Pictured: North Branford will take the Battle of Route 17 trophy back home for the first time since 2016. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)
By Marc Silvestrini
DURHAM — It was, in the words of Coginchaug/East Hampton/Hale-Ray football coach Mike Eagle, a tale of two seasons.
The Blue Devils lost their annual Thanksgiving Eve clash with North Branford — a game more commonly referred to as the “Battle of Route 17″ — by a final count of 46-6 Wednesday night. The loss dropped the Blue Devils’ final record to 5-5.
North Branford, which ends its season with a 3-6 mark, takes home the Route 17 trophy for the first time since 2016, after having lost three straight Thanksgiving Eve games to the Blue Devils.
Eagle’s tale of two seasons statement refers to the fact that Coginchaug started its season with five straight victories and ended it with five straight defeats.
“We got off to a real good start, surprised a lot of people and played some pretty good football,” the coach said. “But then we started getting some bumps and bruises and that really tested our depth and forced us to use younger kids in places and positions they might not have been ready to play.”
“All in all, I thought those younger kids did a very good job,” Eagle added. “I couldn’t be happier with their performance and I believe they’re all going to be better football players next year because of the experience they gained.
“But, as we all know, football is a hard game. Sometimes, when your depth gets tested like that, you wind up taking your lumps.”
The lumps the Blue Devils took on Wednesday night were delivered mainly by T-Birds quarterback Mason Provencher with a lot of help from freshman running back Thomas Hansen, wideout Ian Kamienski and a nasty, quick-to-the-ball Thunderbird defense.
Provencher, a junior co-captain, rushed for 123 yards and two touchdowns, passed for 138 yards and two more scores and had a hand in three two-point conversions, two through the air and one on the ground.
Meanwhile, Hansen ran for 77 yards and two scores and Kamienski, also a junior co-captain, caught four balls for 95 yards and two touchdowns.
“I’m not exactly sure what got into them, but they came out on fire tonight,” said North Branford coach Mark Basil, who happens to be the same coach who led Coginchaug’s baseball team to the CIAC Class S championship last spring.
“For whatever reason, they came out and played with an attitude tonight. They played the tough, physical kind of football game we’ve been hoping to see from them all year.”
The strong conclusion to their season is certainly a good sign, Basil conceded. But an even better sign is the fact that there were no seniors on the T-Bird roster this year, meaning that Basil will see his entire team return next fall.
The Thunderbirds, who reached the end zone on three of their four first-half possessions, opened the scoring by launching an 11-play, 65-yard drive on their first possession of the game. The key plays on the drive – which ended with a 2-yard scamper by Provencher – were a 27-yard quarterback keeper by Provencher and 21-yard Provencher strike to Jack Meehan that brought the ball to the Blue Devils’ 2. An end around sprint by Kamienski for the two-point conversion made it 8-0 with 4:12 to play in the opening quarter.
Coginchaug mounted a seven-play drive on its ensuing possession behind the running of Chris Progano that reached the North Branford 18, but a fourth-down sack of Progano by Luke Blomster turned the ball over to the T-Bird offense at their own 29.
From there, the Thunderbirds covered the 71 yards to the Blue Devil end zone in seven plays, including a 34-yard keeper by Provencher and a 15-yard burst by Hansen. Hansen barreled into the end zone from the 1 and a Provencher to Meehan two-pointer made it 16-0 two minutes into the second quarter.
The Blue Devils – who were forced to start Progano at quarterback due to an ankle injury suffered last week by regular quarterback Braden Lankarge — inserted Lankarge into the game on their next possession, and the move provided immediate dividends.
Lankarge engineered an 11-play, 58-yard drive that brought the Devils back to within 16-6 with 5:24 left in the half. The drive featured two key plays by sophomore running back Dave Johnson – an 11-yard reception from Lankarge and an 11-yard burst up the middle on third-and-7 that gave the Devils a first down at the T-Bird 18 – and a 12-yard run by Jake Manning, another sophomore, that brought the ball to the 1.
From there, the T-Bird defense stiffened and the Devils lost a yard on three straight running plays before Lankarge hit Progano with a 2-yard scoring pass in the left corner of the end zone.
An interception and 17-yard return by Manning set the Devil offense up at the T-Bird 43 on North Branford’s next possession, but a personal foul against the home team torpedoed the drive, enabling North Branford to take over at the Coginchaug 44 with 56 seconds to play in the half.
And on the very next play Provencher delivered a classic back-breaker, a pretty 44-yard strike to Kamienski who had gotten behind the Devils’ secondary. Hansen’s two-point rush gave the visitors a 24-6 lead at the half.
North Branford pretty much sealed the deal by taking the second half kickoff and marching 62 yards to the end zone in six plays. A 21-yard dash by Provencher followed on the next play by a 31-yard end-around by Alec Johnson, set up Provencher’s 2-yard touchdown run that stretched the T-Bird lead 32-6.
An interception and 40-yard return by Jace Kamienski set up Provencher’s 35-yard bomb to Ian Kamienski to widen the lead to 38-8 with 6:30 to play in third quarter.
North Branford ended the scoring by mounting a 76-yard, fourth-quarter march that concluded with Hansen’s 5-yard run.
Progano, a senior playing his last game in a Blue Devil uniform, made his swan song a memorable one, rushing for 87 yards in 14 carries, catching three passes for 36 yards and a touchdown and completing two of his four passes for 17 yards.
Lankarge, also appearing in his final game, completed 10 of his 17 passes for 83 yards and a touchdown. Johnson had 24 yards rushing and added 11 more on three pass receptions while Manning had 38 yards on three receptions and senior Jackson Hill caught three for 15.
“We’ve got a good group of young players here who work hard and have done everything we’ve asked them to do,” Eagle said.
“I think they all learned some valuable lessons this year because football basically mirrors life. There’s good times and there’s bad. You win some and sometimes you get your butt kicked.”
NB………….8 16 14 8–46
C/HR/EH…0 6 0 0–6
NB- Provencher, 1-yard run (I. Kamienski rush)
NB: Hansen, 1-yard run (Meehan pass from Provencher)
C/HR/EH: Progano, 2-yard pass from Lankarge (kick failed)
NB: I. Kamienski, 44-yard pass from Provencher (Hansen rush)
NB: Provencher, 5-yard run (Meehan pass from Provencher)
NB: I. Kamienski, 35-yard pass from Provencher (pass failed)
NB: Hansen, 5-yard run (Provencher rush)