Pictured: Blue Devils running back A.J. DeFilio (13) heads toward the line of scrimmage behind a wall set up by teammates Nevin Moore (66), Jackson Moore (20) and Eli Ripper (78). (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)
By Marc Silvestrini
NORTH BRANFORD — Sometimes the difference between two quality football teams is so thin you’d need a micrometer to measure it.
The difference between Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton and North Branford in Wednesday night’s annual “Battle for Route 17” came down to a run blitz called by Coginchaug defensive coordinator Matt Garretson and executed to perfection by his son, Tyler.
North Branford, which had entered the fourth quarter trailing 16-0, had mounted a furious comeback; scoring early in the final quarter and converting a 2-point try to make it 16-8. Led by quarterback Brandon Fratta, the Thunderbirds scored again with 1:22 left to play to pull to within 16-14.
The T-Birds then lined up to attempt the two-point conversion that would tie the game.
Recalling that North Branford had scored their earlier two-pointer on a strong-side sweep by Ronnie Longo, Matt Garretson called for a run blitz and Tyler shot through a small gap in the T-Bird offensive line causing Longo, who was indeed running a similar sweep to his right, to swerve out slightly to avoid being tackled for a loss. That slight course correction gave a host of Blue Devil defenders just enough time to converge on Longo and gang tackle him short of the end zone.
When Jeremy Mangiameli fell on the T-Birds’ onside kick attempt a few moments later, the Blue Devils had secured their biggest and perhaps most satisfying win of the year.
The disruption of North Branford’s attempt to tie it was Garretson’s second huge defensive play in the game’s final six minutes, following a one-handed, over-the-shoulder interception at the Blue Devils’ 9-yard line.
“When we were freshmen, all we kept hearing was ‘You have to beat North Branford;’ ‘It’s all about beating North Branford,’” Tyler recalled. “Well, coming in here and winning a real tough game against a real good team like this is unbelievably exciting. This is just great.”
As a result of the Coginchaug victory, both teams finished with final records of 7-3.
“This is an absolutely special team,” Coginchaug coach Erik Becker said. “It’s been a great honor to have led this program and coached this group of young men. “Other than becoming a husband and a father, this has been the most rewarding experience of my life.”
After the teams slugged their way through a tough, scoreless first quarter dominated by both defenses, the Blue Devils drew first blood as quarterback Aaron Faiella engineered a nine-play, 96-yard drive by hitting 7 of 8 passes for 92 yards.
Jackson Moore caught two passes for 60 yards while Garretson caught three for 22 yards, including an 11-yard touchdown reception that put Coginchaug in front at 6-0 with 5:45 left in the half.
Faiella then hit his twin brother Evan for the two-pointer that made it 8-0, a lead they took into halftime.
Mangiameli got the Blue Devils off to a good start in the second half when he recovered Coginchaug’s onside kick at the North Branford 43 to start the third quarter. A 29-yard strike from Faiella to A.J. DeFilio gave the Devils a first-and-goal at the T-Bird 6, but after an Alex Case run moved the ball to the one, Coginchaug failed to break into the end zone on three straight plays, turning the ball over on downs.
Taking over at their own 1, the Thunderbirds quickly moved the ball out of their end of the field when Fratta completed a 62-yard bomb to Alex Clinton to advance the ball to the Blue Devil 36. A Fratta completion to Trevor Holzer and two quick bursts by running back Tyler DiNapoli brought the ball to the Blue Devils’ 9, but the T-Birds were turned away when Garretson came up with his key interception, leaving Coginchaug’s 8-0 lead intact.
“I slipped a little in the mud when I realized the guy was running a deeper route,” Garretson said. “When I saw him looking up I just raised my hand without really knowing exactly where the ball was. “It just stuck there in my hand.”
Two plays after Garretson’s pick, Faiella hit DeFilio with a 59-yard strike to the 22. One play later Faiella hit Moore, who made a spectacular juggling catch on a crossing route, landing on his back in the end zone.
It was Moore’s 14 th touchdown catch of the year, breaking the school record.
Faiella then hit Mangiameli for the two-point conversion that extended Coginchaug’s lead to 16-0 with four minutes left in the third quarter.
The T-Birds got on the board courtesy of a 1-yard plunge by DiNapoli on the first play of the fourth quarter. Longo’s sweep for the two-pointer narrowed the Devils’ lead to 16-8 with an entire quarter to play.
Coginchaug maintained its lead until Clinton’s 19-yard punt return gave the T-Birds possession at the Coginchaug 43 with just under two minutes to play.
From there, working against both the clock and the rugged Coginchaug defense, Fratta marched his team into the end zone by completing five straight passes, with the touchdown coming on a 13-yard strike to Nate Raymond with 1:17 to play.
But Garretson’s successful disruption of the T-Birds’ subsequent two-point attempt and Mangiameli’s recovery of the ensuing onside kick sealed the win for the visitors.
“They’re a good team and they’re very well-coached,” North Branford coach Mark Basil said, adding that the Coginchaug defense did a good job of disguising its alignment and consistently brought more people to the line of scrimmage than the T-Birds were prepared to block.
“We couldn’t run against them consistently,” he said. “They basically took our running game away.”
Aaron Faiella finished his junior year by completing 15 of his 24 passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and two two-point conversions. Those 239 yards extended his school single-season passing record to 2,164 yards.
Garretson caught seven passes for 69 yards, while DeFilio, Moore and Evan Faiella each caught three balls for 108, 62 and 33 yards, respectively.
Dean Fontano had a pair of key sacks for the Devils.
Fratta, also a junior, completed 20 of his 32 throws for 278 yards and a touchdown. DiNapoli, another junior and perhaps the Pequot Conference’s best running back, had 150 yards rushing on 18 carries and another 23 yards on two pass receptions.
Clinton caught five passes for 121 yards, Raymond caught five for 54 yards, Aiden Ferrucci hauled in four for 33 yards and Holzer had four catches for 32 yards.