Pictured: The Cromwell/Portland Panthers beat Bloomfield 21-6 on Saturday to win the Class S championship and finish 13-0. (Photo by Paul Augeri)
By Paul Augeri
TRUMBULL – Ted Williams was in the right place at the right time — all of the time — Saturday in the CIAC Class S championship game. That was really bad news for Bloomfield.
The Cromwell/Portland offense again got off to a fast start and, with five conversions on third and fourth down in the first half, kept Bloomfield’s dangerous dual-threat attack off the field for large chunks of time.
And the Panthers’ defense, which allowed less than 100 points in 13 games, didn’t budge a whole lot against the Warhawks.
The end result: a 21-6 victory over top-seeded Bloomfield in wet and foggy conditions at McDougall Stadium – the Panthers’ first championship as a co-op program and second overall.
The Panthers finished 13-0, beating semifinal opponent Ansonia (by 39 points) and now Bloomfield, programs that have combined for 29 state titles.
“We’ve been talking about this moment for over a year,” senior linebacker Owen Brunk said, a regular thought from the players after most endured a 2-8 season in 2019 and no football in 2020. “As soon as our season got canceled last year, we’ve worked for this moment. And you saw how we came together out there. It’s just great.”
Williams’ second consecutive superlative effort in these playoffs — he had 9 catches for 332 yards and 5 TDs against Ansonia — was a sight to see. He recovered a teammate’s fumble in the end zone for the Panthers’ first touchdown, scored on a long catch-and-run in the second quarter and returned an interception 66 yards on the first snap of the fourth quarter to give C/P a two-touchdown lead.
“Throughout the whole course of the last two years … when we were 2-8, there were no fans supporting us, so we’ve really had to work for (respect),” the dual-threat senior said.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do. I have to find a way to mate Teddy Williams and make another one,” coach Randell Bennett said with a laugh.
A former Panthers lineman, Bennett’s staff’s preparation, their confidence in the players, and the Panthers’ execution was on full display yet again in these playoffs.
Williams finished with 96 receiving and 59 rushing yards for the Panthers. Alex Hair carried the ball 19 times for 55 yards and quarterback Cole Brisson was 10 of 16 for 162 yards.
Running backs Dallas Rose and Conellius Patrick, who both turned in 1,000-yard seasons for the Warhawks, finished with 64 and 53 yards, respectively.
After Bloomfield won the coin toss and deferred, the Panthers cranked up their run game with great success. Hair rushed for 38 yards on five carries to get the ball to Bloomfield’s 32-yard line, here junior Cole Brisson connected with Ben Fagan downfield on second down. Fagan lost the handle inside the 5 and it trickled over the goal line, where Williams was a step ahead of the Warhawks’ defense and pounced on it. Allen Cohen’s kick capped the 72-yard drive to make it 7-0 just 2:30 into the game.
“I didn’t know we would be able to run the ball like that,” Bennett said. “We haven’t been able to run the ball the past couple of weeks. They’re pretty stout up front, but when we had some success early we just tried to stick with it as long as we could.”
Bloomfield took over at its 30 and used a combination of run and pass to move the ball to the C/P 6, with quarterback Darrien Foster (15 of 26 for 122 yards and 2 picks) throwing to Robert Dunkley for a 16-yard gain on third-and 11. But the Panthers’ defense made a collective stand. dropped Warhawks leading rusher Dallas Rose for a 1-yard loss, quarterback Darrien Foster threw incomplete on second down, Rose was held to a 1-yard gain on third and Foster threw incomplete through the end zone to turn it over on downs.
Cromwell/Portland extended its lead with a monster drive that took only eight plays to cover 94 yards.
Williams ran behind his offensive line for gains of 12 and 18 yards to get the Panthers out of danger and Brisson’s 14-yard completion to Daevyon Lovelace pushed the possession into Bloomfield territory.
After a 5-yard gain by Williams and a 2-yard loss by Hair, who was hit in the backfield, the Panthers went back to the pass. Brisson hit Williams on a slant route on the left side, and he scissored his way 46 yards for the touchdown. With Cohen’s PAT, the Panthers had a 14-0 advantage with 9:43 left in the first half.
The Warhawks were a yard outside the red zone on their next possession when Emeka Yearwood, who would make another appearance in Bloomfield’s backfield later on, forced a Foster fumble that was recovered by Williams at the 29.
The Panthers took over, converting twice on third down and on fourth-and-19 from the 49 with a Brisson-to-Williams completion of 23 yards, but the drive stalled at the Bloomfield 15 with 8 seconds left in the half. The Warhawks took a knee to send it to halftime.
Despite turning it over on downs to start the second half, Bloomfield held Cromwell/Portland on downs en route to its only touchdown of the game.
Starting at their own 43, the Warhawks moved quickly: a 22-yard Foster-to-Dunkley completion, a 6-yard run by Rose and a 12-yard gain by Conellius Patrick to the Panthers’ 19-yard line. On second down, unable to find an open receiver, Foster ran up the gut untouched for the 16-yard score. The Warhawks abandoned the PAT when they were whistled twice for a false start and Ben Fagan broke up Foster’s pass for two points with 3:28 left in the third quarter.
The Panthers punted away their next possession – the ball traveled five yards and out of bounds to the 30 – to give Bloomfield an excellent chance to put points on the board again.
“In the second half we just tried to weather the storm,” Bennett said. “We knew they would make adjustments. Once we started to learn what they were adjusting to, that’s when it got tight.”
But the Warhawks were penalized for holding right off the bat and pushed back to the Cromwell/Portland 41-yard. On second-and-18, Jihad Blake-Singleton stopped Foster for a 2-yard loss, and a screen pass to Dunkley managed just 3 yards.
On fourth-and 17 from the 37, Foster moved to his right and had Yearwood bearing down on him when he lofted the ball toward the sideline, far short of the first-down marker. Williams reacted quickly to it.
“All week we worked on play-action and the guy on opposite side comes on a drag, so I dropped a little bit and saw him on the drag and just broke on the ball,” he said. “It was overthrown a little bit, so I just had to jump up and grab it and I was gone.”
Yearwood feared he was going to be whistled for roughing Foster.
“At first I looked at the ref to see if he was going to throw a flag,” the sophomore said. “I looked at Teddy, saw him catch the ball and running, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s obviously a touchdown.”
Foster was the only Warhawk that Williams had to beat before peeling away for the score.
“Their quarterback isn’t tackling Teddy,” Yearwood said.
Cohen was perfect again on the PAT for a 21-6 lead with 13 seconds gone in the fourth quarter.
Foster was picked off by Panthers freshman Jack Nolan at the 1-yard line on the ensuing possession, and although the Panthers were held to three and out from the 7, their defense stuffed another would-be Bloomfield scoring drive on fourth-and-1 at the 5 with 5:01 left in the game.
While Cromwell/Portland’s defensive line deprived the Warhawks of big runs, its linebackers — Williams, Brunk and sophomore Alex McKiernan (in for injured junior Ryan Rozich) — and secondary prevented big plays throughout the game.
“Our defensive coordinator Jack Wilson, 23 years old, we gave up 97 points in 13 games,” said Bennett. “I said all year that I felt like I had the best linebackers, and these guys led us all year. They shut teams down, they were relentless in their pursuit of greatness and I couldn’t be happier for them today.”
Brunk got the Panthers another set of downs with a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-1, Williams did the same with an 11-yard run to the 24, and with the Warhawks out of timeouts, the Panthers ran out the final 2:50.
“We were all ready for this one,” said Williams. “Obviously we had pregame jitters, but once that first play happens, we’re all good.”
“I think we played perfect,” Yearwood said. “We played our hearts out and started strong, too. It shows we’re not only a few players. We’re a whole team.”
A championship team at that.
Bloomfield….0 0 6 0–6
Crom/Port…..7 7 0 7–21
C/P: Ted Williams fumble recovery in end zone (Allen Cohen kick)
C/P: Williams 46-yard pass from Cole Brisson (Cohen kick)
Bloom: Darrien Foster 16-yard run (pass failed)
C/P: Williams 66-yard interception return (Cohen kick)