Pictured: Cromwell/Portland coach Randell Bennett gives the Panthers a thumb’s up after they remained undefeated with a 14-6 win over Stafford/East Windsor/Somers at Pierson Park. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

By Marc Silvestrini
middlesexcountysports@gmail.com

CROMWELL — Through Cromwell/Portland’s first eight games of the season — all of them wins by wide margins save for a 15-point victory over Valley Regional/Old Lyme in early October– coach Randell Bennett felt there was something missing from his team’s resume.

Despite its undefeated status, Bennett felt his team’s mettle needed to be tested in a tough, tight football game — the kind of epic struggle in which the final outcome isn’t determined until the last minute or so of play.

Friday night, in a game that was as tough and as tight as a football game can get, the coach got his wish.

The Panthers traded haymakers with a talented Stafford/East Windsor/Somers team for a full 48 minutes before emerging with a taut, edge-of-your-seat 14-6 Pequot Conference victory that not only kept the team’s unbeaten season alive but also solidified their berth in the CIAC Class S playoffs.

“I’ve been wanting to see how we handle things when we find ourselves in a real dog fight,” the coach said. “I think a game like this is exactly what we needed at this point. These are the kinds of difficult moments you have to get through if you want to get to where we are hoping to be.”

The Panthers are currently third in the Class S points rankings behind Bloomfield and Ansonia, the two other undefeated teams in the division. A win over rival Rocky Hill in their regular-season finale would secure at least one home game for the Panthers in the eight-team playoff.

Cromwell/Portland won the game at Pierson Park by limiting a solid, run-oriented Bulldogs offense to just six points and 43 yards rushing — including just 12 yards in the second half. Meanwhile, the Panthers offense found the end zone as the result of two long drives, one in the second quarter and one in the fourth.

While shutting down the Bulldogs running game, the Panthers defense limited the Bulldogs to 213 yards of total offense, came up with a pair of sacks of quarterback Mark McLaughlin and recorded three turnovers.

Panthers teammates Ted Williams (left), Ben Fagan (18) and Ryan Rozich after the team’s ninth straight win this season. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)

“We had a hard time running the ball against them, and we’re very much a run-first team,” Bulldogs coach Brian Mazzone said. “Their interior (defensive) line played very well tonight.”

“Cromwell’s a very good team, but our kids played hard too, and we were right there with them,” he added. “We just didn’t make enough plays on offense.”

Stafford’s defense — led by McLaughlin, an outstanding inside linebacker — made plenty of plays as the Bulldogs limited the Panthers to 232 yards in total offense while recording a pair of sacks and two turnovers.

The two rivals battled through a scoreless first quarter with Stafford mounting the only serious threat when it marched 71 yards in 17 plays to the Panthers’ 8-yard-line as the quarter came to a close.

Panthers linebacker Owen Brunk then sacked McLaughlin back to the 11 on the first play of the second quarter, setting up fourth-and-goal. Pat Russotto then missed a 28-yard field goal attempt, but the Panthers were called for running into the kicker, giving McLaughlin and the Bulldogs another fourth-down shot from 6.

The Bulldogs went for it this time, but McLaughlin’s pass fell incomplete under heavy pressure from linebackers Brunk and Ted Williams.

The Panthers offense, under the direction of quarterback Cole Brisson, responded by launching the first scoring drive of the game, a 94-yard, 15-play beauty that took seven minutes off the clock and resulted in a four-yard touchdown pass from Brisson to Ben Fagan.

Brisson completed seven of the eight passes he would complete on the night on the drive, including two apiece to Ted Williams, Ryan Rozich and Fagan and a key 16-yard strike to Emeka Yearwood that helped bail the Panthers out of a second-and-20 hole.

The scrappy Bulldogs mounted their lone scoring drive of the game following the Panthers’ kickoff, a 54-yard, nine-play drive that featured a key 40-yard strike from McLaughlin to Logan Briggs and ended with McLaughlin’s 3-yard keeper with 1:16 to play in the half.

Brunk, however, made one of the key plays of the game by blocking the ensuing extra-point kick, leaving the Panthers holding a razor-thin 7-6 lead at halftime.

After battling through a scoreless third quarter, the Panthers managed to stretch their lead midway through the fourth quarter on a 52-yard drive that was set up by Yearwood’s recovery of a McLaughlin fumble at the Cromwell 48 after the quarterback was sacked and stripped by a host of Panthers.

An 11-yard burst by Brunk quickly moved the Panthers into Bulldog territory, but the drive looked like it might stall when the Bulldog defense forced Cromwell into a fourth-and-2 at the Stafford 33.

Brisson, however, kept the drive alive by scrambling first to his left, and then to his right for a key six-yard gain that gave Cromwell a first-and-10 at the Bulldog 27. Alex Hair then blasted through a hole on the left side of the Stafford defense and raced into the end zone to give his team a little more breathing room.

Allen Cohen kicked his second PAT of the game to make it 14-6 with 6:03 to play.

“I rolled to my left because that’s where our receivers were running their routes,” Brisson said of his key fourth-down scramble. “I was hoping to find one of those guys as I was rolling out, but then I noticed that no one was out there to my right. So I rolled back the other way and just tried to get to the sticks.”

Brisson completed 8 of his 18 passes on the night for 86 yards and a touchdown, with three of those completions going to Ted Williams for 35 yards. Rozich added two catches for 22 yards while Fagan caught two for 13 yards and a touchdown.

Hair gained 88 yards and scored a touchdown on 10 rushing attempts while Brunk played his usual solid games, chipping in with 47 yards on eight carries, a blocked kick, a sack and a host of tackles.

Williams also accumulated a bunch of tackles and a number of quarterback pressures. But what really excited him was the victory over an opponent the Panthers have struggled against in the past.

“This was a big win for us,” he said. “We lost to Stafford our freshman and sophomore years, so this is the first time anybody on this team has ever beaten them. We were due.”

The loss unofficially ended the Bulldogs’ bid for a spot in the postseason. They fell to 5-4 overall and 10th in the Class S points rankings, two spots outside the cutoff for the playoffs.

Scoring

Stafford Co-Op…………0 6 0  0–6
Cromwell/Portland…….0 7 0 7–14

C/P: Fagan 4-yard pass from Brisson (Cohen kick)
Staff: McLaughlin 3-yard run (kick blocked)
C/P: Hair 27-yard run (Cohen kick)

Records: Stafford/East Windsor/Somers 5-4; Cromwell 9-0.
Up Next: Cromwell/Portland at Rocky Hill, Wednesday, 6pm

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