Vaughn Payne catches a touchdown over Chauncey Jones during the Panthers 22-20 victory over SMSA on Sept. 14. Photo credit – Robert Dzurka @Dzurka.flics on Instagram.
It took a half to settle in, but once they did Randell Bennett’s team showed the grit and determination that have become synonymous with the Cromwell/Portland football program.
The Panthers defense stopped a two-point conversion late in regulation, holding on for a 22-20 victory over Sport and Medical Sciences Academy (SMSA) co-op at Pierson Park on Sept. 14.
“We were just preparing ourselves to go into overtime if they got in, but the defense came up with the stop,” said Bennett.
Following a late touchdown, the visiting Tigers from Hartford threatened to extend the game, but speedy cornerback Paul Wimbish led a contingent of Panthers that tackled SMSA’s quarterback Zahkeer Kerr short on the goal line.
The win also marked a successful home debut for junior quarterback Jess Elfreich, who threw for a touchdown and ran for another, both in the second half.
“It’s great — I’ve been dreaming about this ever since I can remember,” Elfreich said of playing under the lights. “The atmosphere here is better than ever and there’s nothing more I can ask for.”
Following a nine play drive to open the game, the Panthers drew first blood when sophomore sensation Tyler Cipolla jetted around the left and scored from eight yards out.
SMSA would score the next 14 points on a pair of touchdowns from junior TJ Thompson, who ran into the end zone from eight yards out in the second quarter and then scored on a screen pass from Kerr with 17 seconds left in the first half.
But as they have done so many times before, the Panthers took control of the game over the final two quarters.
“It was just about stepping up and correcting the easy mistakes that we were messing up on,” said senior captain Jack Williams, who starts on the line on both sides of the ball. “They were easy fixes, we just had to come out and play harder.”
Along with facing a second half deficit, the Panthers were also confronted with the challenge of a limited kicking game.
Senior captain Alex McKiernan, an all-conference player who is also the team’s kicker and punter, suffered an injury in the first half, forcing him to miss the rest of the game.
Losing McKiernan forced Bennett to gamble on fourth down, often in his own end.
The mentality paid dividends in the second half as both touchdowns were set up by four and long conversions.
Facing fourth and 14 from their own 25 in the third quarter, wide receiver Jack Nolan drew a pass interference penalty on a bomb down the right sideline, extending the drive.
Elfreich seemed to settle in after that and complete his next five passes, including a 29-yard scoring strike to junior Vaughn Payne, who high-pointed the ball in the end zone.
An Elfreich to Nolan connection on the two-point conversion knotted the game at 22 with 1:39 left in the third quarter.
Facing a 4th and 20 from his own 35 in the final quarter, Elfreich again delivered with a high-arching ball down the left sidelines which was hauled in by Cipolla, who was able to tap his right foot before going out of bounds.
On the ensuing play, Cipolla then took a screen pass 44 yards down to the one yard line before Elfreich called his own number and scored on a quarterback keeper from a yard out.
Nolan caught another two-point conversion to make it 22-14 with 5:35 to play in regulation.
Elfreich said the offense was unfazed during the difficult fourth downs.
“I trust my guys. I know anyone out there can make a play at any time. If they want to key on one guy, we have another guy coming,” said Elfreich, who threw for 307 yards, 102 of those yards to Cipolla.
With 1:41 to play in regulation, the Tigers finally stopped the Panthers on a fourth down, which would have sealed the game.
SMSA then converted their own fourth and long when Kerr hit Thompson down the seam from 33 yards out, bringing the visitors within two points with 1:10 to play
However, similar to when they earned a home victory by stopping a two-point conversion against Valley Regional a season ago, the Panthers defense was again up to the task on the two-point try last Thursday.
“We knew we needed a stop and that’s what we did,” said Williams, who finished with a handful of tackles and a pair of sacks from his defensive end position. “We sent everybody and we got that stop when we needed it.”
Senior Noah Decker preserved the victory by recovering the ensuing onside kick attempt by SMSA.
Coming into the season, the Panthers had won 23 of their last 25 games, including a state championship in 2021, but graduated an influential senior class last season that included starting quarterback Cole Brisson and all-state linebacker Ryan Rozich.
Elfreich spent the last two seasons learning from Brisson and if his home opener is any indication, Bennett has another gem behind center.
“He’s a tough kid and he understands that it is on his shoulders now,” Bennett said of his first-year starter, who completed 22 of 36 passes. “He watched a guy for two years put it on his shoulders, so it was his time to step up and he did a great job tonight.”
The successful home opener marked the Panthers first official win this fall. They opened the season of the road against Coginchaug/Hale Ray/East Hampton, a game that was postponed midway through due to inclement weather. At the time of the postponement, the Panthers led 28-13 and the game is slated to conclude on Nov. 11.
Bennett is hopeful that the thrilling home opening victory could be a springboard for a team with an abundance of talent, yet short on experience.
“There’s a lot of football left to be played this season,” added Bennett. “We have a lot of young guys and they just need reps.”
Next up is a conference test at Pierson Park against Valley Regional/Old Lyme this Friday, Sept. 22, kicking off at 6 p.m.
Cromwell/Portland football players get amped up before kickoff of the team’s home opener at Pierson Park last Thursday.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin