Senior members of the Cromwell/Portland football team pose before the Panthers’ Senior Night victory over Valley Regional/Old Lyme on Oct. 28.
In what turned out to be a game for the ages, Cromwell/Portland football held off Valley Regional/Old Lyme 28-27 on Senior Night on last Friday.
Late in regulation, senior defensive back Johnny Beltran deflected a pass in the end zone on a two-point conversion attempt and the Panthers recovered the ensuing onside kick to preserve the team’s 21st straight win, a streak that dates back to Nov. 27, 2019.
Both Class SS teams entered the contest with undefeated records and the conference bout more than lived up to the hype.
Head coach Randell Bennett credited his senior class, featuring 14 players, for defending home field on the special night.
“They just dug deep, I’m happy for those guys” added Bennett. “Those guys were here as freshmen before this [streak] started and they had to take their lumps, and now they’re on top.”
Playing in front of a packed house full of frenzied fans at Pierson Park, the Panthers marched 61-yards in nine plays to take a 7-0 lead on a one-yard scoring run from Alex McKiernan.
The visiting Warriors then reeled off 21 straight points behind a pair of touchdown passes from Grady Lacourciere and an electrifying 55-yard punt return house call from DiAngelo Jean-Pierre.
Down 14 points, Bennett reminded his team about the double-digit deficit they faced against Rocky Hill a season ago, a game they rallied to win 33-21
“Being down didn’t really rattle us,” said Bennett. “These guys just went out and executed. My hat goes off to them; their backs where against the wall.”
C/P shifted momentum back in their favor with a nearly seven-minute drive capped by a touchdown from freshman Tyler Cipolla, who scooted down the right sideline to score from 21 yards out, cutting the deficit to 21-14 at the break
The Panthers then recover a pair of onside kicks in the third quarter, capitalizing on both recoveries with touchdown tosses from senior quarterback Cole Brisson.
Brisson connected with McKiernan on fourth down from four yards out to tie the game and then found Machi Campbell down the seam for a 23-yard scoring strike, giving the Panthers a 28-21 lead late in third quarter.
Thanks to the onside kick recoveries and a punishing run game, the home Panthers dominated time of possession in the second half with the Warriors running only three plays through the first 22 minutes of the second half.
After going three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, VR/OL capitalized on their second and final possession of the game when Jean-Pierre hit Jacob Rand from 32-yard out to trim the deficit to a single point with 1:08 to play in regulation.
Following the score, the Warriors opted for the potential go-ahead two-point conversion rather than tie the game with an extra point. Beltran, who was playing cornerback, then came up with the play of the game, diving to break up a pass in the end zone that was thrown by Jean Pierre and intended for Michael Galbreath.
Beltran said he read Pierre’s eyes on the crucial play, adding, “I knew he was going to throw it when he bailed out to my side. I knew he wasn’t going to rush and I knew he needed to throw it.”
The diving deflection saved the winning streak and provided the seniors even more reason to celebrate.
“That earned him a lot of respect with his teammates tonight,” Bennett said of Beltran’s heroics.
Brisson called the back-and-forth battle “the best game I’ve been part of” but quickly noted that the win is only the latest achievement in the Panthers quest to repeat as state champions.
Next up is a game against the co-op of Coginchaug/Hale Ray/East Hampton, who happens to be the last team to defeat the Panthers.
By the time the game kicks off at Coginchaug High School on Nov. 4, it will have been nearly three years (1,084 days) since the Panthers last loss.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin