Rocky Hill's Tyreice Dominique cuts back against the Panthers in the 6th Annual Shunpike Showdown on Nov. 24 at McVicar Field
Trailing 21-7 in the third quarter, Owen Brunk made sure that his team wouldn’t relinquish the Shunpike Showdown trophy without a fight by returning a kickoff 88 yards to shift momentum as Cromwell/Portland came from behind to beat Rocky Hill 33-21 on Nov 24.
Brunk’s jaw-dropping kick return ignited a scoring surge for the Panthers, who scored 26 unanswered to retain the trophy, winning their third straight in the annual rivalry game at McVicar Field.
“It definitely changed the momentum,” Panthers head coach Randell Bennett said of Brunk’s return, “The biggest thing was these guys just put it on themselves. We dropped three passes right before the half and it was up to them if they wanted to play. We can talk about the game plan all we want, but these guys had to want to play. Once we ran that kick back I guess their minds were right.”
The come-from-behind victory evened the annual series (3-3) between the Panthers and the Terriers, and secured only the third undefeated regular season in the history of the program.
“Two years ago we were 2-8 and we put in a lot of work to get to this point,” said Brunk. “This was a goal. Step one is going 10-0 and we did that.”
C/P scored on the game’s opening possession when lefty quarterback Cole Brisson hit Teddy Williams down the right sideline for a 47-yard scoring strike.
It looked like the Panthers, who had beaten their previous nine opponents by an average of 35 points per game, would cruise to yet another victory.
But Rocky Hill responded in a big way.
On the home team’s first offensive possession, Tyreice Dominique scored from eight out on a quarterback sweep. Two possessions later, Brody Troiano steamrolled in from two yards out and M.J. Torres ran in the ensuing two-point conversion, giving the Terriers a 14-7 advantage at the break.
The Terriers then marched 61 yards in 12 plays on the opening possession of the second half, which ended with a Dominique four-yard touchdown run.
“I thought these guys played, especially in the first half, the hardest they have played all year,” said Rocky Hill head coach Rich Dance. “You have to play a perfect game against this team to win and we knew that.”
Following Dominique's second score, Brunk took the ensuing kickoff back to the house following a couple of key blocks before finding a crease and sprinting to the end zone.
“We were playing soft in the first half. [Rocky Hill] came out and they wanted it more than us. We knew we had to come out and be more aggressive in the second half,” recalled Brunk, who was named the MVP of the game.
Brunk’s return reenergized the Panthers on both sides of the ball.
Following a three-and-out by Rocky Hill, running back Alex Hair scored a dozen plays later when he took a 4th-and-1 handoff and burst up the middle for a 14 yard touchdown with 9:16 left in regulation.
Williams then scored twice more on the ground in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.
Special teams ended up playing a major role in the rivalry game.
Rocky Hill blocked two kicks; Dominic Catania blocked a field goal and Ryan Bozzi blocked an extra point. Cromwell/Portland also blocked an extra point and Williams blocked a punt.
Yet it was Brunk’s kickoff return that changed the complexion of the game.
“We could look at a lot of different plays that could have gone differently but I just thought these kids played hard and I’m proud of them,” said Dance. “We’ve seen improvements and I’m proud of their effort and everything they have done.”
Dance’s team ended the season 5-5, including a perfect 3-0 record away from RHHS.
Dominique, who was a first-year starter, wrapped up an incredible senior season under center, finishing with 1,200 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground, adding four more through the air. He also led the team with five interceptions on defense, solidifying a secondary that was a strength of the team.
Junior Alex Peruta led the team with 72 tackles, also causing two forced fumbles. Troiano, a senior, had a team-high six sacks and handled the team’s kicking duties this fall.
“I’m proud of their effort, not only tonight but the entire season,” added Dance, who took over the program three years ago. “This senior class bought in. They came to practice ready every day and they made it a joy to come to work. I told them we are sad to see it end because it has been a joy coming out here with these guys, but all good things come to an end. We’re a family and we’ll always be a family.”
For Cromwell, the 10-0 mark earned them the #2-seed in the Class S playoffs.
Williams' three touchdowns against Rocky Hill upped his season total to 21.
Through ten games, Williams and Brunk combined for 162 tackles and six interceptions to head a defensive unit that hadn’t allowed more than eight points in any game prior to Rocky Hill.
Bennett thinks the Shunpike Showdown could be a great test for the postseason, “It lets us know that we have that ability to come back. We were down two scores and we see that we can come back from that. These are things to learn from and build on. These guys did a great job this week.”
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin