On a night when it wouldn’t have been surprising to see animals walking two-by-two toward some large, seafaring craft, the football team survived the elements and a tough North Branford side in a 22-19 victory in the state Class S quarterfinals on Tuesday evening in North Branford.
Indians wide receiver Jalen Lollar caught three passes in the first half for 89 yards and two touchdowns, while running back Anthony Carter rushed for 136 first-half yards and a score on 13 carries to lift Northwest to a victory despite the increasingly soggy conditions.
“This is great,” a waterlogged Northwest head coach Mike Tyler said after the game. “We knew they have a great program and we do too. For conditions like this, it’s really hard for both teams. It was just a great, hard hitting football game. It was crazy. It’s football. Football is crazy this time of the year.”
Indeed it was, as the physically smaller Thunderbirds (9-2) started off the game up 7-0 in the first quarter, capitalizing on a Carter fumble that North Branford recovered at the Northwest 26 yard line.
Running back Joe DeLucia capped a four-play scoring drive with a 1-yard plunge to give No. 4 North Branford the lead with 9:24 left in the first quarter.
Northwest (9-2), the tournament’s fifth seed, equalized on the following drive, as quarterback Tyler Calitri connected with Loliar on the first of two long scoring passes, this one going for 37 yards with 6:27 left in the first quarter.
The Thunderbirds roared back on the next drive, which was set up by Rob Martino’s 75-yard kickoff return that put North Branford on the Northwest 12-yard line.
Two plays later, quarterback Brandan Basil connected on a screen with DeLucia, who barrelled into the end zone to give North Branford a 13-7 lead with 5:57 left in the first quarter. The extra point was no good.
Both teams traded possessions before Northwest took the lead for good, as Calitri hooked up with Loliar for a second long touchdown strike, this time for 45 yards to give the Indians a 14-13 advantage with 11:47 left in the second quarter.
At this point, the Indians looked like they would use their superior size up front to take control of the game.
After the Northwest defense held North Branford to a three and out series, the Indians took a commanding 22-13 lead on Carter’s 73-yard touchdown scamper and ensuing two-point conversion. It was quite a turnaround for Carter, whose fumble set up North Branford’s first score.
“He’s a tough kid,” Tyler said of Carter. “He played real well. It’s a grind out game. I’m proud of all of them.”
The Thunderbirds and Indians brought what looked like a monsoon with them out of the locker rooms at halftime, as neither team could gain any traction on the other or the field in the third and fourth quarters.
In the third quarter, Northwest punter Nicholas Gaynor had trouble fielding a snap and had a punt actually go in the opposite direction, allowing the Thunderbirds to start a drive at the Indians’ 17 yard line.
Basil connected on a screen pass with Dale Hausman, who was sprung into the end zone on a crushing block by Ryan Magnotti to pull North Branford to within 22-19 with 5:33 left in the third quarter. Again, the extra point was no good.
After that, the rain, which was going sideways, conspired to keep both teams from moving the ball very well.
“That’s the disappointing part right there,” North Branford head coach Mark Basil said. “The weather, we thought, was playing in our favor early on in the game. We are all about spreading the ball out. Our running game against a bigger team is not going to be as effective and we’re limited in what we can do against the climate. It did make us a little more one dimensional and it was tough to overcome that.”
Twice in the fourth quarter, Gaynor pinned the Thunderbirds back inside their own 10-yard line, making long drives difficult to sustain.
“We shot ourselves in the foot in first down plays that put us in second and long,” Mark Basil said. “They were pretty aggressive with their backers. Their front was pretty physical. We thought we would be able to handle them and we were just outnumbered with the pressure they were starting to bring. They were playing us for the short work. We weren’t able to stretch the field on them. Our running game wasn’t what it was. We tried to work the perimeter and they did a nice job defending that.”
Still, North Branford appeared for a moment to take the lead when Gary Falanga took a fake punt down the right sideline 87 yards for an apparent score. A Thunderbird was called for a block in the back, however, and the scoring run was brought back to the Thunderbirds’ 46-yard line, where the drive stalled.
“With the rain in our face, we decided to take a shot with the fake and it got us out of our end of the field and potentially could have gotten us the six,” Mark Basil said. “But it did get us some breathing room and we weren’t able to push the ball and further. When they got the ball and punted to the one yard line, it made it difficult to overcome.”
The Thunderbirds last drive ended with a fumble at the North Brandford 42-yard line, and all that was left for the Indians was to take a knee.
North Branford, which shared the Pequot League Sassacus Division championship with Valley Regional/Old Lyme, had nothing to be ashamed of in the defeat.
“Coming in I thought this group was potentially a seven or eight win season,” Mark Basil said. “They did one or two better. We have a young group of juniors that can get behind these guys who had varsity time last year. They stepped in and filled the void for the seniors last year. It’s all about team chemistry.
“I am incredibly proud of them. I know we all had expectations. We felt good about our game plan and felt very good about what we can do as a team and this was a little bit of a surprise. We thought we were a darkhorse in this tournament and we might surprise people and we came up short.”
Northwest Catholic will face No. 8 Cromwell, which upset No. 1 Capital Prep in another quarterfinal, on Dec. 3 at a time and site to be determined.