By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – It wasn’t exactly Thanksgiving Day football between the Bristol Central and Bristol Eastern that the fans were treated to on Saturday, Nov. 29.
The snow, sleet, and rain took care of that part of the equation, delaying the showdown – and the anticipation – for just over 48 hours.
Instead, those fans who braved the freezing temperatures on Saturday were treated to a 48 minute, thrilling war that was ultimately decided over the final minute of the contest in the “Battle for the Bell” from Muzzy Field in Bristol.
And in the end, the same team was ringing that old brass bell for the eighth consecutive time as the Lancers slipped by the Rams, 20-18, in one of the best battles between the schools in recent memory.
Eastern (7-4) denied Central (7-3) a spot in the Class LL state tournament bracket as a victory would have put the Rams in the playoff fray for the first time since 1987.
Muzzy Field wasn’t picture perfect in terms of conditions as there was plenty of wetness, snow and – of course – mud to go around.
And at times, the slop slowed down both squads.
But in the end, Eastern was able to overcome the odds and came out as winners since, a streak that was established in 2007.
“Sloppy field conditions played a factor again as usual on Thanksgiving,” said Eastern coach Mike Archangelo. “Our kids came out and did what they needed to do to get the win.”
It was a fourth quarter to remember as each team managed to seize the lead before the Lancers nabbed the edge for good with 7:05 left in the game.
The scoring efforts were clutch over the final 12 minutes of action.
Eastern running back Gerry Ouellette, by the end of the contest, had the fourth most rushing yards in school history as he totaled 1,517 yards and rushed for 143 yards on 27 carries and a touchdown – the second consecutive Thanksgiving game he tallied over 100 yards – during the gridiron classic.
Cyrus Tyler ramped up two carries for 64 yards and a touchdown while Allen Arbuckle nabbed a 26- yard touchdown reception to lead the Lancers’ offense.
For the Rams, D’Andre Conaway had 128 yards on 28 carries and a touchdown while quarterback Noah Cruz went 8-of-23 passing with 84 yards of offense.
He proved elusive on the afternoon and the Eastern defense was unable to tally a sack on him.
Drew Lee caught six passes for 65 yards to lead Central on the reception front.
Both squads’ defenses played very well as the defensive lines by both teams were on point for most of the affair.
Arbuckle earned the defensive player of the game honors for Eastern and tallied over 10 tackles on the afternoon.
Tyler also roped up a couple big tackles while Josh O’Keefe – who has really been turning on the pressure during the final half of the campaign – made a tackle for a loss and seemed to be everywhere the ball was.
“Our defense at times played lights out,” said Archangelo. “Arbuckle played a phenomenal game. And out offensive did enough to move the ball into the end zone.”
Central’s defense was just as devastating with Lee and Tommy Nelligan – Central’s defensive player of the affair – made numerous tackles and forced the Lancers’ hands from time to time.
Turnovers foiled the Rams and both squads were called for foolish penalties throughout game play that gave the other squad second and even third chances with the ball.
But, as predicted, this game came down to special teams and Central went 0-for-3 on two-point conversion attempts.
In the end, those failed attempts cost the Rams a critical six points, four of which would have been enough to pull out the win against the Lancers.
On the Eastern front, penalties and flags almost cost the squad the contest.
Central was penalized 10 times for just over 60 yards but Eastern drew an amazing 19 flags for a staggering 187 yards with 111 of those coming over the second half of action.
And this was certainly a game for the taking by Central with the squad possessing the ball for most of the first quarter to open play.
But the Rams couldn’t find pay dirt early and with 59 seconds remaining in the first period, Eastern regained the ball off a fumble and put together their first scoring drive of the game.
It was 0-0 going into the second frame of the showdown when Eastern was stuck on the Central 26 yard line on a third and five situation.
With Alex Hunter inserted into the game, QB Tom Curtin quickly set up the scoring play.
Curtin flipped the ball back to Hunter and he made a quick toss to an open Arbuckle via a halfback option as he slipped into the end zone untouched, propelling Eastern to a 7-0 push with 9:14 remaining in the first half.
“We knew there would be some things they’d fly over the top on and it was great,” said Archangelo of the play. “They did a great job, they executed it exactly how we planned it although the ball hung up there a little longer than we wanted to and made it a little more interesting. We knew (Arbuckle) would be wide open because we knew Central would be aggressive coming down on the run today.”
However, Central returned the favor to cut the deficit to one soon after.
Conaway and Lee took charge of the offense and a huge fourth down reception by Hildebrand got the Rams to the Eastern 18 yard line.
From there, Conaway grabbed a Cruz handoff, avoided a critical missed tackle and sprinted into the goal for an 18 yard touchdown jaunt.
But the two point conversion was bungled as Eastern maintained their edge as 7-6 with 5:16 remaining before intermission.
However, both teams could not add any points to the board for the remainder of the half as defense ruled the game and the Lancers’ 7-6 tilt held into the break.
In the third frame, consecutive fumbles by the squads led to turnovers and amazingly after three completed quarters of play, Eastern’s 7-6 tally still was the score of the contest.
But the game changed pretty quickly from there, and within the first few moments of the final period of play, it was anybody’s game to take.
The first play of the fourth was a lofting pass from Curtin to a sprinting and then wide open Hermann.
However, Lee somehow caught up with the play, snared the ball out of the air and off the interception, Central was in business and looking to score.
Conaway had a blazing run of 30 yards but off a tackle for a loss by Arbuckle, the Rams were pushed back to Eastern’s 15.
But Cruz made a couple power moves, zig-zagging through the Eastern defense and off the 15 yard scoring rush, Central took the lead at 12-7.
But the two-point conversion failed again and the game remained a five-point affair with 9:46 left to play.
Soon after, Eastern’s collective backs were firmly pressed against the wall and quickly, the Lancers looking down at an imposing 4-and-4 situation and in need of a score.
Undeterred, Ouellette made a daring run – slipping by a Central defender who appeared to have the rusher stopped behind the line of scrimmage – and went for an amazing 20-yard touchdown sprint as the Lancers regained the edge at 13-12 with 7:05 remaining.
Having to respond, the Rams made six straight runs to get to the Eastern 30-yard line before Tyler tackled Conaway for a five yard loss and Central was forced to go to Cruz in the air on third down.
Cruz made two stabs at gaining at least 15 yards for a first down off the pass but that first down chuck never came as Central turned the ball over with 2:40 showing on the clock and Eastern maintaining a precarious one-point lead.
And on a third-and-seven situation, the tomfoolery once again played out for the Lancers from their own 38 yard line.
Eastern went to their double-wing and off a quick counter, going to Tyler off the surprising call and the back went marched 62 yards downfield – all the way into the end zone and – via an extra point by Jeremy Meccariello – the Lancers’ cushion was at eight (20-12) with 2:16 left in regulation.
“We knew they’d be overplaying Gerry on that,” said Archangelo of the go-ahead touchdown. “We put that in right at the last second with the fast motion to try to get the guys over the top, flying over the top which is exactly what happened. We had some good blocking on the back side and it turned out exactly how it how we thought it was going to be.”
And then, the contest became a flag-fest which started with Meccariello getting run over on his extra-point make.
Nearly combined penalties were called over that last 2:16 on the squads but off two separate penalties, costing the Lancers 27 yards, the Rams saw the ball placed all the way down at the Eastern 12.
That’s where Conaway made a daring run out and to the left, beating defenders all the way to the goal as Central was within two at 20-18 with 41 seconds left in the contest.
All Central needed to do was somehow punch in a two-pointer into the goal to tie the affair up.
That task went to Cruz.
Cruz attempted to run it into the end zone but was first met by Edgar Ortiz-Hernandez.
He bounced off Ortiz-Hernandez but the defender slowed Cruz just enough as Arbuckle was waiting in the area.
Cruz would not get past Arbuckle.
The tackle was made, Cruz was stopped short of the goal and Central still trailed by two points.
On the ensuing kickoff, Central tried a little onside kick but Ouellette nabbed the ball off the onside kick and one knee later, Eastern had the game locked up.
In the end, the Lancers came out on top 20-18 winners for their eighth victory over Central in a row.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the kids,” said Archangelo. “Difficult conditions to play under, some interesting calls by the officials – especially there at the end but like I said, we need what we needed to do, the seniors had an awesome game and I said that to them at halftime.”
PLAYER OF THE GAME AWARDS (Now referred as the Thomas R. Monahan Players of the Game Awards)
Offensive Player of the Game: Gerry Ouellette* (143 yards, 27 carries, one TD)
Defensive Player of the Game: Allen Arbuckle
Offensive Player of the Game: D’Andre Conaway (128 yards, 28 carries, one TD)
Defensive Player of the Game: Tom Nelligan
*Ouellette won the award for a second straight BC/BE series game
Battle of the Bell Results: Recent Year-by-Year Results
Bristol Central may lead the all-time series 31-23-2 but Bristol Eastern has come up with a school Thanksgiving record eighth straight series victory. Here’s the slate of the last eight games, all wins by the Lancers:
2007 — Bristol Eastern, 42-14
2008 — Bristol Eastern, 34-28
2009 — Bristol Eastern, 46-13
2010 — Bristol Eastern, 35-0
2011 — Bristol Eastern, 21-14
2012 — Bristol Eastern, 17-6
2013 — Bristol Eastern, 21-18
2014 — Bristol Eastern, 20-18
PHOTOS by TAMMI NAUDUS