NFA holds on to beat New London 9-8 in nation's oldest rivalry
New London — It wasn't a masterpiece, but Norwich Free Academy football coach Jason Bakoulis will take it.
His Wildcats beat New London 9-8 on Thanksgiving in an Eastern Connecticut Conference Division I game that was the 159th meeting in the longest high school rivalry in the country.
The game featured as many safeties (two) as touchdowns and didn't have any bearing on state tournament berths or league titles. It was all about the rivalry.
"You have to win this game. This is the game,'' said Bakoulis. "We were fortunate to get some great alumni to come back and talk to the team the last two weeks.
"And the message was it doesn't matter what your record is. It doesn't matter what their record is. You have to win this game. And for our seniors it's for the rest of your life. I'm very happy that our seniors were able to go out the way they did.''
NFA (4-6, 2-1) led 7-0 after one quarter, 7-2 at halftime, trailed 8-7 and scored the deciding points on a safety with 3:39 left in the third quarter. But the Wildcats wrapped up the win with a drive that yielded no points.
Following a punt by New London (6-4, 0-3), NFA took over in its 39 with 4:36 left in the game. Eight running plays — all by sophomore Talon Amado Jr. — produced only 29 yards and stalled. But it left the Whalers with just 30 seconds left and 68 yards from the end zone. Four plays later NFA's Gage Hinkley intercepted a Rhodia Perry pass as time expired.
"They didn't accomplish their ultimate mission, but they kinda did,'' New London coach Johnny Burns said of the NFA drive.
The winning safety came when NFA was able to down the ball on a punt on the New London 1 on a play that was close to being a touchback. On the next play NFA's Jordan Ribeiro tackled Lio Griffin-Hill in the end zone. Bakoulis couldn't recall winning a game on a safety.
"No, I've lost a game on a safety,'' said Bakoulis. "Getting that safety was exactly what we needed. So we'll take it.''
The New London sideline thought the play should have been ruled a touchback.
"Those calls are part of the game,'' said Burns. "We're not the NFL. We live with those and we know the officials are doing the best job that they can. So hopefully they got it right.''
Amado caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Jayden Desilus to cap an 81-yard drive to open the game. Brady Conley's extra point made it 7-0. New London's Jonathon Mercado tackled Desilus in the end zone for a safety midway through the second quarter. Griffin-Hill went up the middle and ran untouched 40 yards for a touchdown on the second play of the second half to give the Whalers an 8-7 lead.
"We always want to win every game and, obviously, we always want to win on Thanksgiving,'' said Burns. "In our losses we seem to be a ball bounce away. This one was the epitome of our season. Just kinda a bounce here and a bounce there.
"Our kids, I'm proud of the way they competed,'' said Burns. "Our line was undersized in a lot of our games. But we make you go all four. We're proud of that.''
NFA's Amado carried the ball 23 times for 89 yards and New London's Griffin-Hill picked up 121 yards on just nine carries.
NFA leads the series 80-68-11.
The game was the 159th in the rivalry, going back to the first meeting of NFA and New London's Bulkeley School in 1875. In 1951 Bulkeley and Chapman Tech, also in New London, closed. The 1951 game at New London's Morgan Park ended in a brawl and the rivalry took two years off, resuming in 1954.
The teams met twice a year from 1976-80 when both were members of the Southeastern Athletic Conference along with Fitch and St. Bernard. The Thanksgiving Day rivalry began in 2000.
Interestingly, the teams hadn't actually played on Thanksgiving since 2017. The 2018 game at New London was moved up to Thanksgiving Eve to beat an arctic blast that was coming in. The 2019 game in Norwich was moved up to Thanksgiving Eve afternoon due to a social media threat. And last year's game wasn't held due to COVID-19.
NFA New London football photo gallery
For more photos from the NFA New London football game click here.
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