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    Friday, May 24, 2024

    Thames River, Ledyard, Valley/OL anxious to get postseason journeys started

    Ledyard's Jacob Lenz (8) breaks away from the Fitch defense for a touchdown in Thanksgiving Day high school football action Thursday, November 24, 2022 at Dorr Field in Groton. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Thames River quarterback Ryan Outlow (3) looks for running room against Prince Tech In Connecticut Technical Conference high school football Friday, October 21, 2022 in Groton. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Valley Regional’s Di’Angelo Jean-Pierre runs against Haddam-Killingworth in high school football action Tuesday, November 22, 2022. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
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    Some coaches and many of the players from the Valley Regional/Old Lyme football co-op traveled to Cromwell last Wednesday to watch rival Cromwell/Portland play Rocky Hill.

    Valley/Old Lyme needed Cromwell/Portland to beat the Terriers in order to qualify for the CIAC playoffs.

    It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.

    “I think I was the only enthusiastic person (from the team) cheering for the Panthers,” Valley/Old Lyme head coach Hill Gbunblee said with a laugh. “It’s so ingrained in them to go against Cromwell/Portland. They were like, ‘Coach, this feels terrible. This feels awful, cheering for this team. I don’t like it.’

    “‘I was like, ‘you don’t have to like it.’”

    Cromwell/Portland did the Warriors a favor by knocking off Rocky Hill, clinching a Class SS playoff berth. They are one of three local teams that will play in Tuesday night’s quarterfinals.

    Unbeaten and fourth-seeded Thames River is the lone team that will play home, hosting No. 5 North Haven in a Class MM quarterfinal at Grasso Tech.

    No. 6 Valley/Old Lyme travels west on I-95 south to play No. 3 Foran in Milford.

    Eighth-seeded Ledyard heads north up Route 9 to face top-seeded Cromwell/Portland.

    All games are at 6:30 p.m.

    The Ledyard and Valley/Old Lyme programs have been to multiple state playoffs, but none of its current players have been a part of the postseason.

    It’s the maiden voyage for Thames River (10-0), a co-op comprised of Grasso Tech, Norwich Tech and St. Bernard. The Crusaders capped off their first unbeaten regular season with a 43-0 thumping of Quinebaug Valley last Wednesday.

    “When they won (Wednesday night) they were excited,” Crusaders head coach Craig Sylvester said. “Friday, we came back to work, and it was business as usual. The kids are focused and ready to go.”

    Thames has thrashed every opponent its faced at a level few teams ever have. It was the state’s second-highest scoring team (485, one point less than Class M qualifier Law) and by far the best in points allowed (19).

    The Crusaders had seven shutouts, putting them in a 13th-place tie for most in a season, according to the Connecticut High School Football Record Book. They’re just the seventh team to do it in a 10-game regular season.

    North Haven (8-2) is the best team Thames has seen this season. It plays in Tier 1 of the Southern Connecticut Conference, which had five of its seven teams make states. That’s more than some leagues are sending to the playoffs.

    The Nighthawks beat Class L qualifiers Cheshire (10-0) and Shelton (18-10). They lost to Notre Dame of West Haven (14-7), the No. 2 seed in Class M, and Fairfield Prep (17-13), No. 5 in Class LL.

    North Haven wants to pound defenses with the run using its single wing offenseit has run 401 times for 2,852 yards and 35 touchdowns and attempted just 45 passes. Its defense and allowed just 76 points.

    “They (have) a power running game,” Sylvester said. “They know how to run the ball and block well.

    “I think everyone is underestimating my kids. My kids play with heart, passion. They play physical. We play power football as well. I think this is a good test. ... They want to play now. They wanted to play Saturday. They wanted to play (Sunday). They’re ready to play. They’re not nervous. They’re ready to play.”

    A common thread that runs between Ledyard and Valley/Old Lyme is the sense of a second chance, so to speak.

    Ledyard would’ve earned a home quarterfinal had it beaten Fitch on Thanksgiving. The Falcons won, however, 46-36, and the Colonels fell to the eighth and final seed.

    “Obviously, no one in the town of Ledyard was thrilled about the way things went on Thanksgiving,” Colonels head coach Mike Serricchio said. “But there’s definitely an attitude of gratitude around the building. (The players) are super excited. Again, no one’s been here before, coaches or players ,(but) I definitely think that their minds are in the right spot.”

    The Warriors needed to beat rival Haddam-Killingworth last Tuesday and hope Cromwell/Portland beat the Terriers the following night. They beat H-K, 28-8, then got help from the Panthers.

    “There’s definitely a very healthy feeling of a second life,” Gbunblee said. “The kids are enthusiastic. The kids are excited for it. The seniors feel like this is how it was supposed to be from day one.”

    Ledyard drew the most experienced team of the area’s three teams as the Panthers (9-1) returned 15 starters from last season’s Class S championship team. Among them are senior quarterback Cole Brisson, senior running back/defensive end Alex Hair (who played his first game last Wednesday after breaking his leg the second week of practice this summer) and senior H-back/linebacker Ryan Rozich.

    “It’s interesting because this is the first team that’s going to really spread it out on us since Montville (a 52-14 win on Oct. 28),” Serricchio said. “It’s been ground-and-pound for weeks on end here. So drop back in pass coverage a little bit, watch the kids run around and see what we can come up with here.

    “The eighth seed, common wisdom would tell you that everyone’s counting us out, especially going against Cromwell. (It’s) somewhat of a juggernaut but, you know, (the players) are excited, man.”

    Foran (9-1) also likes to spread opposing defenses out and passes nearly as much as it runs. Gbunblee said at first glance Foran reminded him of Morgan when Mike Eagle was head coach. He later found out that its head coach, Tom Drew, had been one of Eagle’s assistants at Morgan.

    The Lions were roughed up on Thanksgiving, 60-29, by rival Law.

    “They have a really great passing game (led by second-year quarterback Jack Cushman),” Gbunblee said. “Their numbers are incredible (Foran lists 60 on its roster), especially where we come from with our smaller team (39). So they have depth. They have size at receiver. No. 3, Joe Gaetano, he basically looks like a mini-Gronk (Rob Gronkowski). He’s 6-foot-3 (215 pounds).”


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