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New London put the game and its postseason hopes in the control of two freshmen on Friday night.
The Whalers don't consider kicker Garrett Burdick and holder Melquann Gomez freshmen, though. They stopped caring long ago how young or old their players were over a month ago when the season was on the fritz. You start — you perform.
New London coach Duane Maranda said he didn't think about going for the touchdown in that situation.
"A lot of people asked me about that," he said. "It never even crossed my mind that (Burdick) is 14 years old and a freshman. I know it sounds like a canned answer, but repetition builds confidence, and confidence builds belief. The kid gets so many reps at practice and stays after and kicks. We feel like if the weather allows it that he can hit them from 40. He has a tremendous leg.
"It never crossed my mind that he was a freshman. We knew if we could get down to the 20-yard line for him that he had good range there."
It was the fifth straight win for the Whalers (6-2) and their biggest of the year. It also confirmed that they have greatly evolved since their disheartening start.
New London lost two of its first three games. The first was an embarrassing 53-14 loss to Capital/Classical/Achievement (Sept. 21). It was the first time it had given up 50-or-more points since losing to Griswold, 52-0, on Nov. 3, 2000.
The Whalers lost their next game to rival Ledyard, 21-3 (Oct. 4). Their inexperience was a big problem, particularly on offense. Thirteen of their starters last Friday were juniors or sophomores.
"We knew as a coaching staff that we were young," Maranda said. "We knew that we had a lot of growing up to do. One thing we said to ourselves first and foremost to them in a meeting after that Ledyard game was no more excuses. We don't want to hear, 'I'm young.' We don don't want to hear that you've never started before. If you're a varsity player for the New London Whalers, then we don't care if you're 14 or if you're 16. You've got to get it done.
"Since then, we've focused on that. The kids have put forth a great effort."
One key area of improvement has been the offensive line. None of the starters or reserves are seniors, and many had to learn on the job.
"I feel like now we're a good six-to-seven guys deep there," Maranda said. "They're young and love to be on the football field, and now they're starting to talk and communicate and, at practice, make their own calls. It's hard to get a senior-laden offensive line to do that, never mind a young one."
The Whalers' starting five are juniors Brian Cespedes (left tackle) and Rob Thomas (right tackle), and sophomores Aquil Philips (left guard), Connor Heap (center), and Greg Newkirk (right guard). Sophomores Shawn Brown (right guard), Bob Maynard (center-tackle), and Anson Wang (guard) have provided depth.
The coaches also decided that they had thrown too much and needed to be more balanced. Running back Orrin Parke missed the season-opener against Plainfield to injury, but ran well in both losses.
"We feel like we're at a great place," Maranda said, "that we're balanced in all three facets of our offensive game — our drop-back game, our screen game, and our running game. I think teams have a hard time defending it because we have three ways we can attack them.
"With that, every time you touch the ball, we want you to score. We design plays to score. We kind of feed off that Baylor mentality. We don't care where you are on the football field. You get the ball, we want you to score."
Receivers Jose Garcia, Nico Ramos and Jelani Lucas and Parke all have the speed to make that goal happen.
Maranda was pleased with the defensive effort Friday. Middletown scored on its first two possessions, the second which began at the Whalers' 33-yard line when it recovered a pop kick on the kickoff.
"Friday night was a big turning point for them," Maranda said. "They had given up some big rushing gains, and those guys stepped up and made a decision. This is it. (We) have to step it up and make some stops here.
"We knew that they'd try to run the football. We knew they'd try to pound it at us, but we felt like our kids had been in game situations where they had been tested and had played a complete game. We forced Middletown to play a close football game and play four quarters. That our toughness, our will to win, would work out for us in the end."
• • • •
Pardon the delay with Tuesday's Polecat. Life got in the way.
• • • •
Two notables from last Friday:
Morgan of Clinton returned three interceptions for touchdowns against Stafford/East Windsor during Friday's 47-0 win. That would tie the state record set by Foran against Platt Tech on Nov. 18, 2010.
Joe Lee (70 yards), Gabe Eriksen (10 yards) and Jake Ward (50 yards) all scored on interception returns. Ward also ran six times for 134 yards and four touchdowns.
Derby's Jordan Larue scored on kickoff returns of 75 and 82 yards in the first quarter of a 49-14 win over Watertown. It matches a single-game state-record held by a few folks, according to the Connecticut High School State Record Book.
• • • •
The New Haven Register Top 10 media poll: 1. New Canaan (9-0, 25 first-place votes); 2. Ansonia (9-0, 4 first place-votes); 3. Newtown (9-0); 4. West Haven (8-1); 5. Glastonbury (8-1); 6. St. Joseph (8-1); 7. Norwich Free Academy (7-1); 8. North Haven (8-1); 9. Southington (7-1); and, 10. Platt (9-0).
Technically, Newtown has improved to 10-0 as it was awarded a forfeit victory this week against Immaculate. That also earned it a CIAC Class LL playoff berth.
• • • •
The great Matt Fischer of CIAC has unleashed his ROBOABACUS again, thus allow YOU, good reader, the opportunity to follow the playoff races in real time.
You can find it HERE. We advise you to bookmark it.
Three teams have (unofficially) qualified — Newtown (Class LL), Ansonia (Class S) and Capital/Classical/Achievement (Class S), and Ansonia (Class S). Newtown also (unofficially) earned a home quarterfinal.
The ranking are unofficial until approved by the CIAC football committee the day after the end of the regular season.
• • • •
Ned Freeman's cold, calculating computer rankings for CalPreps.com and MaxPreps.com: 1. New Canaan; 2. West Haven; 3. Newtown; 4. St. Joseph; 5. Glastonbury; 6. Xavier; 7. Southington; 8. Norwich Free Academy; 9. Ansonia; and, 10. Hand (6-3). North Haven was 17th.
Hand continues to have the toughest-rated schedule. Its opponents are a combined 55-26. It best wins were over North Haven (21-6), Fairfield Prep (35-27), and Shelton (44-41). It lost to No. 1 New Canaan (50-21), No. 4 West Haven (46-35), and No. 9 Xavier (28-14).
Torrington's opponents have the best combined record (57-24). The Red Raiders (1-8) have played No. 2 Ansonia (9-0), Barlow (8-1), Naugatuck (8-1), Woodland (8-1), Holy Cross (6-3), St. Paul (6-3), and Wolcott (6-3).
• • • •
Behold, the ballot Polecat Worldwide submitted to Pooch Diggity Dogg, comptroller of the New Haven Register Top 10 media poll (notes added where necessary):
1. New Canaan
3. St. Joseph
5. West Haven
7. Darien: Saddened that we'll miss its game at North Haven on Friday. Someone please send us game video.
8. North Haven
13. Hand: Yeah, it's 6-3. Look at who it's played and beaten.
14. Barlow: We need video from the Falcons home game against Brookfield, too.
15. Fairfield Prep
• • • •
Thanks for reading. More later.
Vaya con dios....
East Lyme returned just five players with any varsity experience and lost its first four games. It's made gradual improvement and downed Woodstock Academy last Friday, 42-7, its second-straight victory.