NFA finishes season strong with win over rival New London
Norwich – A Norwich Free Academy season that started slowly ended with the Wildcats celebrating a Thanksgiving Day victory before their happy fans on a sunny Thursday.
Beating New London, 27-8, in the nation’s oldest high school football rivalry to finish on a three-game winning streak will be what the Wildcats (4-6) remember about the fall.
“This is the most important win of the whole season,” NFA first year coach Erik Larka. “It’s phenomenal. It’s awesome. I’m ready to go celebrate, have some turkey and hang out with family. But it feels awesome.
“I’m glad to be able to carry on the tradition and be victorious as well. … Like I told the kids, it’s hard to win one game, but to finish the season winning three in a row is something to be proud of and something to build on for the kids that are coming back.”
The Wildcats were in complete control, surging in front, 14-0, at halftime and then extending the gap to 27 before giving up a fourth quarter touchdown. They pushed their lead in the overall series to 81-68-11.
Touchdowns came from a variety of sources.
NFA relied on the effective two-quarterback rotation of Colby Ayuyu and Gage Hinkley.
On the game’s opening possession, Ayuyu directed a four-play, 62-yard scoring drive capped off by a 51-yard touchdown pass to Connor Gaughan.
NFA continued to have good field position but couldn’t crack the New London defense again until the final seconds of the second quarter. Hinkley raced around the right side from five yards out for a 14-0 edge.
The Wildcats scored on their first two drives of the second half to take a commanding 27-0 lead. Running back Talon Amado broke free for a 31-yard touchdown run. One play after the New London punter covered his own fumble and gave NFA the ball at the Whaler five, Jonathan Mercado powered his way into the end zone.
“We were sloppy on offense a little bit, but we won the game,” Larka said. “We did things when we needed to do it.”
New London’s passing game heated up late in the game, resulting in Johnny Burns III throwing a 33-yard touchdown pass on fourth down to Zuri Craig, who made a nice catch in traffic.
The Whalers (2-8) dealt with some adversity. Lydell Pemberton served as head coach, replacing Johnny Burns who watched from the stands.
Prior to the game, New London athletic director Phil Orbe declined to comment on Burns’ status, only saying that Burns would not be on the sidelines Thursday.
Pemberton said he knew for about a week that the Whalers would have to make some adjustments.
“Not having your fearless leader on board, of course impacts your players,” Pemberton said. “But I think we were able to corral the boys and get them together and realize that he was with us in spirit and he was here today in the crowd, so that was a big help for us. We’re always connected, so we’re not far from him.”
The Whalers played hard but made too many mistakes to be more competitive.
“I was proud of the overall effort,” Pemberton said. “Everybody’s minds were in the right place. Their effort was there. … Our ability to get into the red zone and punch it in was just a challenge for us.”