By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The fortunes of the Bristol Central football team on Thanksgiving were eventually going to change.
After defeating Bristol Eastern 20-7 back in 2005, the Rams have not tasted a victory on turkey day since.
However, Central played very tough over the last two Thanksgiving Day challenges but ultimately, the contest belonged to the Lancers.
But that all changed last Thursday as the bell was brought back to the school on the hill.
In the annual Battle for the Bell, the Rams’ defense was outstanding – as the Lancers managed just two safeties in the contest – as Central finally defeated Eastern, 12-4, from Muzzy Field in Bristol.
And finally, the entire Central team was able to ring the brass bell.
“It feels good,” said Central coach Jeff Papazian about finally being able to ring the bell. “I know it feels good for our players and especially our seniors and our whole school community. It’s a great thing for Bristol Central…great to finally get that one of our back.”
Central finished the campaign at 7-3 overall and matched last season’s outstanding ledger.
The Rams finished 13th overall in the Class L playoff standings with 930 points.
Middletown, the eighth and final playoff seed in the tournament, went 8-2 with 1090 total points but despite just falling short of a postseason berth, Central had one heck of a season – capping it off with an eight-point victory over its crosstown rivals.
Quarterback Noah Cruz, the Bristol Central Offensive Player of the Game, led the charge with 123 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown while making 4-of-6 passes for 63 yards.
Cruz was crafty all morning long, not only directing traffic on the field offensively but being that enforcer on defense as the Lancers managed just 106 yards on 37 carries on the ground.
Tyler Boi, making tackles all over the field, zipped up the Rams’ Defensive Player of the Game award.
The defensive line for the Rams was impressive as all of Eastern’s points did not come on the offensive side of the ball.
Turnovers doomed Eastern once again a couple critical fumbles foiled the Lancers’ chances on offense.
“That’s unfortunately kind of consistent with a lot of our games this year,” said Eastern coach Paul Philippon of the turnovers. “The bottom line is a lot of us didn’t perform well all year, and it starts right here with me. We just have to live with it and go forward.”
Also for Central, Luis Medina was outstanding as he just raced for under 100 yards – including a 30 yard TD – and used what his offensive line gave him to perfection for Central.
To Eastern’s credit, who finished the year at 1-9, the squad made the contest a one-possession affair over the final period of play and was just a touchdown and a two-point conversion away from tying the affair up.
“Coach [Sal] Cintorino put the whole defensive game plan in and our kids executed it for the most part,” said Philippon of the Eastern defense.
The Lancers’ Josh Sampson, who easily could have been both the Eastern Offensive and Defensive Players of the Game, captured 49 yards on 10 carries, made one of the tackles in the end zone for a safety, and was everywhere on defense over the losing effort.
He ended the game as the Lancers Offensive Player of the Game while Zac Thompson earned the Defensive Player of the Game nod for Eastern.
Edgar Hernandez ramped up 38 yards over 14 carries while quarterback Darieyn Tate never gave in and made a huge 45 yard connection with Donte Collins late in the fourth period that could have led to the tying score.
Central led by 12 midway through the third period but never could truly shake the Lancers as the two safeties – leading to two free kicks by the Rams – put the Rams’ defense in the spotlight, forcing the unit to make stops.
And the defense did make stops each and time Eastern threatened off the free kicks and the short field that came with them.
“I give their kids a lot of credit,” said Philippon of Bristol Central. “They run hard, they play hard, and they earned it.”
Cruz started off Central’s first drive, rumbling 13 yards into the end zone for a touchdown with 6:05 left to go in the first period to make it a 6-0 game.
Central’s defense held the fort on Eastern’s first possession of the game but when the Rams got the ball back, Sampson forced a fumble on a 44 yard run by Medina as Riley Mason came up with the turnover.
The Lancers came up empty off the Rams’ gaff but a Sampson punt put Central on its own 18 to start the second period – with the Rams holding on to a six point edge.
Central moved the ball all the way to Eastern’s 16 yard-line but a huge tackle for a loss by Sampson on Cruz gave the Lancers the ball back with 5:31 left to go in the half and a chance to draw even in the showdown.
But Eastern was forced to punt again and with 2:53 remaining before intermission, Central was looking the end the half with a touchdown.
However, the Eastern defense held – forcing a punt – and the Lancers finished the second period with the ball but could not punch it in, trailing by just a 6-0 push and were going to open the third with the ball.
To start the second half, the Lancers came up dry and Central took control of the ball from the Eastern 30 yard line when a bad punt set the Rams up with a short field.
And the Rams needed just one play to score six more points.
On the first possession of the drive, Medina scampered up the middle of the field 30 yards for a touchdown – making it a 12-0 contest with 8:35 left to play in the third.
“We saw something we liked coming out of halftime and we were able to capitalize on it,” said Papazian of the touchdown play. “It ends up being a huge turning point of the game with the go-ahead score there.”
Eastern then put together’s its best drive of the game – highlighted by a 24 yard up the middle dash by Sampson – to burst into the Central red zone midway through the third frame.
And Eastern got all the way down to the two yard line but o a fourth-and-goal play, Sampson went right, looked to have been tripped by a fallen teammate and came up one yard short – turning the ball back over to Central with 1:30 showing on the clock in the third.
However, on Central’s second play of the ensuing drive, Eastern’s Ronte Cooper tackled Medina in the end zone – forcing a safety – and quickly, the Lancers were on the board but still trailed 12-2 with 37 seconds remaining in the third stanza.
Eastern took the free kick to Central’s 42 yard line to open the final period of play but a critical personal foul sank the drive and the Lancers were forced to punt with 10:38 remaining in the game.
More tomfoolery followed after a three-and-out by the Rams when Central was attempting to punt deep out of its own end zone.
The snap to Tyshaun Rodriguez went over his head, rolled into end zone and the punter was fortunate to regain possession of the ball.
Sampson eventually pulled Rodriguez down in the end zone for another safety and at 12-4, it was a one possession game with 8:09 remaining.
However, it could have been a lot worse if Sampson or another Eastern defender could have snared the ball – resulting in a touchdown.
“That’s the best thing that could have happened to us there,” said Papazian of the play by Rodriguez, leading to the second safety of the contest. “If he’s running around, he tries to kick it, it gets blocked [and] it could end up being six. We take the two points and it’s still an eight-point game for most of the half.”
“It was a good job by Tyshaun there taking the two points.”
Central’s defense was up to the task again stopping the Lancers running game on the ensuing free kick and with 6:24 to go, Eastern punted and the Rams were looking to use a little clock.
Cruz put Central in the red zone via a tremendous 40 yard gallop but a personal foul on the Rams knocked the squad outside of the 20 and eventually, the squad turned the ball over on downs with 3:32 on the clock.
Again, Eastern was down by just eight points, it was still a one possession affair and late in the drive the play of the game came to pass, literally.
With under three minutes left to go on a long third and eight play, Tate found Collins for a huge 45 yard reception and the receiver was off to the races.
Collins was in front of the pack but from behind, Central’s J.J. Quiles caught up with the receiver, stripped the ball out of his hands and Rodriguez quickly snatched it off the ground as the Rams got the ball back off the huge play with 2:36 left.
“That’s all J.J.,” said Papazian of the play. “We busted the coverage and he never quit on the play. He ran that kid [Collins] down, chopped it out, and that’s probably the biggest play of the game.”
Central then left it up to their leader, Cruz, to take care of the ball the rest of the way as he picked up a 17 yard rush for a first down and two personal fouls later by the Lancers, it was all but over.
And when Cruz took a knee to end the game, it was pandemonium on the Central sidelines as the Rams rang the brass bell for the first time – by themselves – since 2005 as the team won the game, 12-4.
PHOTOS by TAMMI NAUDUS