Waterford wins first state playoff game in program history

Waterford — In this wondrous decade of athletic excellence, history has become current events at Waterford High School.

And they did something else historic in Lancerville on Wednesday night — hadn't been done in more than 60 years — leading to a joyful celebration and plenty of picture-taking on the field when it was over.

Second-seeded Waterford won the first playoff game in the football program's six-decade history, tractor-pulling its way to a 10-6 victory over No. 7 Granby/Canton and a home date with Eastern Connecticut Conference brethren No. 3 Killingly in the Class M semifinals Monday night.

"This is a like a dream come true," Waterford coach John Strecker said. "When I first got into coaching, it was to get to this level with these kids. See that buy-in they have now? It's just everything."

Waterford (10-1) has earned headlines this year with its passing game, good enough for more than 1,800 yards and 32 touchdowns from quarterback Ryan Bakken. But this was an old-school night of defense and running the ball.

Waterford's defense, staked to a 10-6 lead after Sam Menders' 35-yard field goal with 3 minutes, 48 seconds left, did what it had done the entire night: figure out a way to stop the Bears, turning them over on downs with a minute left.

Jackson Harshberger, Matt Sanford, Trey Brennan, Christian Hightower and several others made notable defensive plays, helping hold Granby/Canton quarterback Jackson Rome to 37 yards rushing. He entered the game with nearly 1,200.

"Trey and Matt haven't gotten a lot of publicity this year, but they're two integral parts of what's going on here," Strecker said. "Trey hasn't played since he was a freshman and Matt never played before. They come out and just give everything. They're like Swiss Army Knives."

Brennan scored Waterford's lone touchdown on a 23-yard run, following Bakken's 23-yard screen pass to Hightower in the first period. Brennan ran left and never stopped, stretching the ball over the goal line.

"Thanks to Sam (Menders) I had an opening," Brennan said. "I cut it in, somebody hit me and I started to wobble. I had no option but to reach."

Waterford had the ball for more than 19 minutes of the second half, extending its lead to 10-6 late on Menders' 35-yard field goal. The defense did the rest.

"It's so special to us," Menders said. "I've been reminding the guys all week that we knew what we could do from the beginning. It's just execution from now on. We're content for right now, but as soon as we get to practice tomorrow it's right back at it."

And so while this didn't high on the aesthetics meter, there's still the matter of history.

"It's so hard to tell when the team you're playing doesn't play anybody you know," Strecker said. "I didn't really know what to expect. As it played out, we made some mistakes and hung in there anyway. What do they say is the first casualty of war? The battle plan. But we hung in there anyway."

m.dimauro@theday.com

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