The Cromwell/Portland football team rallied to beat Rocky Hill, 33-21, in the sixth annual Shunpike Showdown on Nov. 24 at McVicar Field in Rocky Hill.
Trailing 21-7 in the third quarter, senior captain Owen Brunk returned a kick return 88 yards for a touchdown, igniting a scoring surge for the Panthers, who scored 26 unanswered.
It marked the third straight time the Panthers have defeated the Terriers in the annual game, which dates back to 2015.
“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 also 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 our 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.
“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 jaw-dropping return reenergized the Panthers on both sides of the ball.
Following a three-and-out by Rocky Hill, running back Alex Hair scored 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, whose Terriers finished the season 5-5. “We’ve seen improvements and I’m proud of their effort and everything they have done.”
The win over Rocky Hill earned the Panthers a home playoff game and they took advantage of home field by defeating Notre Dame-Fairfield, 29-20, on Tues, Nov. 30 at Pierson Park in Cromwell.
The Panthers led from start to finish, but had to hold off a pesky Lancers team that entered the game with a 7-2 record.
Williams upped his gaudy touchdown total to 22 on the season by running one in from 32-yards out with 11:05 to play in the second quarter.
Ben Fagan caught a touchdown from Brisson in the third quarter, putting the Panthers up 19-7 with 4:21 to play in the third, and Hair seal with a 4-yard touchdown run in the fourth.
Fagan, who also starred defensively by intercepting a pass in the first quarter and recovering a fumble late in regulation, said, “We always have a 100% effort. We just never stopped; we never let off the gas pedal.”
Kicker Allen Cohen made all three of his field goals (35, 17, and 33 yards), giving the home team an extra advantage on special teams.
Bennett joked, “We don’t have goal posts on our practice field so I don’t know how he is able to be accurate on his kicks, but we needed all three of those tonight.”
Next is a semifinal showdown with Ansonia who have won 20 state championships, including eight titles since 2002.
Bennett said the Panthers must win the battle in the trenches if they expect to beat the powerhouse Chargers.
“We are going to have to prepare and have better practices this week,” said Fagan. “We have to come out with the same intensity or even more.”
Williams added, “We just have to execute. I think we can beat anyone in the state.”
The semifinal game is set for Sunday, Dec. 5 at Pierson Park in Cromwell. Kickoff is slated for 12:30 p.m.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin