In August, senior Owen Brunk would tell anyone who would listen that the Cromwell/Portland football team had the makings of a state champion.
Three months later, Brunk and the Panthers defeated Bloomfield 21-6 on a fog-filled field at Trumbull High School to win the Class S state championship on Dec. 11.
“Nobody worked harder than us in the offseason. We’ve talked about this moment for over a year and to see it happen is crazy,” Brunk said shortly after the final whistle sounded. “I don’t think it has hit me yet, it’s great. This is a great group of guys and we earned this.”
It was the program’s first state championship since 2008 and the initial title for the co-op since Cromwell and Portland joined forces in 2015.
Senior Teddy Williams wrapped up his storybook season with three more touchdowns, giving him a grand total of 30 trips to the end zone this season.
“Teddy has been that guy all year. He’s gone up against the best, he’s dominated against the best,” said Panthers head coach Randell Bennett, “He’s a dominant player in every facet of the game. He can do it all.”
From the opening kick it was clear that the Panthers meant business, scoring on the opening possession following a five-play, 72-yard drive.
Running back Alex Hair had four straight carries, including a 23-yard run, and then quarterback Cole Brisson connected with Ben Fagan on a seam route. At the six-yard line, Fagan was stripped of the ball, which bounced into the end zone before Williams pounced on it.
The unconventional touchdown was an omen for the rest of the game as the Panthers were consistently in the right spot at the right time.
Brunk, who had four tackles for loss, said it was the preparation that made the difference, “Our coaches week in and week out put in a great game plan and it’s up to us to execute. When they give us a game plan like they did it makes it easy.”
Bloomfield drove into the red zone on their first possession before turning it over on downs at the six-yard line.
Four plays later, Williams found the pay dirt again after catching a quick slant from Brisson before weaving his way through multiple defenders and scoring from 46 yards out, providing the Panthers a 14-0 lead with 9:43 left in the second quarter.
Bloomfield again moved the ball into scoring position before sophomore defensive end Emeka Yearwood came off the edge and floored freshman quarterback Darrien Foster, causing a fumble that Hair recovered at the 32-yard line.
“The tackle didn’t back out to block me, so it was an open sack on the quarterback,” said Yearwood, who also credited the team’s preparation, “We watched a bunch of film and we knew what they were going to do before they did.”
Playing with a lead, the Panthers leaned on their defense to shut the door on the state championship.
After Foster scored on a quarterback keeper with 3:28 left in the third, C/P’s defense was lights out the rest of the night.
Senior Jahid Blake-Singleton sacked Foster to end the third, setting up another heroic moment for Williams, who intercepted a pass and took it back to the house for a 66-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter.
On the next possession, freshman cornerback Jack Nolan intercepted another Foster pass at the one-yard line, ending Bloomfield’s last legitimate scoring opportunity.
The Panthers, who played with confidence and swagger all season, finished the game with the ball after Bennett decided to go for it on 4th and 1 from his own 14-yard line. Brunk converted the fourth down on a run, allowing the team to drain the rest of the clock.
The gutsy call earned the fifth-year head coach the nickname ‘Riverboat Randell’.
“I’m willing to bet on my guys against anyone,” said Bennett. “This is a product of a relentless pursuit at being the best that you can be.”
The state title was yet another phenomenal performance from the Panthers defense. Bloomfield entered the contest with a 12-0 record, having scored 40 points per game. The six points was the lowest scoring output from the Warhawks in over three years, dating back to Nov 2, 2018.
Defensive tackle Ethan Philbrick solidified a defensive front that limited Bloomfield's normally reliable rushing attack, “We just wanted it more. We had a lot of things clicking and we played a perfect game today.”
Philbrick also started the championship game at offensive guard, teaming with Matt Binezewski, Ray Boudreau, Jackson Williams, and Allen Cohen to control the line to scrimmage from start to finish.
Of that group, Philbrick is the only one not returning next year.
Bennett said the contributions from the younger guys were on full display in the title tilt, “To be on this stage, these guys just stepped up to the challenge today. I’m happy for these guys and proud of the team.”
The championship win wrapped up an undefeated season (13-0) for the Panthers, who now own the state’s longest winning streak at 14 games.
By the time the Panthers take the field next September, it will be over 1,000 days since they last lost a game.
The winning streak is something Williams and the other seniors take pride in, especially after trudging through a 2-8 season in 2019.
“It feels amazing. We’ve been working for this for two years and it finally came together today,” said Williams, who also added 11 tackles in the championship win. “All week on film we knew they didn’t pull a lot, it was mostly zone blocking, so we knew if we played fast and physical we could stop them.”
The Panthers historic defense allowed only 97 points in 13 games, intercepting 18 passes, recovering 15 fumbles, and scoring six defensive touchdowns. They did this despite playing a dozen games over a 72-day span and while facing two of the best offensives in the state (Ansonia and Bloomfield) over the final two games.
Defensive coordinator Jack Wilson, who is a former player and 2016 CHS-graduate, put it simply after the game, stating, “Defense wins championships.”
For Philbrick and the rest of the seniors, the triumph in Trumbull was their championship curtain call.
“This is the best feeling that I’ve had in my entire life,” said Philbrick, “This is the same group we’ve had since youth, so to get this championship playing with my brothers feels amazing.”
#50 Jackson Williams, #60 Connor Egan, #2 Owen Brunk, and #8 Teddy Williams, along with friends and family celebrate the Panthers Class S championship win over Bloomfield on Dec. 11.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin