Pictured: Cromwell/Portland rolled to its eighth straight win Saturday. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)
By Marc Silvestrini
DURHAM — All future opponents should know two things about the Cromwell/Portland Panthers, a 48-6 winner over Coginchaug/Hale-Ray/East Hampton in a Pequot Conference game that pitted two of the better Class S football teams in the area.
They should know that the Panthers are an extremely tough and physical football team that appears to have spent as much time in the weight room as some NFL teams. They should also know the Panthers are a confident football team. Very confident.
“The thing I love about this team is our attitude,” said Owen Brunk, a senior linebacker who made All-State as a sophomore two years ago. “This team thinks it can beat any opponent at any time. We don’t care who we’re playing – a Class L school, an LL school — anybody.
“No matter who the opponent is, we know we’re going to come out on top.”
Cromwell/Portland exhibited all of its physicality and self-confidence Saturday in capturing its eighth straight win of the season. The Panthers scored touchdowns on seven of their 10 possessions and those possessions included a one-play knee taken at the end of the first half and a two-play series at the end of the game.
The offense accumulated 323 yards rushing and 508 yards of total offense with two of its running backs — Alex Hair and Brunk – gaining more than 100 yards.
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ ferocious defense – led by a stellar front seven that includes Hair and Emeka Yearwood at the ends, Ethan Philbrick and Jackson Williams at tackle and the impressive linebacker trio of Brunk, Ted Williams and Ryan Rozich – limited the Blue Devils to 74 yards in total offense while recording three turnovers and four sacks.
“They’re a very good team,” Blue Devils coach Mike Eagle said. “They’ve got a bunch of good, tough players, including a set of linebackers that is probably the best in the state. They have good schemes and they run the ball real well.
“We did the best we could, we put up a fight, but now we’re going to have to sit back, regroup and focus on our last two games.”
The Blue Devils, who have lost three straight after rattling off five wins in a row to open the season, will travel to Granby/Canton, a 45-6 loser to the Panthers two weeks ago, on Friday and finish with North Branford at home on Nov. 24.
Cromwell/Portland is in a favorable position to finish among the top three of the final eight that qualify for the CIAC Class S playoffs. The Panthers, currently second in the points rankings, finish up against Stafford/East Windsor/Somers next Friday in Cromwell and at Rocky Hill on Thanksgiving Day eve.
After forcing a punt on Coginchaug’s first possession of the game, the Panthers launched a 66-yard, eight-play scoring drive on their first series. Hair gained 26 of those yards on the ground, including the last two. Allen Cohen then nailed the first of his six straight PAT kicks to make it 7-0 with 5:14 left in the quarter.
After limiting the Devils to a three-and-out on Coginchaug’s next series, Williams set up the Cromwell offense with a 42-yard punt return that brought the ball to the Coginchaug 36. After two penalties set the Panthers back, quarterback Cole Brisson hit Williams with a 25-yard pass on a third-and-14 play that moved the ball to the Devils’ 15. Hair then scored his second touchdown of the quarter on a 15-yard burst to make it 14-0, the score at the end of the first quarter.
An 18-yard Brisson completion to Rozich, followed by a 23-yard Rozich run two plays later, advanced the ball to the Devils’ 8-yard-line on the Panthers’ first possession of the second quarter. From there, Brunk scored the first of his two touchdowns to stretch the lead to 21-0 with 8:02 to play in the half.
Brisson and the Panthers came right back on Cromwell/Portland’s next possession, marching 86 yards in five crisply executed plays to take a commanding 28-0 lead. That drive was highlighted by a 37-yard Brisson-to-Yearwood completion that moved the ball to the Coginchaug 24 and a 21-yard Brisson bullet to Yearwood, which the sophomore wideout caught at the 10 with his back to the end zone before spinning away from a would-be tackler and strolling across the goal line to make it 28-0.
Coginchaug’s defense — which never let up playing despite the mounting score — pinned the Panthers at their own 1-yard-line on their next possession, forcing a punt from the end zone that only traveled a few yards before bouncing out of bounds at the 10 with 1:50 to play in the half.
On the next play, Blue Devils quarterback Braden Lankarge threw a dart between two defenders to Chris Progano in the left corner of the end zone to get the home team on the board at 28-6.
A 17-yard gallop by Hair on Cromwell’s first play from scrimmage in the second half preceded a 35-yard end-around touchdown run by Williams on the second play of the third quarter, widening the lead to 35-6. Four minutes later, the Panthers scored on another long run, this time a 51-yard burst by Brunk.
The Panthers ended their hail of points early in the fourth quarter on their second end-around scoring play of the game, this time a 48-yard scamper by Yearwood. A dead-ball penalty after the TD forced Cohen to attempt a 28-yard PAT kick, which he missed, setting the final score at 48-6.
“I always played on offense when I was younger, so I guess I like playing wide receiver a little better,” Yearwood said when asked which side of the ball he prefers.
Like all the Panthers, Yearwood is also confident that they are one of the state’s best teams.
“I think we’re the best team in the state,” he said. “I know we’ve got the best linebackers in the state.”
Not to mention a pretty potent offense. Brisson, a junior, hit on 11 of his 14 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, while Hair finished with 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 13 carries and Brunk had 104 yards and two TDs on only six carries. Williams caught five passes for 69 yards, rushed for 35 yards and scored a touchdown.
And the scary thing is Cromwell/Portland coach Randell Bennett thinks his team has room enough to get even better.
“We can be better,” he said. “Our offensive line didn’t play particularly well (last week) against CREC, and even though they played a little bit better today, there are still some things we can do better there.”
“We just need more reps,” he added, noting that for five straight weeks his team has been forced to deal with shortened games and fewer offensive plays due to continuously running clocks in the second half. A CIAC rule calls for the clock to run in the second half of games in which a team’s lead is 35 points or more, making the Panthers victims of their own success.
Lankarge, who faced heavy pressure all day long, completed 7 of 13 passes for 68 yards and the touchdown to Progano, who had three catches for 23 yards.
Despite their three-game skid, Eagle is convinced better days are ahead for the Blue Devils, who played their first game without Anthony Toth, their starting running back and leading rusher Saturday. Toth suffered a season-ending knee injury in the game against Rockville last week.
“These kids always play hard so I’m confident they’ll be back and ready to go come Monday,” he said.
Cromwell/Portland………………..14 14 14 6–48
Cog/Hale-Ray/East Hampton……0 6 0 0–6
C/P: Hair, 2-yard run (Cohen kick)
C/P: Hair, 14-yard run (Cohen kick)
C/P: Brunk, 8-yard run (Cohen kick)
C/P: Yearwood, 21-yard pass from Brisson (Cohen kick)
CHREH: Progano, 10-yard pass from Lankarge (kick failed)
C/P: Williams, 35-yard run (Cohen kick)
C/P: Brunk, 51-yard run (Cohen kick)
C/P: Yearwood, 48 yard run (kick failed)
Records: Cromwell 8-0; Coginchaug 5-3.
Up Next: Cromwell hosts Stafford/East Windsor/Somers at Pierson Park, Friday, 6 p.m.; Coginchaug Co-Op at Granby/Canton, Nov. 19 at 6:30 p.m.