#12 Bryce Karstetter and $5 Nick Wright watch from the sidelines during the Panthers 41-6 playoff exit last Tuesday night. Despite the loss, the senior QB-WR duo broke records in 2018
Cromwell/Portland's season came to an emotional end last Tuesday night, losing 41-6 to undefeated Stafford/East Windsor/Somers in the first round of the Class S playoffs at Enfield High School.
“It’s tough, I feel bad for our seniors,” head coach Randell Bennett said following the defeat, “We really hadn’t been tested in the month of November. The last real test was the Valley game and I think that you saw that tonight. We were a little tentative to make a play. In the first and second drive we just looked a little nervous out there tonight.”
Bennett’s team enter the postseason 9-1 and riding a four-game winning streak, which included consecutive shutouts over Woodstock Academy (41-0) and Rocky Hill (30-0) to close the regular season, but the Bulldogs of Stafford dominated time of possession from start to finish, scoring six rushing touchdowns to advance to the semifinals.
Quarterback Colton Engel led the charge, racking up 150 yards on the ground and three scores, including a pair in the first half to provide the Bulldogs a 14-0 lead at the break.
Each of Engel’s touchdowns came from a yard out. Coincidentally, his first score was at the 1:18 mark of the first quarter and his second at the 1:18 mark of the second quarter.
The playoff bout was billed as a game of contrasting offensive styles. The Panthers entered with a prolific aerial attack and the Bulldogs ground game was equally impressive this season.
In the end, quarterback Bryce Karstetter and the Panthers offense were unable to create the chunk plays they had relied on all season and the Bulldogs thrived in all three phases of the game, also creating five turnovers on defense and blocking a punt.
Julien Rivas, Jeff Kology, and Caleb White each intercepted passes, and Will Spellman blocked the punt.
“We took the first series to see how they were going to play us. They hadn’t seen too many passing offenses on film so we were trying to get a feel for them,” Bennet said of the slow start, “We just never really got the ball back and they just chewed up the clock in the second quarter. Before we looked up it was halftime and it was 14-0,”
Stafford’s momentum bled into the second half, scoring on the opening possession when Engel tallied his third rushing touchdown.
Rivas, who finished with 126 total yards, scored from three yards out later in the third. Kology and Cody Gebo each found the end zone in the fourth
As a team, the Bulldogs amassed 288 yards on the ground and had an impressive 5 to 1 run-to-pass ratio.
Guiding the Bulldogs’ offense is current Wethersfield girls basketball coach Jeff Russell, who was the former offensive coordinator for the Eagles’ football team before bringing his formation concepts and wizardry up north.
Russell’s up-tempo offense found creases all night and the Bulldogs defense hounded Karstetter from the opening snap, including sacking him on the game’s first snap.
The Panthers offense had some chances, but untimely turnovers and penalties killed most drives. Their lone score a 19-yard toss from Karstetter to Matthew Pepe, narrowing the deficit to 27-6 late in the third quarter.
Inexperience, and a lingering ankle injury to senior captain Ismar Kandic, hampered the Panthers on both sides of the line.
“They’re still learning out there. We had some good things to build on this year but we just have to go back to the drawing board and getting better,” Bennett said of his young linemen, “The biggest thing for them is that I hope they understand that we have to get stronger. We need to get stronger, we need to hone in on our techniques. When you win all the time you can tune your coaches out sometimes when they’re on you about technique.”
Sophomores Cam Latronica, Brandon Lockwood, Marc Treglia, and Ian Conway all had solid seasons in the trenches and earned valuable experience for the coming years.
Bennett will have several starters returning in 2019, which includes the large group of sophomores and freshman sensation Owen Brunk.
However the playoff loss was the end of the road for a dozen seniors, including Karstetter.
The three-year starter had his best statistical season, throwing for 29 touchdowns and adding four more on the ground.
First-year phenomenon Nick Wright will also be departing after breaking the program’s all-time receiving yardage mark, finishing with 1495 yards (a state high) and scoring 17 touchdowns.
“Can’t put into word how thankful I am to have been able to play for such a great organization. Love my brothers and everyone who supported us,” Wright stated following the playoff exit.
Leading rusher Bryan Lockwood, leading tackler Zac Cyr, the takeaway tandem of Kevin Hinkle and Devon Kilham, along with Kandic, Dudley Salmon, Jordan Flores, Carter Graves, Jaylen Jenkins, Deniz Pine, and Chase Lopes will also be moving on.
“I feel really bad for those guys, because our seniors carried us this year,” stated Bennett, who was an assistant coach prior to taking over as the head coach a season ago, “They are just an integral part of what I think is going to be a great program. Last year we got right to the line and Rocky Hill knocked us out and this year we got in and we ran into Stafford. We lit it up with stats and scoring but at the end of the day those things don’t necessarily matter when you want to win the championship as a team. I know looking forward this is something that everyone will look back on and say we had a great group.”
Over the last four years the seniors helped compile an impressive 35-8 record, which included a playoff win over Bloomfield in 2016.
Next fall Bennett and his staff need to replace some key weapons, but the pieces are in place for another postseason run.
“We just have to stick together and get our younger guys better. Hopefully in two years we’ll be talking about this while we’re laughing with the trophy under our arm,” added Bennett, “These guys will be back and we’ll be the same old Cromwell.”
Stafford’s season came to a conclusion in the semis, losing to Haddam-Killingworth 21-14 in overtime last Sunday.
The Bulldogs battled back from a 14-0 second-half deficit to send the game into overtime on touchdowns from Rivas and Engel, but H-K scored on their first possession of the extra session and made a defensive stand to advance to the Class S championship game.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin