Whalers rally for dramatic 26-22 win over NFA

New London's Elijah Parker leaps over NFA's Shea McManaway (9), Nazaiah Paul (11) and Caleb Parker (10) to catch the game-winning touchdown pass with 3.3 seconds remaining, completing a dramatic comeback from a 22-0 deficit and lifting the Whalers to a 26-22 win over the Wildcats on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London's Elijah Parker leaps over NFA's Shea McManaway (9), Nazaiah Paul (11) and Caleb Parker (10) to catch the game-winning touchdown pass with 3.3 seconds remaining, completing a dramatic comeback from a 22-0 deficit and lifting the Whalers to a 26-22 win over the Wildcats on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Norwich — Juan Roman just wanted his New London Whalers to win the second half after trailing Norwich Free Academy by 16 points at halftime Thanksgiving morning.

“I told the guys, ‘This (game) is what you’re going to remember for the rest of your life, how you went out of here,’” Roman said. “So if you go out there and you don’t play and you just lay down, you’ve got to live with that.”

New London proceeded to fumble away the second half kickoff and quickly fell behind 22 points.

“We needed a win, I don’t care how we did it,” said Whalers senior Gio Lopez. “I told (my teammates) ‘don’t quit, don’t quit.’”

New London didn’t quit.

Man, New London did not quit.

The Whalers drove 90 yards in the game’s final two minutes and finished with a crescendo — a leaping 7-yard touchdown catch by senior Elijah Parker from sophomore Owen George with 3.3 seconds left.

New London 26, NFA 22.

Add another chapter to the nation’s oldest high school football rivalry, which was played for the 156th time.

“I’m in shock, but I can believe it,” Lopez said. “This team, when we do the right things (and) we work hard, we can do anything.”

George said, “We were all a little shaken (down 22 points), but we all believed for our senior class.

“This made our season.”

George completed 21 of 34 passes for 332 yards and four touchdowns for New London (4-6, 2-2 in the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I), which won its final three games.

“The word ‘adversity’ is always around in sports,” Roman said, “but we were definitely facing it, and for me, that’s the big thing — everybody’s great when your winning, and it’s easy to be a frontrunner.

“I don’t know if that could’ve happened in Week 1, what happened today. I don’t know if we could.”

NFA (5-5, 2-2) leads the series 77-68-11.

The Whalers started their final drive at their 10-yard line with one minute, 46 seconds left.

Lopez, who had to leave the game with cramps during that drive, returned and did what he had done for New London all season — he made the big play.

Lopez had a 43-yard catch down to the Wildcats’ 7 with 7.4 seconds left. He finished with seven catches for 169 yards and two touchdowns, and intercepted a pass in the end zone.

“I love Gio,” George said. “You go to him all the time, as you could tell.”

Parker followed by catching a 7-yard touchdown in traffic.

“The play keeps going back in my head over-and-over again,” Parker said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Parker had eight catches for 85 yards and two scores.

NFA senior Shea McManaway completed 24 of 38 passes for 266 yards with two interceptions and a touchdown. He also scored on a 1-yard run to give his team a 7-0 lead with over eight minutes left in the first quarter.

Junior Jahiem Spruill caught a 6-yard touchdown moments after a safety that gave the Wildcats a 16-0 lead in the second quarter. Freshman Sean Preston scored on a 10-yard run to extend the Wildcats’ lead to 22-0. Junior Kevin Pomroy added six catches for 120 yards.

NFA turned the ball over at the Whalers' goal line twice leading 22-14.

"Our senior class, those guys have just been working their tails off," Wildcats head coach Jason Bakoulis said, "and I just feel terrible that this is how they had to go out."

New London didn’t score until Lopez caught a 6-yard touchdown with 7:27 left in the third quarter.

“You need to keep scrapping, keep working,” Roman said. “You know what — it didn’t feel real good when you don’t have a whole lot of money in your bank account and the kids need formula and diapers. And, hopefully, again, it seems so silly when you say it, but hopefully a game like this allows these young men to realize, ‘you know what, I’ve been in tough times before. I kept my nose to the grindstone and I did what I had to do.

“For them to be able to see just hold steady, stay the course, and win with seconds on the clock, that happens in life.”

• Whalers junior Jaheed Marcus suffered a serious concussion during the third quarter and was taken by away by ambulance. The game was delayed for while he laid motionless on the field. Roman said he suffered no other injuries.

n.griffen@theday.com

New London's Jacob Commander (30), Clayton Smith (22) and Sean Flynn (76) take down NFA's Michael Hamlin (6) in the first half of the Whalers' 26-22 victory over the Wildcats on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day) Correction: A previous version of this photo incorrectly identified one of the New London Players.
New London's Jacob Commander (30), Clayton Smith (22) and Sean Flynn (76) take down NFA's Michael Hamlin (6) in the first half of the Whalers' 26-22 victory over the Wildcats on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day) Correction: A previous version of this photo incorrectly identified one of the New London Players.
New London's Gio Lopez (2) tumbles into the end zone for a touchdown carrying NFA's Damien Bleau, top, and Kenyatta Peake during the Whalers' 26-22 win over the Wildcats on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New London's Gio Lopez (2) tumbles into the end zone for a touchdown carrying NFA's Damien Bleau, top, and Kenyatta Peake during the Whalers' 26-22 win over the Wildcats on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
NFA's Jahiem Spruill (12) pulls down a touchdown pass over the defense of New London's Nick Fleetwood (3) during the Wildcats' 26-22 loss to the Whalers on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
NFA's Jahiem Spruill (12) pulls down a touchdown pass over the defense of New London's Nick Fleetwood (3) during the Wildcats' 26-22 loss to the Whalers on Thanksgiving morning in the 156th renewal of the oldest high school football rivalry in the nation. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

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