Going on the road and playing a rival is never an easy way to start a season, but that was exactly the daunting task facing Cromwell last Friday night at North Branford High School. The final result wasn’t ideal; however, the Panthers showed positive signs in the second half that the team can build on as the season progresses.
The two schools belong to the same conference and with play similar styles on both sides of the ball, using a variation of the read option on offense and aggressive, attacking defenses. It was North Branford that used the home field advantage at Colafati Field to better execute their schemes and force Cromwell into early turnovers, building a comfortable lead en route to a 46-8 victory.
North Branford took control on the game midway through the first quarter after the teams had traded punts. Cromwell punter Cole Bradley pinned the hometown Thunderbirds at their own 10-yard line, allowing the Panthers to seize control of the field position battle. However, North Branford’s quarterback Eddie Miller proceeded to use his legs to quickly move the ball downfield. The senior signal caller had runs of five, six, and ten yards during the drive. Running back Austin Calamita reeled off a 50 yard run down the left sideline and backfield mate Shelby Franklin polished off the masterful drive by taking an inside handoff before scampering around the right end for a 12-yard touchdown. The score gave the Thunderbirds a lead they would never relinquish.
Sophomore running back Kristian Sapp gave Cromwell new life when he returned the ensuing kickoff for 38 yards, but a lost fumble of the first play of the drive killed any momentum. Following the turnover, North Branford took advantage of the good field position and Miller had runs of 20 and 21 yards, the latter resulting in a the Thunderbird’s second touchdown.
Franklin added another rushing touchdown and the Thunderbird’s defensive added two more scores, which ballooned their halftime lead to 32-0. Calamita, who scored one of the defensive touchdowns on a 22-yard interception return, brought back the opening kickoff of the second half 76 yards for another score, increasing the lead to 39. The stunned Panthers could have folded at this point, but instead played inspired football the rest of the game.
Quarterback Jarius Bailey, who led Cromwell in receiving last season, is in the process of learning a new position and struggled at times in the first half. He looked more comfortable over the final two quarters and, late in the third quarter, engineered the team’s best drive of the evening. The junior completed a 19-yard pass to Sapp and then completed passes of 12, 11, and 23 yards to versatile wide receiver Emir Cirikovic. The 23-yarder was a beautifully thrown fade pass near the right sideline that Cirikovic snared out of the air after out jumping a helpless Thunderbird cornerback. Bailey scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak on the following play and then hit Nelson Carlson for the two-point conversion to cap the Panthers’ lone score of the game.
The touchdown drive was a shining moment for Cromwell, but they had several players who had solid individual performances once the stadium lights came on. Nik Mazzucco led the defensive charge Friday night by playing with intensity and passion for all four quarters. The senior defensive lineman blocked an extra point and made a handful of tackles in the game. He suffered an injury in the third quarter, which forced him to miss several plays, but he made an immediate impact upon his return when he tackled Calamita for a loss on his first play back.
Carlson, Mayze James, and Justice Taylor also gave valiant efforts on defense. Carlson and James are gifted athletes that can play multiple positions and both made several open field tackles against North Branford’s shifty backs. Taylor is a punishing tackler that can play with both his hand in the ground and at linebacker.
It certainty wasn’t the way that Cromwell coach Chris Eckert wanted to start the season, but he can rest assured that he has several budding stars on a roster that will develop over the next couple of months.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin