Cromwell/Portland’s football captains #5 Ryan Rozich, #18 Ben Fagan, #14 Alex Hair, and Cole Brisson (behind Rozich) walk out to the field for their final game at Pierson Park on Nov. 29.
In a game that featured one big play after another, the Cromwell/Portland football team rallied to beat Ledyard 43-34 in the first round of the Class SS playoffs at Pierson Park on Nov 29.
Senior Alex Hair found the end zone three times to spark the offense, while the Panthers defense shook off 376 rushing yards from Ledyard to create a pair of turnovers and stopped Ledyard twice on downs in the final 15 minutes to steal a contest that featured four lead changes and six touchdowns of over 50 yards.
Ledyard’s option offense gave the Panthers’ defense fits throughout the game, scoring on plays of 53, 51, 77, 69, and 65 yards.
But the fireworks really didn’t start until the second half.
At the break, the visiting Colonels held a 12-10 advantage in a game that looked like it had the makings of a low-scoring affair,
“It took us a little while to find our legs in the first half,” Panthers head coach Randell Bennett said of his offense. “We were stalling out early.”
Playing without the services of starting center A.J. Signorello, the Panthers played musical offensive linemen by shifting over starting guard Jack Williams to fill Signorello’s spot in the middle and starting sophomore Austun Visone at Williams’ vacated guard spot.
“For stepping into a big playoff game, he did a great job,” Hair said of Visone. “Our whole line did a great job out there.”
It took a while for the reformed line to find their footing, but once they did they paved the way for Hair to do what he does best. Hair scored on a pair of touchdown runs before catching a go-ahead 12 yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The wild second half started when Ledyard’s Jacob Lenz scored on a 77-yard run on the first play of the third quarter.
Emeka Yearwood then provided a spark the Panthers desperately needed with a dazzling 74-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to swing the momentum.
Yearwood said that his scoring return was the result of everybody doing their jobs, adding, “Everyone’s blocks lined up and everyone did their job, and all I had to do was run.”
On the following drive, Ledyard responded with a 69-yard Jackson Poulton to Lenz scoring strike, taking a 26-17 advantage. The Colonels then blocked Allen Cohen’s field goal to kill the C/P’s next scoring opportunity with 3:55 left in the third quarter.
Things looked bleak for the Panthers until senior Derek Wilson recovered a fumble of an option pitch, setting the stage for the Panthers comeback.
Three plays later, Hair scored from two yards out, and on the following possession Ledyard turned the ball over on downs near midfield.
Quarterback Cole Brisson then methodically engineered a nine-play drive, hitting Ryan Rozich and Yearwood with first down completions before connecting with Hair on a swing pass for a nine-yard touchdown, giving the Panthers their first lead since the second quarter.
Despite being down multiple scores in the fourth quarter, Brisson said the team never panicked, adding, “We have experience with that and everyone on the team is starting to trust each other more.”
Yearwood then recovered a fumble at the Ledyard 13-yard line. On the ensuing play, Brisson kept the ball on a read option and darted around the left end for a 13-yard touchdown run, putting the Panthers up 37-26 with 6:13 to play in regulation.
Over the course of eight minutes, the Panthers had turned a multiple-score deficit into a multiple-score lead.
“Coach gives us that belief that we can believe in ourselves and this team,” Yearwood said about overcoming deficits.
Ledyard threw one final haymaker when Poulton sprinted 65 yards for a touchdown, but the Panthers’ punishing run game finished off the wild bout by going on a five-play to cement the playoff victory.
Hair carried the first four times on the drive before speedster Daevyon Lovelace took the fifth carry 25 yards to the house on a jet sweep with 2:13 to play in regulation.
Once the final whistle sounded, the Panthers had erupted for 33 points in the second half, a stark contrast to the 10 points they posted over the first two quarters.
“We knew everything we wanted was there but we just didn’t execute in the first half,” stated Brisson. “I have a lot of confidence in my guys and we knew we just had to execute. They were giving us what we wanted, we just had to go out there and play our brand of football in the second half.”
For Hair, who led the team in rushing a season ago and missed the first seven games this year with a fractured leg, the performance showed that he is still one of the state’s premiere running backs.
Hair credited his teammates for welcoming him back into the lineup once he was fully healthy.
“I know that everybody out there has my back,” added Hair. “It’s a brotherhood. We talked that this could be our last game and we needed to have each other’s backs.”
When Hair’s injury first occurred in September, Hair was told by doctors that his final high school season on the gridiron was probably over.
Bennett said that Hair did all the right things to come back, combining his incredible work ethic into taking care of his body through the rehab process.
“He put in a lot of energy and effort. His heart wouldn’t let him be denied,” stated Bennett, who added Hair’s punishing running style gave the Panthers an added dimension on offense. “We can give him the ball at any time and he’ll get us something. He’s always falling forward. I wouldn’t want anyone else out there.”
Brisson added that the return of Hair made an already physically-minded football team even more physical.
“It’s what we want,” said Brisson. “When we can get in those situations and chew that clock and with Alex back we know he is going to take every hit and bounce off those hits. We knew we can ride him.”
The win over Ledyard turned out to be the team’s final game at Pierson Park this season.
Last Sunday, the Panthers quest for a second straight championship ended with a 40-35 loss to Joel Barlow in the Class SS semifinals at Rocky Hill High School.
Brisson tossed three touchdowns, freshman Tyler Cipolla caught a touchdown and returned another for a score on a kickoff, and Hair added a rushing touchdown, yet Joel Barlow’s potent rushing attack was too much for the Panthers to overcome.
The loss ended a phenomenal two-year run for the Panthers, who won 23 of 25 games over that time span.
A year ago they finished 13-0, winning the Class S championship with a 21-6 win over Bloomfield. It marked the program’s first state title 2008 and first since Cromwell and Portland became a co-op in 2015.
Despite losing a pair of Top-25 All-State players in Teddy Williams and Owen Brunk, the Panthers started the 2022 season by winning their first eight games.
Prior to a loss to Rockville on Nov. 10, the program had won 22 straight games, a streak spanning 1,072 days.
Brisson, Hair, Rozich, and Ben Fagan were the team’s captains this season and will be four of 14 seniors that will be departing.
Yearwood, Williams, Lovelace, and Cipolla will head a talented group of returning players looking to build off back-to-back postseason appearances.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin