By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – When the Bristol Central football team starts running the football, it’s an impressive show to see.
But when the squad from Bristol Eastern frustrated and bogged down the Rams from time-to-time over the first half of its annual clash on Thanksgiving, the contest was a toss-up at halftime.
However, Central overcame those first half gaffes and several harmful penalties and quickly, the Rams were able to pile critical points on the scoreboard to take the contest by a 30-12 final from Muzzy Field in Bristol.
Central moved the ball well as the tandem of quarterback Isaiah Miller and Luis Medina were near brilliant in the rushing schemes, combining for nearly 335 yards on 46 carries overall.
The offensive line created seams and gaps which Miller (19 carries, 104 yards) and Medina (27-230) exploited the entire game.
Medina ended the game with 1,031 yards and for the second straight campaign, he collected 1,000-plus yard for the season.
“They probably played as good a game as they have all year,” said Central coach Jeff Papazian of Central’s offensive line. “They were super physical with Eastern.”
But even with all that outstanding offense, it just led to two first half touchdowns as Eastern’s defense – highlighted by stops from Tyler Mason, Jaden Laprise, and Trinidad Gonzalez – plus a boatload of disruptive penalties, put the clamps on the Rams when a stop was needed the most.
“Credit Eastern. They came out and played hard,” said Papazian. “They had us on our heels for a little while there in the first half until we kind of were able to settle in. But I thought the key to the game was up front both offensively and defensively. We were pretty dominant out there today.”
Defensively for the Rams, it was a banner game – holding Eastern to negative rushing yards overall to the tune of 66 on the negative side of the ledger.
And in the air, the Lancers were limited to 34 yards of offense as two Eastern quarterbacks made several short connections but could not sort out Central’s defensive onslaught.
But it was truly the Eastern defense that kept things close at intermission and down by just eight points at the half, and receiving the ball to start the third, the Lancers had a chance to tie it up but could not.
“[Bristol Central’s] a good offense, they’re a physical front and we kind of weathered the storm pretty well there in the first half,” said Julius.
To end the first period, the Eastern offense fell apart for the rest of the game when QB Justin Marshall (2-for-3, 11 yards) was picked off by Central’s Ed Irizarry.
On the play, Marshall crashed to the ground, fracturing his elbow and was forced to leave the game for good.
“It definitely took away some of the stuff we wanted to do,” said Julius of the Marshall injury. “I feel bad for that kid. He fought all year long. He’s a tough kid. He was in every single snap.”
With Marshall out, Bryce Curtin – a spunky freshman who never had a varsity snap – earned his way into the biggest game of his young life.
And the freshman showed more than a little poise while making 10-of-18 connections for 25 yards, hanging in when the Eastern rushing schemes did not produce a positive result.
“I can’t say enough about Bryce coming in as a freshman and doing a fine job trying to hold the fort down for us in offense,” said Julius. “It takes a lot of guts.”
It was a slow grind for Central on the opening kickoff, withstanding a near onside kick debacle to start things off, but even though penalties foiled the drive, Central’s duel rushing threat continued to punch through the Eastern line.
The Rams moved it into the red zone and to end it, Miller punched in a two-yard plunge on a gallop from the right side of the field as Central led 7-0 with 5:09 left to play in the first period.
However, Eastern responded quickly in turn as Laprise caught the ensuing kickoff and he was off to the races.
Making the kickoff catch at the 14 yard-line, Laprise galloped right through the heart of the Central defense and at about the Eastern forty, he found nothing but daylight – charging into the goal on an 86-yard touchdown return as the Lancers closed the deficit to 7-6.
And then, the tomfoolery really took over the game.
Eastern’s Ariza Kolloverja easily recovered the on-side kick on the ensuing drive but Marshall threw the interception to Irizarry in the end zone as the touchback gave Central the ball with 2:20 left in the first stanza.
Miller and Medina – protected well by that outstanding offensive line – got up the field in a hurry but at the end of the first frame, Central led by just a 7-6 push.
The Eastern defense held to open the second on a fourth and long, Procko deflected a Miller pass and with 10:20 before the half, Eastern had possession of the ball and were looking to even the score.
But the Lancers went three-and-out and on a very good punt return, the Rams set up shop on the Eastern 34.
And, continuing its ground scheme tactics, Medina ended the drive with a five-yard plunge – applying a great stiff arm to an Eastern defender – zipping into the goal as Central’s lead increased to 14-6 with 4:41 left before intermission.
“Credit to Louie because all year defenses done what they’ve had to do to take him out of the game,” said Papazian of Medina. “We take what’s available to us whether that’s Isaiah running or Dathan throwing the football. Louie never complained, was never upset about it because he’s a team first type of kid and for him to have a breakout tonight, go over 1,000 yards for the second straight year, I couldn’t be happier or prouder of Louie.”
On the ensuing drive, a facemask penalty by the Rams got Eastern onto the Central side of the field and Curtin made some connections with Trowbridge and Procko to move the chains.
The Lancers advanced the ball to Central’s 15 but could not find the end zone, turning the ball over with 29 seconds to play.
And Central was going for a half-ending score but Miller couldn’t make any receptions to make it a two-possession game.
Ending the second period, Medina made a mad dash to the goal and 60 yards later, the rusher looked to have a touchdown in hand but a block in the back negated the score with no time left.
Eastern accepted the penalty, leading to one more play when Laprise picked off a Miller pass to end the half as Central took a 14-6 edge into the locker room.
“Our kids did a really good job bending and not breaking in the second half,” said Julius. “We missed some tackles, which kind of led to some of their extra yardage, but for the most part, the kids played really hard in the first half on defense.”
Eastern lost several yards on its opening drive of the third period via a fumble and when Central received the ball back, the Rams took it all the way to the Lancers’ one yard-line.
But Miller’s attempt at a TD plunge was stopped and with 5:14 left, Eastern had the ball off the turnover.
And on the Lancers second snap coming off the Central turnover, the ball sailed out of the end zone for a safety and quickly, Central led 16-6 and earned a two-possession cushion at 16-6.
Central then received a free kick, getting the ball to the Eastern 41 and from there, Hickey did a little dancing from Muzzy Field.
He carried the ball, going north to south before making his own hole and scampering into the goal 41 yards for a touchdown and with 4:40 showing the clock in the third, it was a 23-6 game and Central was in charge.
Eastern’s offense simply couldn’t get in gear and when Curtin was nearly sacked for a loss, the ball came loose and Tom Nelligan snatched it up – giving Central possession of the ball once again via another turnover as the third period was nearing a completion.
To open the fourth period, Central got back on the scoreboard when Miller sliced in for a four-yard touchdown jaunt and with 9:58 to play, the Rams’ cushion reached 30-6.
But Eastern cut into the deficit when Jeremy Ganavage made a rush, was stripped by Procko and Edgar Hernandez scooped up the ball for a 70-yard touchdown return as the score was chopped to 30-12 with 5:37 to go.
But the visitors could not make it any closer and, for the second consecutive year, the Rams earned the bell behind a stellar 18-point winning effort to end the campaign at 7-3 – posting the squad’s third straight winning season.
“We broke down on some other (plays) and Justin’s injury hurt,” said Julius. “But I’m not going to make excuses. Our guys played well and Central played really well. You got to tip your cap to Central.”
NOTES…Eastern’s Connor Trowbridge earned Offensive Player of the Game honors while Tyler Mason was the Defensive Player of the Game for the Lancers…Offensively, Luis Medina was the Offensive Player of the Game and Mike Guzman earned Defensive Player of the Game for the Rams.