Pepe’s Field Goal, Panthers’ Defense Take Care Of H-K

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By Andrew Lombardo

HIGGANUM — In what was an intense defensive battle Friday night in the Pequot Conference, the Cromwell/Portland Panthers overcame the loss of injured quarterback Cam Latronica to beat Haddam-Killingworth 3-0.

Matt Pepe’s field goal from 25 yards in the third quarter was enough for the Panthers’ to start the season with a big win over the Cougars, who made it all the way to the Class S championship game in 2018.

Latronica suffered a lower-leg injury on the Panthers’ first offensive play and did not return, setting the stage for freshman Cole Brisson in his
first varsity game.

“It was pretty frightening at first, being a freshman, but my defense helped me get through it. They were incredible today and my coaches, too,” Brisson said.

While he and the Panthers’ offense could not get a first down until their fifth drive of the game, in the second quarter, it did not matter. H-K’s offense labored to mount any kind of sustained attack.

Lucky for the Panthers, an H-K miscue on a bad punt gave them the ball on the Cougars’ 20-yard line. After a holding call erased a completion, Brisson found Pepe for a 13-yard gain, putting them in prime field goal position, but Pepe missed just wide right, sending both teams into halftime scoreless and without any spark.

With newfound energy, Brisson and the Panthers came out of the locker room and marched down to inside H-K’s 5-yard line. After what looked to be a touchdown on the next play, the Panthers fumbled and the Cougars recovered.

On their next drive the Panthers earned two first downs with ease, but faced third-and-10 on the H-K’ 40-yard line. Dropping back to pass, Brisson felt pressure and took off for an 18-yard gain to put his team in field goal range again.

This time, Pepe nailed the kick from 25 yards out, giving the Panthers a lead they would not give up.

“My coaches and teammates set up the run for me really well, which opened up the passing game and made it much easier,” Brisson said.

“In practice we work in two huddles, so he runs the same stuff our starters run,” Panthers coach Randell Bennett said. “He just didn’t have the rhythm with the first-team offense, but we got through that first half and were able to make some plays in the second half.”

H-K managed to string together a long drive, thanks in part to two offside calls on C/P and steady rushes of four and five yards. Staring down third-and-10 on Cromwell’s 15, the Cougars passed for just the third time on the night, but junior Alex Riccitelli just missed hitting his tight end in the end zone.

On the next play, kicker Kevin Cavrell’s field goal try was blocked.

“We just couldn’t move the ball consistently. Hat’s off to their defense,” H-K coach Mike Baklik said. “Offensively, it’s nice to know we have options and can do different things, but we need to tighten up moving forward.”

The quarterback’s status remained unclear after the game. If he cannot play next weekend against Valley Regional/Old Lyme, Brisson and the Panthers’ depth will be tested.

Meanwhile, Bennett stressed the importance of his team establishing the run game, even if it costs his team a few downs. That will be priority number one as the Panthers get ready to face the Warriors.

The Cougars have built their program around the triple-option offense, which propelled them to a school-record 11 wins last season. They struggled to move the chains, despite senior Dalton Modehn’s game-high 114 rushing yards.

Struggling to put any points on the board, the Cougars switched to the spread formation with four minutes to go and looked considerably more explosive. Baklik said his team has practiced both offenses extensively and will experiment with their playcalling depending on the opponent.

Both defenses deserve credit for their shutdown performances. H-K had a formidable unit on that side of the ball last season and it is clear they have not missed a beat.

Led by senior Trey Callender, the Cougars swallowed up Cromwell’s run game and limited big plays. It was not until Callender was out for a series that the Panthers were able to put together a drive and kick thefield goal.

For the Panthers, the shutout win was a big statement to the rest of the Pequot. This team had questions heading into the season, but the defense, led by sophomore Owen Brunk and senior Justin Stergos will keep them in games.