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Norwich — And there he was again, Garrett Burdick, alone with his thoughts, awaiting the snap, a stubborn wind behind him. This time, his right leg harbored the hopes and dreams of a team, a city and only the oldest high school football rivalry in the whole country.
Garrett Burdick, the kid kicker, the freshman.
Burdick did it again Thursday, recalling his game-winning field goal as time expired earlier this month in New London's upset of No. 3 Middletown. His 40-yarder with 5 minutes, 15 seconds left — and some sturdy, steady defense — delivered the Whalers to a 9-7 win over No. 9 Norwich Free Academy, the Eastern Connecticut Conference's Large Division title and a berth in the state Class L playoffs.
New London (9-2), winners of eight straight, earned the fifth seed in Class L and a rematch with No. 4 Middletown in the playoffs Tuesday night. NFA (9-2) earned the No. 5 seed in Class LL and plays at No. 4 Southington.
"We think (Burdick) is good from 45 (yards), we had a little wind. We didn't even think twice about it," New London coach Duane Maranda said. "It never occurred to me that the kid is a freshman trying to kick us into the playoffs. When the clock ran out, I said to myself, 'Holy cow, did a freshman just really kick a field goal to send us to the playoffs and win the ECC Large?"
Answer: He sure did.
Burdick belongs in New London lore and legend now, right there with fellow kickers Kent Reyes and John Potter, among others. Reyes, who made a 49-yarder in 1970 against St. Bernard, watched intently Thursday as one of Burdick's assistant coaches. Potter made a 43-yarder in the 1983 state championship game.
"A lot of kids, I'm not gonna lie, walked up to me before the game and said, 'This game might just come down to you again,'" Burdick said. "I guess it did."
Burdick admitted he didn't strike the ball squarely. Good thing a mighty wind was blowing.
"Honestly, I think I mis-hit it," Burdick said. "I'm just happy it was good."
Burdick wouldn't have made the field goal were it not for a facemask penalty on NFA. New London quarterback Danny Maranda was sacked on fourth and 17, moving the ball back to the NFA. But the penalty, while not enough for a first down, advanced the ball to the 23.
"I thought he would make it. I've seen the kid make some big kicks already," NFA coach Jemal Davis said. "They had the wind. I just hoped it would be low and we'd tip it."
NFA lost running back Marcus Outlow, who ran for 120 yards, early in the third period to an apparent shoulder injury. Davis said Outlow was "fine" after the game and had no fracture.
Outlow yielded to teammate Khaleed Exum-Strong, whose 57-yard touchdown run in the third period — one play after a roughing the kicker penalty enabled NFA to keep the ball — tied the game at six. Jordon Martell's extra point flew like a wounded bird, scraping over the crossbar, all but peeling off a layer of paint as it cleared to make it 7-6.
Otherwise, New London's defense was more stout than it had been all season. Lineman Hunter Roman and linebackers Leo Clinton and Dante Alston were particularly active.
"We had to step up against the No. 3 team in the state (Middletown) before, so we figured we could do it against the No. 9 team. We stopped a heavier run team," Roman said. "We knew if we focused on Strong and Marcus we'd be fine.
"Our offense is great, special teams is great, but the last two big games, Middletown and NFA, the defense came up huge," Roman said.
Maranda: "We've played some teams that are supposed to be bigger and stronger. But nobody is tougher and nobody plays with more heart than New London kids. We take that as an insult when people start questioning that and think they're going to start running the football down our throat."
Both teams failed inside the other's 5-yard line in the first half. NFA ran out of time at the end of the first half, burning its final timeout with under 30 seconds remaining to avoid an illegal formation penalty.
"A lot of it I put on myself," Davis said. "We were trying to do some things. Maybe we should have abandoned them and done something else."
Orrin Parke ran for 108 tough yards for the Whalers and scored his team's first touchdown on a 22-yard run. Strong finished with 100 yards for NFA.
Class L playoffs
All games 6:30 p.m.
No. 8 Hand (8-3) vs. No. 1 Darien (10-1) at McMahon H.S., Norwalk
No. 7 North Haven (9-2) at No. 2 Platt (11-0)
No. 6 Farmington (9-2) at No. 3 New Canaan (11-1)
No. 5 New London (9-2) at No. 4 Middletown (10-1)
Class LL playoffs
All games 6:30 p.m.
No. 8 Ridgefield (9-2) at No. 1 Newtown (12-0)
No. 7 Fairfield Prep (9-2) at No. 2 Glastonbury (10-1)
No. 6 West Haven (9-2) at No. 3 Hall (9-1)
No. 5 NFA (8-2) at No. 4 Southington (9-1)