Defense leads unbeaten Waterford past Stonington 35-7

Waterford — Waterford's Jackson Harshberger had the kind of day players dream about.

The junior was everywhere. He led a strong defensive effort, ran for a touchdown and caught a touchdown pass as the Lancers stayed unbeaten with a 35-7 win over Stonington on Saturday afternoon in its Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II opener.

"I enjoy it. It's tiring,'' said Harshberger. "But thanks to the coaches we condition every day and it prepares us to handle things like this and be on the field at all times.''

The Lancers are off to a 3-0 start for the first time since 2016, when they finished 7-3.

Waterford's offense produced 95 points in its first two games. And while they didn't exactly struggle, the Bears (0-3, 0-2) made them work for their points.

"They keep the ball, run the clock, shorten the game,'' Waterford coach John Strecker said. "It was a struggle for us, but if we get enough touches we'll get in the end zone.''

Ryan Bakken, who passed for 10 touchdowns the first two weeks, saw to that. He added four more TDs and 277 yards passing. But most of the damage was done in the second half.

"We had a great plan and the kids executed it,'' said Stonington coach A.J. Massengale. "Put pressure on the quarterback, get after him. He hadn't seen that in (the first) two weeks and he's going to see it I'm sure.''

The game was scoreless until Harshberger's 3-yard touchdown run with 8:04 left in the second quarter and the extra point by Sam Menders.

Stonington answered with an 80-yard drive that took nearly eight minutes off the clock. It was capped by a 28-yard touchdown pass from Drew Champagne to Sam Inthasit and Josh Mooney's extra point to make it 7-7 with 48 seconds left in the half.

It was enough time for the Lancers. Bakken threw a pass to Menders, who broke a tackle and went 87 yards down the left side for a touchdown. Menders' kick made it 14-7 at the half.

The Lancers scored on their first two possessions of the second half for a 28-7 lead and took control. Bakken threw a 55-yard scoring strike to Payton Sutman and a screen pass to Harshberger that he turned into a 53-yard scoring pass. And Sutman and Bakken hooked up for a 26-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter.

But the Waterford defense, despite allowing 217 yards, tightened up when it had to. Harshberger had 15 tackles from his strong-side linebacker spot, including two quarterback sacks and two other plays for losses. Senior linebacker Matt Sanford picked off a pass and had a sack and senior defensive back Trey Brennan saved a touchdown by knocking away a pass late in the game.

"Defense is the main thing,'' said Harshberger. "If the defense can stop them then our offense will have more opportunities on the field to go and score and help us win.''

Harshberger also rushed for 48 yards on seven carries and had two receptions for 58 yards.

Strecker, while pleased to be 3-0, sees much still to be done.

"We don't want to look too far down the road,'' said Strecker. "These kids are in a great place mentally. They come to practice every day to work hard. They're here to learn and they're having a ton of fun.''

Sophomore Christian Hudson led Stonington with 66 yards rushing on 21 carries and Inthasit recovered a fumble, and caught two passes for30 yards.

"I'm very happy with the way the kids played,'' said Massengale. "We're not happy with the results, obviously. I'm happy with the way our kids are getting better and how hard they work.''

d.davis@theday.com

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