New London beats Fitch 13-8 in ECC Division I showdown

New London — The pregame speech to the players, delivered by colorful former assistant coach Tommie Major, later honored during an in-game ceremony, featured the following line: "Ain't no road signs on the highway for Groton! You come from New York on 95 and all it says is "New London!"

Perhaps the Whalers summoned the spirit of their former spiritual leader when they needed it most Saturday, suddenly finding themselves trailing in the second half after Fitch's Steve Cantres took an interception back 71 yards for a score and caught a two-point conversion pass.

"I can say this," New London High School coach Johnny Burns said later, "these kids are resilient."

Indeed. The Whalers rallied with a five-play, 62-yard drive — 61 of which came from the churning legs of senior Jacob Commander — and took the lead they'd never relinquish. New London fought its way past Fitch, 13-8, before more than 1,000 fans at sunny Cannamela Field.

New London (3-1, 1-0) tied Norwich Free Academy atop the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I standings and remained in the middle of the Class L playoff race. Fitch (2-2, 0-1) gave itself six must wins to finish the season to even entertain hope for the postseason.

New London's defense held Fitch to 119 total yards and forced three turnovers, including interceptions from Richard Henry and Ronde Ford. Fitch's longest play from scrimmage was a 15-yard pass interference penalty on New London in the first half.

"We can't complete a pass," said Fitch coach Mike Ellis, whose team did complete three for 24 yards. "When you play a really good defense, you have to be able to use the entire field. We are using portions of it. That's on me. We've got to get that cranking."

Commander, who ran for 160 yards, rescued his team following Cantres' touchdown. It actually got worse after the touchdown, too. Fitch planned to kick an extra point, until the Whalers were penalized for 12 men on the field. Ellis changed strategy and watched quarterback Tyler Nelli hit Cantres for a two-point conversion pass.

Not only did New London trail 8-7, but the Whalers were penalized for a false start on their next play. Enter Commander, who turned a cranky sideline into euphoric in a few plays.

His 44-yard run set up quarterback Owen George's 1-yard touchdown run to make it 13-8.

This was not New London's finest day, given the interception, partially blocked punt and three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. But then, the record is 3-1 and there's always practice to improve things.

"We played a very tough, athletic team," Burns said. "But we felt like we could have done more. Missed opportunities were part of it. So is youth and learning our own schemes. Sure, you want nice and clean, but sometimes, you have to overcome yourself, too."

Commander made the game's biggest play on defense, stuffing Fitch on fourth and two from the New London 39 with 6:03 left. Fitch didn't get another possession.

"Four games in and I can say this is a resilient group," Burns said. "Even the game we lost, the momentum turned so much that instead of 33-19, it could have been 50-12. The kids don't quit."


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