By Paul Augeri
Middletown’s five-game losing streak to start the season is ancient history now that the Blue Dragons have won two in a row.
And the team’s second victory — on the road Friday night against Manchester — might have been the most thrilling of Sal Morello’s 10 seasons as the Blue Dragons’ head coach.
The Blue Dragons rallied from a 34-21 deficit in the final 6:47 of regulation, shook off a failed extra-point attempt that would have put them ahead with 31 seconds left, and beat the Red Hawks in overtime 37-34 when first-year kicker Griffin Ladd split the uprights with a 22-yard field goal attempt.
“The kids showed great poise and perseverance in the fourth quarter,” said Morello, whose squad faced deficits of 14-0, 20-7 and 27-14 along the way. “This was a great win for the kids. Listen, this was an 0-6 team against 1-5, but it was a heck of a battle, a good game. (Manchester) worried me. They can move the ball and throw it.”
Middletown had a bye after its 0-5 start and took the time to recoup and drill on the basics. Last week, the Blue Dragons beat New Britain 25-6.
“We’ve had a tough first half of the year,” Morello said. “I told the kids that we’re all going to own it and be better. To their credit, from the bye week on we didn’t even work on plays. We took a deep breath and focused on us. We worked on fundamentals and it seems like it’s paying off.
“New Britain and Manchester are struggling, let’s be honest. But we’re doing a lot of things better that we weren’t doing in first half. I want to make sure they’re continuing to grow.”
Middletown trailed 20-7 before Levar Cassanova scored on a 6-yard run in the final minute of the first half and Ladd kicked the PAT to get the Blue Dragons within 20-14 at the break.
After a scoreless third quarter, Manchester went ahead 27-14 when Malachi Peterkin intercepted sophomore Colin Skene’s pass and returned it for the score with 30 seconds gone in the fourth quarter.
In quick succession, Middletown scored less than three minutes later on a David De’Leon 3-yard run, and Manchester answered 1:57 after that when Adrian Parker (16 of 25 for 260 yards and four touchdowns) hit receiver Arlon Poteat with a 43-yard scoring strike.
But the Blue Dragons gave themselves another chance when Chace Petgrave retuned the kickoff to the 10-yard line. Two plays later, De’Leon (18 carries for 75 yards) ran it in from 1 yard out, making it 34-28 with 5:58 remaining.
Middletown’s defense held Manchester to a three-and-out to set the stage for its game-tying drive. The Dragons moved downfield to the 11-yard line, where Skene and Petgrave read other perfectly for the score with 31 seconds left on the clock.
“The original route was not there and Skene did just a great job extending the play,” Morello said. “He points to Chace for where to go and Chace breaks off. It was two athletes making a play.”
Middletown did not get the go-ahead PAT off. Multiple Manchester defenders jumped the snap, Morello said, and hit holder Matt Steuerwald.
“The refs did a great job all night,” said Morello, “but I thought that was a flagrant off-sides. They just missed it. So to see the kids come back from that and win in OT … they were just super down the stretch.”
Working against the clock, Manchester took the kickoff and moved the ball to the Middletown 20. But the Red Hawks missed what would have been a winning field goal with a few seconds left.
Middletown won the coin toss for the Kansas tiebreaker (each team gets the ball at the 10-yard line with four downs to score) and deferred. The Blue Dragons’ defense kept the Red Hawks out of the end, setting up Ladd’s winning kick on their only possession of OT.
“We relied on the line and kept the ball on the ground,” said Morello, who had his first experience with overtime in more than two decades as a head coach. “Griffin Ladd was big all night. His kickoffs were big and his extra points were big, too.”
Middletown also did not let three turnovers get in the way of its late-game performance.
“When things went wrong the kids stayed with it, and that’s why I’m so proud of them,” Morello said. “They showed growth and maturity.”
Skene completed 11 of 19 passes for 126 yards, with Steuerwald hauling in five balls for 72 yards. De’Leon carried the ball 18 times for 75 yards and two TDs and Cassanova, who also rushed for two TDs, had 11 carries for 40 yards.
Manchester had two 100-yard receivers in the game: Poteat (3 catches for 113) and Jared Lindstrom (7 for 102 and a TD).
Middletown takes a crack at its third straight win when it hosts winless Enfield on Senior Night next Friday at Rosek-Skubel Stadium (6:30pm kickoff).