Just one month ago the Cromwell Panthers were sitting at atop the Pequot-North and had just beaten four straight conference opponents in impressive fashion. It seemed that the young Panthers were headed for a spot in the playoffs after a sensational start to the season. However, that’s when the injuries and misfortune started to mount for Cromwell and five losses later leaves them searching for answers. The latest loss was a physical 24-6 defeat at the hands of the North Branford Thunderbirds on a chilly, damp Friday night in North Branford.
The Thunderbirds were celebrating their Senior Night at George A. Colafarti Field and had also struggled over the past month, losing four of five games. The rowdy home crowd combined with a strong running game and key plays from backup quarterback Paul Pastet helped North Branford pull out the victory in a game that was closer than the final score would indicate.
Cromwell, who was also without their starting quarterback, used a unique rotating system at quarterback to fill the void left by Mavric Pelletier’s injury. This strategy worked early in the game with Jarius Bailey starting the game under center and rotating with Emir Cirikovic, who would operate primarily out of a shotgun formation. The two-quarterback system fooled North Branford in the first quarter allowing the Panthers to drive into Thunderbirds’ territory with a chance to put points on the board, but kicker Mike McNally’s 42-yard field goal attempt drifted too far to the right. North Branford’s punishing fullback Josh Melaccio ripped off a 36-yard run immediately following the missed kick, but the Thunderbirds fumbled of the following play and it was recovered and returned 25 yards by Cromwell’s defensive captain Joey Chaves. The fumble recovery was just one of Chaves big plays Friday night. The senior defensive tackle also reordered a sack, four quarterback pressures, and seven tackles. Two plays following Chaves recovery, and facing a third and 22, Cirikovic threw a beautiful rainbow pass down the right sideline that Byrd grabbed for a 32 yard touchdown. Byrd had rotated out to the receiver position on the play and beat double coverage for the game’s opening score, putting the Panthers up 6-0 with 3:23 to play in the first quarter.
The Cromwell sideline was ecstatic following the touchdown and their defense nearly caused a three and out on North Branford’s next offensive possession, but a questionable unnecessary roughness penalty on the Panthers negated a third down sack and gave the Thunderbirds a first down. The penalty seemed to swing the momentum in the direction of North Branford and they scored later in the drive when Pastet connected with Austin Calamita on an out route. Calamita beat man coverage on the route and raced down the sidelines for a 29-yard touchdown reception. The touchdown and following two-point conversion gave North Branford an 8-6 lead and the home team never looked back from that point on.
Cromwell did have a chance to take the lead heading into halftime, but McNally missed a field goal from 36 yards out, this time pulling the kick to the left. Kicking conditions were challenging on Friday night due to the rain that had dampened the field during the morning and afternoon. Following the miss, and rather than be content with a two point halftime lead, North Branford decided to open up their passing game and quickly marched into Cromwell territory with two long pass plays. The first was a 38-yard jump ball that Calamita hauled down between two Cromwell defenders and the second was a middle-screen that was caught by Melaccio, who turned the well-executed play into a 17 yard gain. The two plays set up North Branford at the 13-yard line with nine seconds to play. Without any time outs remaining, Pastet gambled and kept the ball for himself on a quarterback keeper. The gamble paid off as Pastet dove into the left corner of the end zone to score with only four seconds left to play in the half. The last-second touchdown energized the home crowd and gave North Branford a 16-6 lead at the break.
The second half featured seven total punts and very little drama. The only score of the half was tallied by Melaccio, who burst up the middle and ran untouched for a 51-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter. Melaccio, who runs like a bulldozer, finished the game with 178 total yards and was successful of all three of his two-point conversion runs.
Despite his troubles on place kicking, McNally did have a great night punting the football. The senior nailed three punts inside the North Branford 20-yard line, including a 52 yard blast that seemed to hang in the crystal clear night sky for five seconds. McNally is one of only a handful of seniors on the Cromwell roster. Fellow senior Antwaum Burney also has a solid game in a losing effort. The 6’1” Burney blocked very well as a receiver and came up with four tackles and two pass deflections from his cornerback position.
McNally, Burney, and the rest of Cromwell’s seniors will have a chance close out their high school careers with a victory when they return home to host the Coginchaug Regional Blue Devils (8-2) on Thanksgiving. Cromwell has won the last three meetings between the two teams, but the Blue Devils are currently on a seven game winning streak and a win against the Panthers would most likely earn them a spot in the Class S playoffs. Despite the daunting task, Cromwell will be highly motivated in an effort to send their seniors out on a winning note. Bundle up, bring the family, and celebrate Thanksgiving morning at Pierson Park. Kickoff is at 10 a.m.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin