By Marc Silvestrini
Pictured: Quarterback Aaron Faiella, who threw five touchdown passes in Saturday’s win over Cromwell, lets one fly as Eli Ripper (78), Jack Huscher (59) and Zak Cunningham (68) provide protection. Applying pressure is Cromwell/Portland lineman Marc Treglia. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)
DURHAM — For all but the final three minutes of the first half, Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton and Cromwell/Portland fought tooth and nail to a close, tight, hotly contested draw.
But then Coginchaug showed what an explosive, quick-strike offense buttressed by a solid, big-play defense can do.
Two quick scores later, the Blue Devils had sped to an 18-6 halftime lead and never looked back on the way to a 32-14 Pequot Conference victory Saturday at the Walter Camp Sports Complex.
“This is us every week,” a frustrated Panthers coach Randell Bennett said. “Every week we come out playing hard and things go well for us, but then something bad happens and we lose our focus. We just can’t stay in the moment.
“This is why our record (1-8) is what it is. We’ve learned a lot since the beginning of the season, but this team still hasn’t learned enough about what it takes to perform on game days and win football games.”
Blue Devils quarterback Aaron Faiella finished the game completing 19 of his 31 throws for 232 yards and five touchdowns. Those 232 yards give him 1,671 passing yards on the season, breaking Eli Rivera’s school record of 1,591 yards set in 2017, his junior year.
“I knew that Eli held the record, but I wasn’t aware I was getting close to it,” Faiella, who was Rivera’s backup for two seasons, said. “I’m really trying to concentrate on winning games, not on statistics. Anyway, Eli and I are pretty good friends. I’m sure he’d be proud of me.”
His coach is also proud of him.
“Aaron works incredibly hard and he’s very, very smart,” Becker said. “And the best thing about him is that he gets better every day.”
With three minutes to play in the first half and the game tied at 6, the Panthers were perched on the Coginchaug 46 with a fresh set of downs. From a Panthers perspective, that was a good thing.
But then the Panthers were shaken up by three bad plays in a row. On first down, Cromwell was hit with a holding penalty. On second down, Coginchaug linemen Eli Ripper and Nevin Moore sacked quarterback Cole Brisson for a 10-yard loss. Faced with a third-and-34 from his own 30, Brisson, a freshman, then threw an interception that cornerback Evan Faiella returned to the Panthers’ 38.
And that was the spark that Faiella’s twin brother, Faiella, and the rest of the Devils’ offense needed.
Two plays after Evan’s pick, Aaron hit Jackson Moore on a short out pass. Moore, who hauled it in at the 35, eluded one defender at the 30 and another at the 10 as he sped to the end zone down the left sideline to give Coginchaug (5-3) a 12-6 lead.
Four plays later, after forcing a Panthers punt, Aaron and the offense marched 54 yards in five passing plays, with Aaron hitting Evan on a 7-yard slant for the touchdown with 28 seconds to go in the half. A pass by backup QB Jaden Morehead failed to produce two additional points, fixing the halftime score at 18-6, Coginchaug.
The Panthers’ opening possession of the second half ended in disaster as Coginchaug’s Dean Fontano blocked punter Matt Pepe’s kick from his own end zone. Pepe alertly swept the ball out through the back of the end zone, avoiding a Coginchaug touchdown on the play, but the resulting safety expanded the Devil lead to 20-6 and forced the Panthers to kick the ball back to Coginchaug.
A shanked punt coupled with a penalty against Cromwell enabled the Devils to take over at the Panther 23 following the free kick. Aaron Faiella completed the short scoring drive by hitting tight end Tyler Garretson three times over the next six plays, including a one-handed grab by Garretson in the end zone for the score and a 26-6 lead.
Aaron completed the Blue Devil scoring late in the third quarter by orchestrating a 10-play, 84-yard drive that featured three completions to Evan for 53 yards and ended on a 21-yard bullet to Moore, who had run a skinny post.
The Panthers’ offense ate up 83 yards of real estate on just two running plays to produce the only touchdown of the final quarter. The first was a 31-yard jaunt by Justin Stergos, followed on the next play by a 52-yard burst up the middle by Owen Brunk. Brisson then hit Ben Fagan for the two-point conversion that made the final score 32-14.
The two teams opened the game by swapping first-quarter touchdowns.
One play after a fumble recovery by Teddy Williams gave the Panthers the ball at the Coginchaug 46, Stergos broke through the middle of the Blue Devils line, veered to his left and raced into the end zone to give Cromwell a 6-0 lead two minutes into the game.
Coginchaug answered right back on its ensuing possession, scoring in just three plays, which included a 60-yard run by Alex Case and a 6-yard scoring strike from Faiella to Moore.
“We never took Cromwell lightly, we knew they were a very tough and very well-coached team despite their record,” Blue Devils coach Erik Becker said. “They’ve played everybody tough this year.”
Nodding toward his three key seniors — Case and linemen Zak Cunningham and Ripper — Becker said their leadership skills have been one of the most important keys to the team’s success this season.
“Their leadership has allowed us to be competitive and win football games playing with what could be (construed) as something close to a JV roster, full of sophomores and juniors,” he said.
“This has been a great year for me, I’m really glad I decided to come back to football,” Ripper, an East Hampton resident who did not play as a junior, said. “I guess I didn’t realize how much I missed playing, especially on defense, until I came back.”
Case finished with 74 rushing yards on only six carries before leaving the game with a hand injury. Moore caught seven passes for 111 yards and three touchdowns, Evan Faiella caught six for 70 yards and one touchdown, and Garretson had four catches 22 yards and a touchdown.
Stergos carried the ball 19 times for 125 yards and a touchdown for the Panthers while Brunk turned his only carry into a 52-yard score.
Brisson, who like Faiella will only get better, completed 9 of 22 passes for 118 yards while Pepe caught four passes for 57 yards and Fagan caught three for 36.
Coginchaug will travel to Ellington Friday night and concludes its season the night before Thanksgiving with a game at North Branford. Also that night, Cromwell/Portland will host Rocky Hill.