Valley/Old Lyme didn't let midseason loss burst playoff bubble

Valley/Old Lyme quarterback Mike Cullina (13) throws on the run during a game against Haddam-Killingworth on Nov. 17. The sixth-seeded Warriors visit No. 3 Rocky Hill on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Class S state playoffs. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Valley/Old Lyme quarterback Mike Cullina (13) throws on the run during a game against Haddam-Killingworth on Nov. 17. The sixth-seeded Warriors visit No. 3 Rocky Hill on Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Class S state playoffs. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Deep River — Sports, like life, can take some some abrupt and unexpected turns.

The Valley Regional/Old Lyme football team wasnt even halfway through its schedule, and already its playoff hopes were in jeopardy after being routed at home by then-unbeaten Old Saybrook/Westbrook 34-13 on Oct. 6.

The Warriors still had to play at unbeaten Cromwell/Portland, which looked like the best team in the Pequot League at the time. Two losses would likely mean doom in the CIAC Class S playoff race.

Well guess what? Cromwel/Portland and Old Saybrook/Westbrook will both be sitting home Tuesday night while Valley/OL travels to third-seeded Rocky Hill (10-0) to play in a CIAC Class S quarterfinal at 6:30 p.m.

It's the sixth trip to the postseason in eight years for the No. 6 Warriors (9-1).

Cromwell/Portland and Old Saybrook/Westbrook both finished 8-2 and failed to qualify.

What a short, strange trip it’s been.

“We were talking about that (during a scouting trip last Thursday),” Warriors head coach Tim King said. “That’s why you always talk to your kids about never giving up. Keep playing, keep playing.”

Valley/OL turned it over four times during its stinker against Old Saybrook/Westbrook. The Rams also ran 45 times for 344 yards and five touchdowns.

“I think us losing to Old Saybrook/Westbrook was the turning point,” Valley/OL senior co-captain Jake Kruszewski said. “We just realized that it takes all of us to play (bad) for us to lose to anyone. Anything can happen at any moment of time. We went into that game thinking we were the big shots. ... and we were going to beat them. And we just didn’t play well.

“We realized that we couldn’t ever let that happen again.”

Old Saybrook/Westbrook was unbeaten when it played at Cromwell/Portland on Oct. 20. The Panthers won 12-6.

The Warriors played at Cromwell/Portland the following week. The teams exchanged the lead four times and went to overtime.

Valley/OL stopped the Panthers on their first overtime possession.

Warriors quarterback Michael Cullina, on third-and-goal from the 9-yard line, managed to scramble away from tacklers and threw a touchdown pass to a leaping Jason O’Brien for a 34-28 win.

King, in his 20th season as head coach, called it one of the best wins in program history.

“Once we beat Cromwell/Portland, our playoff hopes were back,” Kruszewski said. “Everything was back.”

Old Saybrook/Westbrook looked like a lock to qualify in Class S. Instead, it was upset by Haddam-Killingworth on Oct. 10 (14-7) with one game left.

The Panthers were eliminated from postseason contention by Rocky Hill on Nov. 22, 35-7.

The Warriors won their final six games, the last which was a 22-7 win over Haddam-Killingworth (Oct. 17) that clinched a playoff berth.

“Winning breeds winning, and we’ve been pretty lucky the last 10 years now,” King said. “We’ve pretty much been in that (must-win) situation before, and the kids kind of know they’ve got to keep playing.”

Rocky Hill is familiar with the playoffs, losing to Ansonia 28-21 in last year's Class S final.

The Terriers outscored opponents by an average score of 37.1-5.1 this season. They run the double wing, an offense built around a strong running game, with seniors Joe Catania and Joe Ferreira being the top two backs.

Rocky Hill has thrown a little more the past two years with Danny Cavallaro at quarterback. Tight end Matt Osgood caught two touchdown passes and threw for another in the win over Cromwell/Portland.

“Their running backs run hard,” King said. “They just pound it and pound it and pound it and pound it. They wear you down. It was 14-7 at halftime (against Cromwell/Portland), and then the floodgates opened.

“Defensively, they get to the ball. They’ve got some pretty good athletes, so it’s going to be very challenging for us.”

n.griffen@theday.com

Valley/Old Lyme's Jason O'Brien (2) turned the corner on Haddam-Killingworth's Dalton Modern during their Nov. 17 game. The Warriors won that game 22-7 to clinch a state playoff berth and will visit No. 3 Rocky Hill on Tuesday night in the Class S quarterfinals. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Valley/Old Lyme's Jason O'Brien (2) turned the corner on Haddam-Killingworth's Dalton Modern during their Nov. 17 game. The Warriors won that game 22-7 to clinch a state playoff berth and will visit No. 3 Rocky Hill on Tuesday night in the Class S quarterfinals. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

WHEN VALLEY/OLD LYME HAS THE BALL

Valley/Old Lyme offense

13 QB Micheal Cullina Sr.

8 RB Nick Braga Jr.

2 WR Jason O'Brien Jr.

5 WR Jae'len Arnum Jr.

6 WR Ernest Jean-Pierre Sr.

8 WR Ryan Santos Jr.

60 T Cole Hamparian Sr.

79 G Ian Coughlin Jr.

77 C Ian Neviaser Sr.

76 G Ben Falivene Jr.

54 T Jon Balocca Sr.

Rocky Hill defense

52 DE Dante Baker Sr.

50 DT Alex Boutin So.

63 DE Anthony Feliciano Sr.

25 OLB Diamante Baker Sr.

7 ILB Matt Osgood Sr.

44 ILB Cole Fishberg Sr.

3 OLB Will White Sr.

1 CB Jack Hansen Sr.

10 CB Belall Matar Sr.

11 S Ja'quan Graham Jr.

26 S Jordan Jones Sr.

 

WHEN ROCKY HILL HAS THE BALL

Rocky Hill offense

4 QB Danny Cavalllaro Sr.

2 WB Joe Catania Sr.

20 WB Joe Ferreira Sr.

44 FB Cole Fishberg Sr.

5 TE David Abadom Sr.

7 TE Matt Osgood Sr.

50 T Alex Boutin So.

52 G Dante Baker Sr.

73 C Ryan Pirre Sr.

63 G Anthony Feliciano Sr.

54 T Kyle Sanzo Sr.

Valley/Old Lyme defense

54 DE Jon Balocca Sr.

60 DT Cole Hamparian Sr.

76 DE Ben Falivene Jr.

35 OLB Joshua Donahue Sr.

4 ILB Blair Allen Sr.

5 ILB Jae'len Arnum Jr.

47 OLB Roan Sullivan Sr.

1 CB Jake Kruszewski Sr.

12 CB Jud O'Brien Sr.

2 S Jason O'Brien Jr.

6 S Ernest Jean-Pierre Sr.

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