better as the game went on.”
It was a thoroughly dominant performance on both sides of the ball for a team that finished 8-2 and just missed the postseason a year ago.
Kristian Sapp made sure the team started with a bang, making a statement to start the game and again to start the second half. The senior running back did something that’s the football equivalent to Halley’s Comet, scoring touchdowns on the first plays from scrimmage of both halves.
Sapp, who is also a starting cornerback on defense, scored on the game’s opening play when he burst though the heart of the Coginchaug defense before cutting right and sprinting 59 yards to the end zone.
He duplicated that feat after the Panthers used a surprise onside kick to open the second half. Senior kicker Richard Loza drilled an end over end kick, which took a perfect bounce into the arms of sophomore Devon Kilham.
Sapp then went back to work, taking the ensuing handoff and scampering 45 yards for his fourth and final touchdown, ballooning Cromwell’s lead to 36-0 mere moments into the second half.
“I just wanted to have our team pumped for the first half and the second half, so the first plays were definitely a key. Our intensity was really good. We wanted to get this first win in the opener.” said Sapp, who added that it was important to start the game fast with the extreme humidity, “The weather was bad because of the heat and we had a lot of cramps early, but we pushed through it.”
The talented tailback rested for a good portion of the second half, but still managed to rush for 192 yards and the four scores on only 11 carries. Sapp provided the highlight reels, but it was the offensive and defensive lines that controlled the game from start to finish.
Starting offensive linemen Anthony Puntiel, Max Colavecchio, Kyle Martin, Matt Wolak, and Ethan Roy opened gaping running lanes for Sapp and Kittrell Lauray, who added two more touchdowns on the ground.
Roy also teamed with Austin Ramberose and Ryan Yorski to set the tone defensively, shutting down the road team’s rushing attack and harassing quarterback David Skelps all afternoon. Roy, a 6’2 senior, was nearly unstoppable and ended the first half with back-to-back sacks.
“The biggest part of the game was us controlling the line of scrimmage. Our offensive line controlled their defensive line for pretty much the entire game and then our defensive line wreaked havoc. We were able to have our linebackers off and secondary off and let the d-line do their thing. It was effective,” added Eckert, “Ethan was second in the state in sacks last year and I don't think there is a guy that we’ll see that can slow him down right now. With the addition of the other guys it’s going to make our front four very, very tough to block. So hopefully it will lead to more success.”
One of the question marks coming into the season for Cromwell was how sophomore Bryce Karstetter would handle the starting quarterbacking duties.
So far, so good for the calm, collected underclassman.
The Panthers didn’t need to go to the air very often, but Karstetter helped set up the team’s third score when he drilled a 12-yard completion to Jon Siena on 4th and 3.
Karstetter also displayed a lot of mobility, scrambling and picking up three first downs with his feet. He was able to showcase his strong arm in second half when he hit Dianta Highsmith in stride for a 50-yard touchdown.
“I saw a young kid that grew up a little bit,” Eckert said of his signal caller, “I think all the reps that he took in the offseason and all the passing leagues that he’s done gave him a little bit more composure in the pocket and he let the game come to him. He did a good job.”
Leading 49-0 headed into the final quarter, junior Brett Robbins put the polishing touches on the victory, scoring from a yard out with eight minutes remaining in the game. The lopsided score allowed Eckert to play several of his younger players over the final 12 minutes.
Eckert and his staff couldn't have scripted a better way to start to the season. The Panthers had a tumultuous start to 2015, but this year the atmosphere is more relax and the goal is to finish the season in December rather than November.
“I think we’re just having a lot more fun. Practice is fun, the kids enjoy being around each other a whole heck of a lot and the coaching staff has done a good job continuing to let the kids be kids. Last year we were very, very serious and letting loose a little bit is allowing our kids to have fun with the sport and that’s what it’s all about.”
The next challenge for Cromwell is Sept 16th when the 1-0 team heads to Dillon Stadium in Hartford for a game against SMSA/University/Classical. The Friday night game kicks at 6 p.m.
Eckert reminded his team as they celebrated following the victory that, “It isn't the Super Bowl.”
Sapp agrees with his coach and knows that it’s not how you start the season, but how you finish it.
“Obviously the seniors want to get into the playoffs, because we’ve never been in the playoffs,” he said, “It’s a good way to start the season, but we’re just going to work harder and harder every day.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin