CROMWELL - The easy part for the Cromwell High School football team was knowing that Morgan’s hefty offensive line opened some large holes for running back Jake Ward to exploit.
The hard part was closing those holes; making first tackles count and yielding little real estate to the senior workhorse, who came into the game needing just 77 yards to become Morgan’s all-time leading rusher.
Once the 5’10” Ward got rolling, there was no containing him. He crossed the goal line six times Saturday, Sept. 20, while averaging 8.9 yards-per-carry (320 yards/36 carries) as the visiting Huskies dealt the Panthers a 47-20 Pequot Sassacus defeat at Pierson Park. Ward now totals 4,704 career yards, besting the record set back in 1990 (4,460) by Ron Stopkoski.
After the Cromwell defense stiffened to deny Morgan’s opening game drive, the Panthers’ offensive counterparts struck quickly. Two runs by junior Kristian Sapp and a pair by quarterback Jarius Bailey, who’s not afraid to call his own number, moved the ball to the Morgan 5, where Mace James punched it in for the 6-0 lead 5:21 into the game.
Morgan’s reply was almost immediate, as Ward picked up seven yards before breaking loose to gobble up 60 yards of real estate to put the Huskies on the board. Gabe Ericson booted his first of five conversion kicks to ease Morgan ahead, 7-6.
Cromwell went on the attack on its next possession to regain the upper hand as junior running back Nelson Carlson swept unimpeded into the end zone with 26 seconds left in the first quarter. Cole Bradley’s point after, his first of three on the day, split the uprights for the 13-7 CHS advantage.
Morgan freshman Steve Zampano’s kick return brought the ball to mid-field, where three runs by Ward, the last one covering 40 yards, inched the Huskies ahead, 14-13, just 40 seconds into the second period.
Though the Panthers’ defense thwarted a trio of Morgan fourth down conversion attempts in the first 24 minutes of play, the offense didn’t cash in. Bailey and Andrew Pepe snuffed the Huskies’ game-opening drive on 4&5 at the home team’s 45. John Siena’s big stop on 4 & 1 dropped Gary Forbes at the Cromwell 24, while linebacker Mersad Zilkic stuffed a run by the usually productive Ward with 1:33 before halftime.
“I don’t think anybody in the stadium thought that a Morgan team that was in the playoffs last year and a Cromwell team that was 4-7 last year would be 14-13 at half time. I patted our kids on the back and said that those of us in the locker room were the only ones believing in us, so now we’ve got to go out there and finish the job,” said Cromwell head coach Chris Eckert.
“Everyone was doubting us. Morgan was getting tired in the first half but we knew they were going to come flying in the second half so we were going to have to come out with way more intensity than them,” said Bailey, the team’s junior signal caller.
“We came out all hyped and did good in the first half. A lot of our fans weren’t expecting that. Deep down we thought we could win this game. In the second half, our intensity wasn’t on top,” added Sapp.
The visitors came out of the break in over drive and padded their lead with a touchdown trifecta in the third period and two more in the final 12 minutes of play. Ward accounted for scoring runs of 6, 18, 7 and 40 yards in the second half, while quarterback Chucky Kostek took his lone rush eight yards into the end zone.
Cromwell totaled a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives on the hard running of Sapp before a Bailey targeted sophomore John Siena in the end zone.
“We had a lot of penalties today. Unfortunately, we’re still a young team and we make young mistakes. We’ve got some guys who are out here for the first time. We’re going to make rookie errors,” said Eckert.
“It doesn’t help when a good running back like Jake Ward has a great offensive line that allows him to hit the gaps. There was a lot of open room for him to run when we’re not making tackles. That’s the key to the game--missed tackles and penalties.
“Jarius is doing well,” Eckert said of his first-time quarterback after Bailey’s second game ever. “He’s coming along. He’s made astronomical progress from last week to this week. He made a lot more plays today. He’s going through growing pains, but will continue to get better and be a force down the road. He’s a threat with his arm and he’s a threat with his legs. At times he was looking down at the line rather than up at the secondary and what happens is that he pulls the ball down and starts to run.”
“We’ve got two guys inside who made pretty much every tackle--Mersad Zilkic and Jack Wilson. We’ve just got to find a way to make tackles when it counts and get off the field. We didn’t do a good job stopping Morgan at all. I don’t think we made them punt. You can’t win a football game if you don’t make the other team punt,” Eckert said.
“Our offensive line--Nik Mazzuco, Mike Daniels, Justice Taylor, Zilkic and Wilson--gave me very good protection. They gave me all the time in the world. And our backfield [Sapp, James and Carlson' alt='sports corner' title='sports corner'>
is very speedy. They made a lot of quick cuts,” said Bailey.
“We’ve got to step it up in practice. We can’t have our heads down after this game. We’ve got to turn the page and keep going. We’ve got to keep our heads up,” said Sapp.
“We all have to do our jobs. Everyone has to work together so we can be successful. We’ve got to come hard and come strong in practice. We have to execute every play,” added Zilkic.
“Everyone should know that Cromwell football is going to turn this around. Being 0-2 is not acceptable. We need to work harder in practice and we need to execute all of our plays,” Bailey said, emphatically.
The Panthers remain at home for a 1:30 p.m. clash with Nonnewaug Saturday, Sept. 27.