(Middletown's Xzavier Reyes is tackled by Wethersfield's Connor Pace)
Middletown running back Xzavier Reyes picked up where he left off last fall, rushing for 135 yards and three touchdowns in the Blue Dragons 38-20 season-opening victory over Wethersfield last Friday night at MHS.
“I feel stronger this year. More is expected of me but I feel I can absolutely handle it,” said Reyes, who tallied 1163 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior in 2017, “It’s my last year here and it was just time to step up.”
The senior led a potent ground game, which amassed 357 yards and accounted for all five Middletown touchdowns.
Playing in front of a large home crowd, the Blue Dragons took the opening kickoff and drove 52 yards in seven plays, which culminated with a one-yard scoring plunge from Reyes.
Reyes and first-year starting quarterback Jonta’e Dempsey accounted for the entire yardage on the drive, running behind a talented offensive line that created huge lanes.
Joh’Nel Fields-Gomez, Eric Alicae, Brady Foster, Cameron Barrett, Nygell Smikle, and Osbourne Richards helped pave the way for the stable of backs.
“They were very important tonight,” Reyes said of the men upfront, “I’m very grateful for them and I thank them for working hard because I don’t know if I could block like that every play.”
Wethersfield nearly countered on the next drive, but Craig Elliott’s 61-yard scoring toss to Connor Pace was called back because of an illegal procedure penalty.
On the first play of the second quarter Reyes again carried it over from a yard out, upping the advantage to 14-0.
The rivalry game looked to be headed in the same direction as the last two annual meetings, in which Middletown won by a combined 48 points, but Wethersfield showed their resolve and responded with three straight scoring drives.
Elliott got things started with a 63-yard touchdown bomb to Luke Kelleher five minutes into the second quarter. Facing a third down, Elliott lofted a perfect pass down the right seam, which Kelleher caught in stride before taking it to the house.
Kicker Mike Messina added a 30-yard field goal late in the half, narrowing the deficit to 14-10 at the break.
“You want to come out and have a better start. We had to play our best game to be successful against a team like Middletown but I was happy that we did come back and that we didn't put our heads down right away,” said Wethersfield head coach John Campanello.
The road team’s momentum carried over into the second half as the Eagles took the opening kickoff and methodically worked down the field before settling for a 27-yard field goal from Messina. Elliott connected with Pace four times on the time consuming drive, which was aided by a roughing the punter penalty.
Momentum shifted of the ensuing kickoff as a controversial ruling awarded a touchback to Middletown.
The Blue Dragons made the most of the opportunity, scoring five plays later on a 35-yard leg-churning run from Tyreece Lumpkin. The senior, who finished with 131 total yards, looked to be stopped near the line of scrimmage by a host of defenders but he broke several arm tackles before sprinting to pay dirt, giving the home team an eight-point advantage with 5:42 to play in the third.
Middletown’s defense took over from that point on, intercepting Elliott three times. Dempsey picked off two of the passes and Reyes snared the other off a deflection.
“You’ve got to be nasty on defense and that’s what our coaches preach. That’s what we come out here and do to the best of our abilities,” Reyes said about his two-way duties.
Reyes and Dempsey created the turnovers, but Tavien Harris did the dirty work inside. The senior lineman had three sacks and four tackles in his debut as a starter.
“It feels great. It starts with the line, you’ve got to get the push on offense and get behind the line on defense,” said Harris, who is filling the void of the notable linemen who graduated in 2017, “We did lose a lot of people so we’ve got some big shoes to fill and I’m trying to fill them.”
Sophomore Matthew Aresco, younger brother of record-breaking kicker and 2017 graduate Mike Aresco, added a 26-yard field goal late in the third quarter and Reyes scored his third of the night from 32-yards out early in the fourth.
DaJaun Lomotey put the finishing touches on the victory with a 12-yard scoring run midway through the fourth.
Despite the changing faces the Blue Dragons have been the standard for consistency over the past seven season, winning 54 of 63 regular season games dating back to 2012.
The current group isn’t focused on past successes and is all business in 2018.
“We take it game by game and practice by practice. We have to work hard every day,” stated Reyes, “Today was to have fun and tomorrow it’s back to work.”
“We grind all summer and that’s what we do,” added Harris, “It’s about the team and we’ve all been working in the weight room and with conditioning. We work, we work, we work.”
Next up for Middletown is a three-game road trip, starting at Bristol Eastern on Friday, Sept 14 at 6:30 pm.
Despite the loss Wethersfield had a lot of positives. Elliott showed a lot of moxie behind center and sophomore defensive back Zak Zurzola had a stellar night. Pace also showed his versatility, playing a variety of positions including scoring a late touchdown on a 14-yard quarterback keeper.
A couple of controversial calls and a few untimely turnovers prevented the score from being closer than it was, but Campanello is hoping to build on the positives from Friday night.
“We can’t afford to make those mistakes and you can’t make those mistakes against a good team like Middletown. I thought the kids played until the end and didn’t give up on the game, so I thought that part was good. We’ll have to learn from it and cut down on the mistakes,” stated the veteran coach, “I’m optimistic, I believe in moving on and that each team will get their own identity. We’re trying to establish our identity and in the weeks to come we’ll have an idea of what our identity is going to be.”
The Eagles start a three-game home stand at Cottone Field, beginning with E.O. Smith on Friday, Sept 14 at 7 pm.
Game Notes: Turning Point- Controversy on the Kickoff
After Wethersfield cut the deficit to 14-13 early in the third, Messina’s kickoff was muffed and the ball traveled back towards the goal line. The returner picked up the ball and was immediately tackled into the end zone, where the ball was fumbled and Wethersfield recovered. There were several calls the officials could have made, including awarding either a safety or a touchdown to the Eagles. The officiating staff determined that the returner was in the end zone when he established possession, thus making it a touchback. Upon further review it looked as if the returner established possession inside the field of play and was knocked back into the end zone before fumbling, meaning that a forward progress ruling would apply and Middletown should have been given the ball at their own one-yard line. It was just one of the many interesting plays that made Friday night’s game, and all football games for that matter, exciting and intriguing.
The Starting Five: Local Athletes of the Week
Olivia Belcourt- Cromwell (Soccer): Belcourt scored 2 goals in back-to-back wins this past week, scoring a goal each in wins over Old Saybrook and North Haven. She has now scored 30 career goals and looks to continue to build on her school-record 28 assists. Belcourt is a senior, and a first-team Shoreline conference player. Off the field, she loves spending time outdoors with her family and friends.
Matthew Lecky- Middletown (Cross Country): Lecky placed first in the Blue Dragon Invitational, helping host Middletown place second overall. Lecky is a two-time all-conference selection and is coming off a fifth place finish at the 2017 Class L finals. Off the course, he’s an accomplished chemist and was part of school’s team that took first-place at the annual statewide Chemistry Olympiad last April.
Louis Egbuna- Newington (Soccer): Egbuna scored the lone goal in Newington’s season-opening 1-0 triumph over rival New Britain last Friday night. The senior scored in the 21st minute and the Indians stonewall defense cemented the shutout. Egbuna is a multi-sport star at Newington, best known for his dominance and as a two-time state champion on the volleyball court.
Julia O’Connor- Rocky Hill (Volleyball): O’Connor started her senior season with an epic performance, tallying 17 digs, 15 kills, 10 aces, and five blocks in Rocky Hill’s three-set victory over Wethersfield last Friday. She’s a two-time all-conference selection that works tirelessly on her game, playing year round in summer camps and club teams in the winter and spring. O’Connor is aiming to play collegiate volleyball next fall.
Alexis Szymecki- Wethersfield (Soccer): Szymecki scored both goals in a 2-1 victory over Rocky Hill last Friday night help the Eagles open the season with a conference win. The senior captain is a star on the soccer fields and a star in the classroom, regularly earning academic honors at WHS.
Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin