Prior to kickoff of the 2019 season opener against Haddam-Killingworth, Cromwell/Portland head coach Randell Bennett told backup quarterback, freshman Cole Brisson, to be prepared because he never knew when his number would be called. On the first drive of the game, starter Cam Latronica was injured, thrusting Brisson into the starting role.
It’s a role that Brisson has kept ever since, and the quarterback change started a rebuilding process in Cromwell as Bennett played several underclassmen during a 2-8 season.
Two years and a pandemic later, the Panthers again faced rival H-K and made a statement to the rest of the football community by trouncing the Cougars 41-3 in front of a packed house at Pierson Park last Friday night.
“We executed early,” Bennett said of his team’s fast start, “We get a couple of turnovers and then we started running some of the plays we had been working on. When [the players] saw that success, that fueled their hunger. After not playing for so long, they were hungry tonight.”
Senior captain Owen Brunk added, “I like how aggressive we came out. Coach put together a great game plan. They knew what it would take to beat this team and we had three weeks of practices, so we came out and executed.”
The Panthers overwhelmed the visiting Cougars in all three phases.
H-K fumbled the opening kick-off, which was a pooch kick from Teddy Williams, who then forced and recovered the fumble.
Brisson immediately went to work, connecting with Ryan Rozich on a 33-yard pass down to the four-yard line, before keeping it himself on quarterback draw to score on the next play.
Ben Fagan then intercepted a pass on the Cougars first offensive possession.
On the ensuing play following the turnover, Brisson lofted a perfect spiral down the middle of the field to a streaking Williams for a 56-yard touchdown strike.
And just like that it was 14-0 less than three minutes into the game.
“We made up some new plays in practice and we executed them. We knew the holes they had, and we just attacked them,” said Brisson, “We definitely had a lot of energy and there was a lot of hype around us, so we wanted to come out and make it a statement game.”
The lefty engineered an offense that got production from a variety of sources, including starting running back Alex Hair, who scored twice on the ground, and speedy wide receiver Brandon Rose, who made a spectacular catch of a rainbow ball from Brisson in the third quarter for a 32-yard touchdown.
Cromwell/Portland's defensive front-seven smothered the ground game of the Cougars, who finished with (-43) rushing yards in the game.
Brunk, Williams, and Rozich led the defensive charge, proving to be one of the fiercest linebacker groups on the state. Brunk and Williams each intercepted passes to go along with double digit tackles.
Williams said the three are playing in-synch, “It’s awesome. I know that if I make a mistake, those two have my back and they’ll make the play. It allows me to go 100% and fly around out there.”
The three also did damage on the offensive side. Brunk scored on an 11-yard run, Williams led the team with 110 receiving yards, and Rozich totaled 92 scrimmage yards.
During the 2019 rebuilding year, Brunk made All-State and Williams showed flashes of greatness. Rozich played well as a wide-eyed freshman, learning on the fly.
“Playing as freshmen and sophomores, we were able to grow together and we were able to really gel together,” said Rozich, who is reaping the benefits from his varsity experience in 2019, “It has a huge impact, we were able to experience things for the first time. It was a big step from youth to playing varsity football and we have so much more experience this year.”
The 38-point win improved the Panthers to 2-0. They opened the season with a 36-8 road victory over Morgan before having their week two game against North Branford postponed and rescheduled to a later date.
Bennett was proud of how his team responded following the three-week delay, “We definitely liked the way we started against Morgan and we definitely started the game that same way tonight. When they have that energy, they run with it.”
In the opening win over Morgan, the defense was stout from start to finish as the three linebackers combined for 40 tackles and sophomore defensive back Daevyon Lovelace make a triumphant high school debut by intercepting a pass and returning it 46 yards for a touchdown. Lovelace added five tackles and knocked down three passes.
Brisson threw a touchdown and ran for two more. During last year’s COVID-restrictions, he worked on his agility and speed in the offseason, adding a new dimension to his game.
“I knew this year we had a lot of returning players and I knew that there was a lot of promise for this season, so I wanted to put in a lot of work to make sure we could make this season the best that it could be,” said Brisson.
Friday’s game started a streak of nine straight weeks of football for the Panthers. Next up is a Saturday showdown at (1-2) Valley Regional/Old Lyme on October 9 at Old Lyme High School before traveling for the make-up game against North Branford.
Brunk believes the team has the tools and chemistry to play through the scheduling gauntlet, “My freshman and sophomore year I thought our team was close but compared to this team now, it’s different. In the offseason we worked out together and then we’d hang out together. We created a bond that makes it easier when we’re on the field.”
Cromwell-Portland football captains (L-R) Teddy Williams, Ryan Rozich, Cole Brisson, and Owen Brunk
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin