The Lonesome Polecat (SE Conn variant): Playoff-bound Warriors have given King very little to worry about
Tim King can worry with the best of them. He could watch film of a junior high school team and find something that would make him jittery.
King had good reasons to wonder if his Valley Regional/Old Lyme Warriors could earn their third playoff berth in four seasons.
The Warriors came through again. Friday’s 22-7 win over Haddam-Killingworth earned them their sixth straight Principal’s Cup against their rival, the Pequot League Sassacus Division championship, and a spot in the CIAC Class S playoffs.
“I knew that there were some teams coming back with some pretty good players between Cromwell/Portland and Old Saybrook/Westbrook,” King said, “and opening up with Ellington on the road. There’s a couple of other teams in the league that I was nervous about.”
Valley/Old Lyme lost at home to Old Saybrook/Westbrook, 34-13, on Oct. 6.
The Warriors saved their season at the end of the month by going on the road and beating Cromwell/Portland in overtime, 34-28 (Oct. 27). It’s the Panthers only loss, and they had beaten Old Saybrook/Westbrook the previous week (12-6).
King was also concerned about the rest of Class S because it’s a tougher division than Class M, which Valley/Old Lyme played in last year.
“St. Joseph was jumping in there (from Class M),” King said. “(Defending S champion) Ansonia is in there. Rocky Hill (last year’s S runner-up) is in there. Cromwell/Portland is in there. I knew that the field was going to be stacked.
“I knew that if you lost two games that you’re possibly not going to make it (to states), and I knew right from the get-go on our schedule were a couple of teams that we might not play well against and end up on the short end.”
Internally, King had reason to worry because the Warriors had plenty of holes to fill.
“I said that I knew we had some pretty good skill players,” King said. “It was going to depend on how Mikey (Cullina) came along at quarterback, how fast he could come along, and how fast the offensive line could gel. That was the big thing. We lost four of the five linemen.”
Senior center Ian Neviaser was the lone returning starter. Senior tackles Jon Balocca and Cole Hamparian and juniors guards Ian Coughlin and Ben Falivene have grown into their new roles this year.
“That’s what I was really worried about because everything (revolves) around the offensive line,” King continued. “Now you’re replacing four of them and trying to get them up to speed.”
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Six-foot-1 sophomore quarterback Noah Perry came on for the last three plays of the first half after starter Chris Salemme, a junior, got flattened by Guilford on a roughing the passer call. Perry was then under center the entire second half.
“He played in a JV game yesterday,” East Lyme coach Rudy Bagos said of Perry, following East Lyme's 21-6 victory.
East Lyme played it conservatively, having Perry mainly hand off. Fullback Isaac Tomblin finished with a tireless 40 carries for 180 yards, including 19 carries for 85 yards on one 99-yard drive in the second half.
But Perry, whom Tomblin calls “kind of a quiet guy,” didn't make any mistakes either.
In fact, he helped the Vikings (6-3) complete their long, 12-plus minute drive with a pass attempt to Spencer Duthrie in the end zone, on which Guilford was called for pass interference. That gave East Lyme the ball at the 3, after the officials marked off half the distance to the goal.
Tyler Valdez ran the ball in from the 3 on the next play, what proved to be a back-breaking drive for Guilford, which then turned the ball over on its final two drives.
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Valley/Old Lyme has had some quality receving corps over the past several years.
Seniors Jake Kruszewski, Jud O’Brien and Ernest Jean-Pierre and juniors Jae’len Arnum and Jason O’Brien have made this season's group of receivers as good as any of them.
“We do have some pretty good receivers,” King said. “Holy cow. We’ve seen Ernest bail us out. We've seen Jason bail us out.”
The Warriors had a fourth-and-8 early in the second quarter of Friday’s game when Cullina threw a high pass towards the end zone.
Arnum leapt from behind a defender and made a great catch over him for a 12-yard touchdown to tie the game at 7. Arnum had three catches for 68 yards.
Jean-Pierre got himself open for a 9-yard touchdown catch on Valley/Old Lyme’s next drive to push it ahead, 14-7.
Kruszewski had one catch, but it was one of the Warriors’ biggest. He made a diving catch on third-and-13 for 17 yards at the Cougars’ goal line.
“Little Jake Kruszewski at the goal line, what a catch,” King said. “That was huge. That was the big play of the game.”
Cullina ran for a touchdown on the next play.
Valley/Old Lyme has enough confidence in its passing game that it threw from the end zone twice.
The Warriors got the ball back at their 1 after stopping H-K twice at their goal line. Cullina threw a 26-yard pass to Jean-Pierre on their first play.
Valley/Old Lyme faced a third-and-13 from its own 2 when Jason O’Brien made a terrific catch for 37 yards. O’Brien had five catches for 99 yards.
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If you're wondering what a 27-play drive looks like, here's the breakdown:
East Lyme began the drive with 5:39 remaining in the third quarter on its own 1-yard-line after a goal line stand by the defense.
The Vikings then ran the ball 25 straight times, 19 times to Tomblin, four to Dylan Hatajik and two to Valdez.
East Lyme had fourth-and-1 from the Guilford 3 after 21 plays and Tomblin got a first down with a two-yard spin move to the 1 on the 22nd play. Two plays later, however, the Vikings were called for holding and sent back, making it second-and-goal from the 10. Hatajik ran for four yards, followed by the only passing attempt of the second half, which resulted in pass interference.
Play No. 27 came on third-and-goal from the 3, a touchdown run from Valdez with 5:19 left in the game.
“I'm surprised they didn't pack the box even more,” Bagos said of East Lyme's run-heavy plan.
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Bagos on Tomblin: “Duke is just a special player, his attitude … he didn't want to let his team down.” … Tomblin will have relatives from West Virginia and the Chicago area at the Vikings' Thanksgiving Day game against Waterford. “I'm sure I'm not the only one in that boat,” Tomblin said. “Very exciting. That's going to be just a wonderful atmosphere. It doesn't matter if you're 0-9 or 9-0, both of us are going to bring it.” … Bagos credited sophomore linebacker Cameron Hart with a tackle for a loss against Guilford's AJ Moscato, which helped East Lyme stop the Indians at the goal line.
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Thanks to TEAM DAY~! staffer Vickie Fulkerson who, despite being the oracle of Old Lyme girls' soccer this weekend, still provided a copious number of words about East Lyme-Guilford for this here blog. We most especially enjoyed the tale of the Vikings latest 99-yard touchdown journey. Glorious. We also salute their commitment to the Manly Discipline of the Running Arts.
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