Pictured: Cromwell/Portland will take an 11-0 record into Sunday’s Class S semifinal against Ansonia. (Photo by Marc Silvestrini)
By Marc Silvestrini
CROMWELL — Tuesday’s CIAC Class S quarterfinal between Cromwell/Portland and Notre Dame of Fairfield resulted in a taut, tough, competitive contest between two good and evenly matched teams.
In the end, the Panthers prevailed 29-20 because they made more big plays on both sides of the ball in the final 20 minutes of the game than their opponents.
“They fought us all the way, they were tough,” Panther coach Randell Bennett said. “I didn’t think we matched their energy in the early going. I thought we played timid, especially in the trenches.
“But things finally started coming together for us in the second half. Before the game I implored our defense to be relentless, to play fast, to fly around and make plays. It took us awhile, but we finally got there in the second half.”
Cromwell/Portland, now 11-0 on the season, will host Ansonia, a 35-14 winner over Seymour on Tuesday, in the semifinals on Sunday at 12:30 p.m. at Pierson Park. Notre Dame finished its season with an 8-3 record.
Sunday’s game will mark the fifth time the Panthers and Ansonia have met in the Class S playoffs, with each team recording two wins.
The Panthers, who never trailed Tuesday night, took the lead on their first possession of the game on Allen Cohen’s 35-yard field goal. They led 13-7 at halftime, withstood a furious Lancers rally that brought them back to within two points, at 22-20, and iced the game with an Alex Hair 4-yard touchdown run that capped a 96-yard, four-play touchdown drive midway through the final quarter.
Along the way, the Panthers got huge performances from Ted Williams — who led them in rushing with 71 yards on nine carries and pass receiving with eight catches for 181 yards — quarterback Cole Brisson, who completed 18 of his 32 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown, and Cohen, who kicked three field goals and an extra point.
They also got a strong effort, particularly in the second half, from their defensive front seven, which limited the Lancers to 57 rushing yards in the second half.
“I was very impressed by Cromwell — they’re a very good, very well-coached team,” said Notre Dame coach John Johnson. “They found our weaknesses, made some adjustments on both sides of the ball at halftime, and made some big plays in the second half to win the game.”
The Panthers actually made five critical plays — two on defense, one on offense and two on special teams — in the second half.
After fumbling the ball away at the Lancer 1-yard-line on their opening drive of the third quarter, the Panther defense forced a punt on the Lancers ensuing possession. Williams then made the first critical play when he scooped up the ball at the Notre Dame 45 and returned it 38 yards to the 7.
Williams’ return set up an 8-yard Brisson to Ben Fagan touchdown strike that stretched the Cromwell/Portland lead to 19-7. The lead stayed at 12-points when the Panthers failed to cash in on a two-point conversion attempt.
The Lancers responded by driving 48 yards in four plays, reaching the end zone on a 12-yard pass from quarterback Jailon Denny to Bailey Coleman to close the gap to 19-14 with 3:28 left in the third quarter.
Notre Dame got the ball back 33 seconds later at its own 45 after forcing three straight incomplete passes. A 27-yard scamper by Tayshawn Dixon then moved the ball to the Cromwell/Portland 28, but Emeka Yearwood tackled Denny for a 4-yard loss on the next play and Owen Brunk sacked the Lancer quarterback back to the 36 on second down, which set up the second critical play of the half.
Facing a third-and-16 at the Panther 36, Denny was engulfed by the Panther defensive line and could only get off a short, wobbly pass that was intercepted by tackle Jackson Williams at the 38 and returned 27 yards to the Lancer 35 with 1:15 left in the quarter.
Critical play No. 3 occurred five plays later when Cohen hit a clutch 33-yard field goal to extend the Panthers’ lead to eight, at 22-15, 15 seconds into the fourth quarter.
The gritty Lancers came right back following the ensuing kickoff, marching 49 yards in four plays. Forty-three of those yards came on a fourth-and-4 screen pass from Denny to Dixon, who raced down the right sideline to score the touchdown that made it 22-20 with 9:27 to play.
The Lancers, however, failed to tie the score when Denny’s two-point conversion pass fell short of its mark, leaving the Panthers sitting atop a razor-thin two-point lead.
The next critical play came from Williams — again. Two plays after the Panthers misplayed the ensuing kickoff, leaving them in a precarious hole at their own 4-yard-line, Williams gathered in a short hitch from Brisson and exploded through the left side of the Notre Dame defense, galloping 75 yards to the Lancer 15.
From there, Hair took over, hauling in an 11-yard strike from Brisson to advance the ball to the 4 and scampering into the end zone on the next play. Cohen’s extra-point kick made it 29-20 with 7:47 to play.
“We went 2-8 my sophomore year and everyone on this team has worked real hard for the past two years to get us to where we are right now,” Williams said of his team’s perfect record. “It’s a great feeling when you know all the hard work you did is really paying off.”
Leading by nine with just under five minutes to play, Coleman intercepted a Brisson pass and returned it to the Cromwell 29, putting the Panthers in the position of needing one more big play to seal the win.
That play came on the Lancers’ first snap from scrimmage when Denny was hit by a host of Panther defenders and fumbled, with Fagan — who also had an interception in the game — falling on the ball.
“We weren’t as sharp or as aggressive as I would have liked, but we made enough plays to win the game,” Bennett conceded.
Cohen’s 35-yard field goal was the only score of the first quarter. Williams scored on a 32-yard end-around early in the second quarter to make it 10-0 before the Lancers marched 48 yards in 11 plays to score on a 13-yard Denny to Coleman strike to make it 10-7.
Cohen kicked an 18-yard field goal with 59 seconds left in the half to make the halftime score 13-7.
Cohen, a junior, said he has never kicked as many as two field goals in a varsity game. He credited his long snapper (Brunk), his holder (Fagan) and his offensive line for his success.
“The three of us (Cohen along with Brunk and Fagan) practice together all the time, even though we don’t have goal posts on the field where we practice,” he said. “We just get the kick off and have two guys standing where the goal posts should be and they determine whether the kick was good or not.”
Notre Dame-Fairfield…..0 7 7 6–20
Cromwell/Portland………3 10 6 10– 29
C/P: Cohen 35-yard field goal
C/P: T. Williams 32-yard run (Cohen kick)
ND: Coleman 11-yard pass from Denny (Cummings kick)
C/P: Cohen 18-yard field goal
C/P: Fagan 8-yard pass from Brisson (pass failed)
ND: Coleman 12-yard pass from Denny (Cummings kick)
C/P: Cohen 33-yard field goal
ND: Dixon 43-yard pass from Denny (pass failed)
C/P: Hair 4-yard run (Cohen kick)