The 43rd meeting between Newington and Wethersfield highlighted the local gridiron scene on eve of Thanksgiving with the home Indians coming away with an emotional 27-20 victory last Wednesday night on a frigid Alumni Field.
Newington defense dominated the first half, shutting out their rivals and intercepting five passes to take a 27-0 advantage into the halftime locker room.
“It’s a great rivalry and we knew it would come down to the end,” said Newington head coach Jason Pace, “At halftime the message was that we can’t let up. You can’t give up until the game is over. The feeling is great right now but we wanted to make sure we had that feeling after the game.”
All told the Indians picked off seven passes but still needed to sweat out the last couple of minutes of the game after the Eagles made a fourth quarter charge, scoring two late touchdowns behind backup quarterback Craig Elliott, who took over after starter Matt Silver threw his seventh interception on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Newington was able to run out the last couple of minutes of regulation behind the legs of quarterback Nick Pestrichello, who had a 28-yard run to seal the game late in regulation.
The sophomore signal caller also ran for a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, including a 31 yarder on fourth down. He threw for another touchdown on the game’s first possession when Gunnar Johnson caught a wide receiver screen pass before jetting down the right sideline for the 36-yard score.
Wethersfield entered the game needing a win and some help to qualify for the playoffs, but Newington was determined not to let their rivals play beyond the Thanksgiving holiday.
“The whole week we were hearing if they beat us they could possibly make the playoffs so we just basically wanted to go out and ruin their season,” said tight end/linebacker Julian Ortiz, “This group is special to me because everybody could have given up when we were down. We were at some really low points this season but everyone stuck together and we were able to get this win.”
Ortiz was part of a senior class that finished their high school careers with a win over Wethersfield for the second consecutive year, retaining the Thanksgiving Classic trophy. The Indians’ 17-13 victory a year ago snapped a four-game losing streak to the Eagles.
Newington now leads the all-time series 23-19-1 in the annual matchup, which dates back to 1976.
It was also a historic night, as the seven interceptions were a record for the program and tied for the third most in Connecticut high school history.
Johnson, Dylan Nees-Fair, Izayah Ciarcia, Javier Polanco, and Michael Maslauskas each had one; and Keenan Esau picked off two passes.
Julian Mulero and Teddy Fravel also made defensive impacts for the Indians. Mulero had a sack and several pressures and Fravel deflected three passes, one of which was intercepted, and had several quarterback hurries.
“In the first half we were all over the place attacking the ball,” Pace said about the defensive approach, “For some reason we were a step slower in the second half but in the end we got the victory. It’s an emotional rivalry and both teams are playing in the last game of the year, so we knew all of those emotions would be really high. We had to be able to control all those emotions and still play with emotion.”
Newington had a few miscues in the second half that almost allowed Wethersfield to erase the large deficit.
Silver connected with David Colon in the third quarter, cutting the deficit to 27-6.
Luke Kelleher then intercepted Pestrichello in the red zone late in the third quarter. The interception was the Eagles second of the night, as Colon had picked off Ciarcia on a trick play in the second quarter.
Elliott then replaced Silver early in the fourth and led Wethersfield to 14 straight points. Elliott was the team’s week one starter but an injury and a position change forced him to a backup role for the second half of the season. The senior nearly capped his high school career by leading a comeback for the ages.
Fellow senior Mitchell Quadrato was a monster in the fourth quarter, scoring from a yard out and also recovering a fumble to set up a 42-yard strike from Elliott to Evan Sipala, narrowing the deficit to a single score with just over two minutes remaining.
After both scores, Wethersfield attempted onside kicks but the 6’6” Fravel recovered both on high hops.
Fravel’s second recovery allowed the offensive to run out the clock, and the season.
“He was basically asking the seniors, do you want to go out this way or do we want to go out and play hard as a winning team,” Ortiz said of Pace’s message in the fourth quarter.
The victory wrapped up a 4-6 season, Pace’s second on Newington’s sideline.
It was a bit of a roller coaster ride for the Indians, who started the season with a 41-0 victory but also suffered a four-game skid prior to Wednesday’s victory.
Despite the up and down nature of the season, the team never wavered thanks to a strong senior class.
“Those guys have had our backs, as a staff and a program. They never question anything we do and they would run through a wall for us,” Pace said of his seniors, “Just them sending that message to the underclassman and that they believe in us is the impression that they’ll leave on the program.”
Wethersfield finished the season 6-4 and will lose a dozen seniors. Despite his struggled in the finale, Silver should be back under center next fall after showing some positive signs this fall, including posting 12 total touchdown opposed to only three turnovers prior to the Newington game.
Other Football Action
Rocky Hill- The fourth time is a charm for Cromwell/Portland football. After losing the first three Shunpike Showdowns, the Panthers easily defeated Rocky Hill, 30-0, in the fourth meeting.
Playing on the road following a last-minute venue switch, Bryce Karstetter threw for a touchdown and ran for another at McVicar Field in Rocky Hill.
The win secured a 9-1 regular season, which qualified the Panthers for the Class S playoffs.
Karstetter’s touchdown toss was a 61 yarder to Nick Wright in the first quarter. Wright finished with three catches for 127 yards and became the program’s all-time leader for receiving yards in a single season with 1425, eclipsing Michael Antonio’s previous mark of 1423.
The final two quarters belonged to senior running back Bryan Lockwood, who finished with 112 total yards and a pair of rushing touchdown, both in the second half.
The shutout was the second for the Panthers defense this season, also blanking Woodstock Academy 41-0 in the previous game. Zac Cyr had a big night, registering 13 tackles and a sack, and Justin Stergos had eight stops, a forced fumble, and blocked a punt.
After back-to-back playoff appearances, the Terriers were in rebuilding mode with a young roster and finished the season 2-8.
Middletown- Middletown fell to Windsor 7-0 at MHS, ending their bid for consecutive undefeated regular seasons.
The Blue Dragons offense sputtered but their defense played admirably in defeat. Nygell Smikle had 14 tackles (three for loss) and Stephen Hill Jr. had a dozen stops, also forcing and recovering a fumble.
Despite the loss, Middletown still earned the #2-seed and a home playoff game in Class L following a 9-1 regular season.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin