Waterford beats Woodstock to capture ECC Division II football title

Woodstock — Waterford isn't considered a football town.

The Lancers are trying to change that reputation.

With a 26-15 win over Woodstock Academy on Saturday, Waterford clinched the Eastern Connecticut Conference Division II title.

The Lancers improved to 8-1 overall, 4-0 in the division. The Centaurs fell to 6-3, 2-2.

"It means everything," senior quarterback Ryan Bakken said. "Waterford is not known to win football games around here. To have this year's number on our banner in the field house, it means everything to us because we're leaving our mark here.

"The conference knows we don't mess around anymore."

Saturday's victory also moved the Lancers one step closer to securing a CIAC Class M playoff spot. They'll be guaranteed a postseason berth with a win over East Lyme on Thanksgiving but also could still qualify with a loss depending on other results.

"Thanksgiving day is going to be big anyway," coach John Strecker said. "It's always big. If we are qualified, at that point it will be for a home game. I want the best for these kids ... as far as they can go."

It's been a remarkable turnaround for the program.

Entering the season, the Lancers had won a combined three games in the previous two years.

"We've been through two years of bad seasons," junior Jackson Harshberger said. "We just worked hard every single day to get where we are right now."

The Lancers are being rewarded for their hard work during the offseason. Players started working out last December, according to Strecker. They also added some experience and athleticism.

"We had 19 seniors come out and half of them never played before or played when they were freshmen," Strecker said. ""And they're good athletes. They've helped out tremendously, so that makes a big difference. We got to August and looked around and said, 'Man, we've got a pretty good football team.' "

Several of the team's veterans made key contribution's to the division title-clinching win.

Harshberger made an impact on both sides of the ball. His nine-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter basically put the game away for the Lancers, who went up 26-9 with 7 minutes, 56 seconds remaining. He also made several big plays on defense, including making an interception that eventually led to a second quarter touchdown and registering two sacks.

Bakken threw three touchdown passes, with senior Michael Vincent on the receiving end of two scores, one for eight yards and the other for 25. Senior Trey Brennan's four-yard touchdown catch put the Lancers in front for good at 6-3 early in the second quarter.

After trailing 3-0, Waterford scored 19 straight points to build a comfortable lead. The defense did the rest, sacking Woodstock quarterback Ethan Davis five times and forcing him to throw two interceptions while limiting Woodstock's big-play attack. Junior Christian Hightower also made an interception in the end zone.

The early deficit could have been greater if not for Waterford's defense making a stand.

On their first possession of the game, the Lancers gambled and went for it on fourth down and one from their own 10-yard line. Bakken, who also serves as team punter, threw an incomplete pass over the middle, giving the Centaurs the ball in prime scoring position.

But the Centaurs didn't gain a yard in three downs and settled for Aidan Morin's 27-yard field goal.

"I like to be aggressive early," Strecker said of his fourth down decision. "I like to go for those and get the first score. I knew our defense was going to hold them. They've been playing great all year."

g.keefe@theday.com

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