Pictured: Mike Eagle, left, and CREC Co-Op coach Chris Kennedy meet after time runs out Saturday in Durham. Eagle won in his debut as Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton coach. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

By Marc Silvestrini
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

DURHAM — All those District 13, East Hampton and East Haddam/Moodus football fans crying about the cruel fate that saw the 2020 football season wiped out due to the coronavirus pandemic – a season in which the senior-laden Blue Devils were expected to contend for a state tile – should save their tears for something really worth crying about, like the fate of your investment portfolio or, maybe, the New York Giants.

Despite the heavy losses suffered during graduation exercises last June, the 2021 Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton football team is going to be just fine, as evidenced by its gritty 14-7 opening day victory over a very big and fast CREC team (CREC is a co-op program among Hartford area magnet schools based at CREC Civic Leadership High School in Enfield).

The Blue Devils, who trailed 7-0 at halftime, won the game by limiting the Colts to just 43 yards in total offense in the second half, ending two of their four drives in the half with an interception and a stop on fourth down.

The Coginchaug defense, which held the Colts to 134 yards of total offense for the game, was led by Dalton Bates (the zero-technique); Kaden Atwell (the 4-technique) linebacker Anthony Toth (the defense’s signal caller) and cornerbacks Braden Lankarge and Chris Progano, according to coach Mike Eagle.

The zero-technique is football terminology for a nose tackle who plays head-on against the opposing center and is responsible for both A gaps, the space between the center and the two guards that flank him. The 4-technique is a defensive end that lines up head-on against an offensive tackle and is responsible for both the B gap (between the guard and tackle) and C gap (between the tackle and whoever lines up outside him).

Meanwhile, the Coginchaug offense, led by quarterback Lankarge, tailback Toth and sophomore wide receiver Jake Manning (4 catches for 47 yards and a touchdown), put together an eight-play, four-minute scoring drive in the third quarter and a game-winning 10-play, 74-yard drive in the fourth quarter to give Eagle his first victory in his first game running the program.

Blue Devils players Braden Lankarge (11), Jarrett Leith (77) and Jackson Hill (7) gather with their teammates to hear coach Mike Eagle’s postgame review.

“I thought our kids competed very well right from the start of the game,” Eagle said. “We made some mistakes that hindered us on offense early, but we’ve got some dudes that can make plays, and it all came together in the second half.

“One of the things I love about this team is that we have a lot of kids that just love to play football. It’s exciting around here right now.”

They may well have been excited, but the Blue Devils did squander several opportunities brought about by favorable field position in the first half.

Coginchaug started its first two drives of the game on the CREC 43 and its third at the Colt 26 but failed to come away with points on all three occasions. Penalties thwarted the first drive while the Devils lost the ball on downs on their next two possessions.

CREC took the lead late in the first half by launching an 11-play, 92-yard drive that was aided by two major penalties against Coginchaug – a personal foul that appeared to be justified, and a pass interference call that did not. The drive ended on a pretty 29-yard touchdown pass by quarterback Cayden Ortiz to Ju’Sean Thomas with 2:21 to play in the half.

Players from Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton line up to observe the 20-year anniversary of 9/11 before the game. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

After forcing a punt on Coginchaug’s first possession of the second half, the Colts appeared to be in position to do more damage when a bad snap on another Devils punt gave them the ball at the host’s 44. But big defensive plays on successive downs by Atwell and Tyler Stagon forced the Colts to punt after three plays, and when Progano returned that punt 25 yards to the Colts 45, the Coginchaug offense was back in business.

After gaining eight yards on their first three plays, Toth kept the drive alive by bursting through the Colt defense for six yards on fourth-and-2 from the CREC 47.

From there, Lankarge scampered 15 yards on an option play to bring the ball to the 16 before rifling a strike to Manning, who caught the ball at the 6, spun past a defender and raced into the end zone. Progano’s ensuing extra-point try tied the game at 7 with 3:59 to play in the third quarter.

Lankarge’s interception of an Ortiz pass gave the Devils the ball at their own 26 early in the fourth quarter. Three plays later, on third-and-16 from the Devils 28, Lankarge hit Jackson Hill for a clutch 25-yard gain to keep the drive alive. A 13-yard gallop by Toth and a 21-yard strike by Lankarge to Progano then brought the ball to the Colts’ 3, from where Toth followed the strong blocking of Bates and Atwell to punch it in.

“This just feels awesome,” said Toth, who gained a game-high 71 yards on 19 carries. “This feels great, it couldn’t have gone any better, especially after not playing football for two years.”

Teammate Lankarge, who completed 8 of his 18 throws for 119 yards and added another 68 yards on 9 rushing attempts, was also a happy camper after the final whistle.

“This feels excellent. I don’t think any of us have felt like this for at least two years,” he said. “All our guys worked very hard for this and all of us are very excited right now.”

The Blue Devils will face another happy team next Saturday when they host Valley Regional/Old Lyme, a 28-7 winner over North Branford on Friday night.

Scoring

CREC: Thomas 29-yard pass from Ortiz (Merchant kick)
C/HR/EH: Manning 16-yard pass from Lankarge (Progano kick)
C/HR/EH: Toth 2-yard run (Progano kick)

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