BURLINGTON – Heading into the 2017 season, senior linebacker Chris Criscione felt the Nonnewaug football team was one of the best in the Pequot League.
However, the Chiefs struggled on the field from the get go, and was 1-8 heading into its Thanksgiving Day showdown with its rival, Lewis Mills.
But Nonnewaug put its struggles behind them on Thursday, and beat the Spartans 14-7 while it played its most complete game of the season.
“Our record doesn’t show it, but I thought our guys had the most heart out of anybody, and I think we showed it [Thursday],” Criscione said. “This is what we’ve been working for all year, and our defense really stepped up today.”
Nonnewaug’s offense also came through when it was needed the most.
Lewis Mills tied the game at 7 with 5:58 left to play on a 1-yard run by Hunter Cowger, and an extra point by Dylan Hallet that was drilled into a wall of Nonnewaug players, got some air, hit the top of the crossbar, and bounced over.
But Nonnewaug responded with a 7-play, 60-yard drive that was capped by a game-winning 26-yard touchdown pass by Jarrett Michaels to Joe Wall.
“What happened here today has happened in other games, except we have been on the other side in the win-loss column,” Nonnewaug head coach Zach Mihaly said. “We were in position to take the lead and score and win, and it finally happened the right way for us. For that, we are thankful.”
Mihaly said he had complete confidence in his offense orchestrating its game-winning drive.
“Our team has showed in the past that we’ll keep fighting,” Mihaly said. “In the past, we were down by too much. I knew we had it in us, and we just happened to wait until the last part of the game to get a good drive going and punch one in.”
It was the second time Michaels hooked up with Wall for a touchdown. With 2:29 left in the second quarter, Michaels hit Wall on a similar route from 25 yards out.
Michaels targeted Wall nine times, and Wall responded with five catches for 121 yards.
“We worked on his breaks from the receiver position, based on the film that we watched, and that worked out for us,” Mihaly said of Wall. “He made a mistake a few times and didn’t break the right way. But when he broke the right way, you saw the success that he had.”
Wall also helped on the defensive side of the ball with an interception, which he returned for 18 yards.
“I woke up [Thursday morning] knowing this would be a fight,” Wall said. “We’re pretty much evenly-matched teams and we both have a whole lot of seniors, so we really needed to send our seniors out correctly. We just wanted it more.”
Aiden Leonard added an interception, John Vanderspek recovered a fumbled snap, and Vanderspek and Billy Romaniello teamed up for a sack.
Nonnewaug’s defense also caught a break in the second quarter.
Lewis Mills quarterback Grayson LeBerge hit tight end Holden Cowger on a catch-and-run that went for a 55-yard score. However, a holding penalty on the Spartans wiped the score off the board.
Lewis Mills turned the ball over on downs five plays later to set up Nonnewaug’s first score.
“Sometimes to win a game like this, especially rivalry games, you have to have some luck and have things go your way,” Mihaly said.
Lewis Mills did have one final drive in them. But on a 4th and eight play with 1:14 left to play, Michaels batted the ball away from Lewis Mills receiver David Kent at the Nonnewaug 25 yard line.
From there, Nonnewaug was able to run out the clock and begin to celebrate.
“It feels amazing to go off on a win,” said a choked-up senior co-captain Brian Viveros. “We played so hard all year, and it finally pays off. It feels great.”