By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Eastern football team might not win a state championship this year but on a very special Thursday night – Sept. 28 to be precise – the Lancers and their fans celebrated like they had just won it all.
It was the home opener for the squad and a chance to get the season truly rolling around familiar surroundings.
And that’s exactly what happened as Bristol Eastern got itself to the pay window for the first time since 2015 with a 9-7 win over Newington in a Central Connecticut Conference Division II West showdown from Alumni Field.
The Lancers (1-3) snapped a 17-game losing streak while the Indians (2-2) lost for the second consecutive week.
It was Eastern’s first victory since defeating Newington back on Oct. 23, 2015 and the seven points the home team yielded marked the fewest points allowed by the Lancers in a game since posting a 29-6 win against Farmington on Nov. 7, 2014.
“This is unbelievably big,” said Eastern wide receiver Jaden Laprise. “We snapped a long losing streak and it’s so surreal right now. I can’t even tell you the feeling.”
So many huge plays spurred the home team on but none bigger than the first series out of the halftime break.
With the Lancers trailing 7-3, wide receiver turned running back Ariza Kolloverja started that fateful drive with a 23 yard dash into Newington territory, later making a 13 yard sprint for another first down, before Eastern went for broke.
On an unsuspecting 2-and-11 set-up, Eastern quarterback Justin Marshall went to pass and a streaking Laprise was closing in on the end zone.
Marshall had the distance but Laprise was well covered on the play.
Laprise somehow eluded the defender, rose above him, grabbed the ball over his opponent’s head somehow hauled the pigskin in for a 23-yard touchdown score – propelling the Lancers to a 9-7 edge with 9:12 to go in the third quarter.
“Jaden’s unbelievable,” said Julius. “He’s as good as a receiver as we’ve ever had. He’s an extremely hard worker. He knew he had a lot to do in the offseason as far as getting himself physically better to play. I couldn’t be prouder of the kid.”
“He made big plays all season for us. He continued to show that tonight. He’s a top receiver in this league.”
Laprise ended the evening with three catches for 81 yards while Marshall was a slick six-of-10 passing for 104 yards to go along with a touchdown and an early game interception.
The Lancers simply grinded and pounded the ball, employing a little old school block-and-go football, while the defense was near brilliant in slowing down Newington’s multiple offensive weapons.
“We talked about developing a mentality and getting back to what made us successful in the past,” said Julius. “I’m an offense line guy. I want to run the ball. We just decided to get behind our guys and ride them out and I couldn’t be prouder of them. They churned it up all night, positive yards.”
Kolloverja had a coming out party of sorts, juking and driving his way for career highs of 29 carries for 172 yards.
His fast feet kept the chains moving that night and even when the Indians clearly had him marked, Kolloverja simply changed directions, continued to run on contact, let the offensive line doing a little blocking and managed more yardage against Newington than he compiled all of last season.
“Ariza told me last week he wanted to touch the ball more,” said Julius. “I told him to put his money where his mouth is and he certainly did.”
Newington hardly stood still on offense, took multiple chances on late down situations, and capitalized on a couple early Eastern turnovers.
Off an Eastern fumble midway through the first stanza, the Indians capped a nine play, 90-yard drive as Newington quarterback Roberto Sanchez made a quick dump to back Aveonte Frazier (14 carries, 66 yards) as he plowed through the Eastern secondary and went 31 yards on a fourth-and-eight situation to give the visitors a 7-0 push with 1:09 left in the first period.
But from there, the Eastern defense ruled the game as Trinidad Gonzalez, Andrew Consalvo, David Tyminski, Edgar Santiago Jr, Rajon Collins, and Laprise contained the field.
“I thought the defense was great,” said Julius. “We made big plays. We had huge third and fourth down stops which is something that we struggled with in the first three games of the season, [just] getting off the field. Like we talked about all week, Trinidad leads them out there, they kind of feed off of him, and tonight he had a lot more help than he had the last few weeks.”
Frazier, even after getting hurt late in the game, made plays and Sanchez added critical connections but the big play that burned the Lancers in all three of its previous games did not materialize when the pressure was at its greatest.
“Newington is a big play offense,” said Julius. “For our guys to go out there and kind of slow them down and kind of force them into situations that they’re not used to, again, you tip your cap to the kids.”
Eastern’s Elijah Gagliardo picked off Sanchez to foil the first drive of the game but Eastern fumbled the ball in the red zone on the following series, turning it over and setting up Newington’s only touchdown of the evening to make it 7-0.
A long second quarter drive by Eastern was foiled by Luke Pappalardo interception of Marshall but when Tyminski made a tackle for a loss on Aveonte during a fourth-and-one play, it set up Eastern for its only points of the half with 2:45 left in the period.
Marshall found Laprise for the longest connection of the season, a huge 52 yard strike that eventually saw the Lancers go all the way to the Newington five yard line.
To end the half, John McPhee coolly kicked in a 22 yard field goal as time expired, putting Eastern on the scoreboard and trimming the deficit to 7-3 at intermission.
“Unbelievable,” said Julius of the final plays of the first half. “What a throw by Justin Marshall to put the ball on the money [and for] Jaden to catch it in stride to set up [the field goal]. You know we talked to Justin after he threw an interception early in the game and I told him, ‘We’re going to come back to you and you’re going to make a big throw.’ That’s exactly what he did.”
“Man, what a clutch throw that was and what an unbelievable kick by John. That ball was crushed. He’s been a weapon for us for a few years and I’m extremely proud of him.”
And to open the third tilt, Eastern put the final points on the board to salt away the game.
Kolloverja made four rushes to get the Lancers near the red zone but it was the Marshall/Laprise connection found pay dirt one more time.
And when Laprise snared the ball for that 23 yard touchdown, the effort and the outright desire to snag the ball and showed exactly why the receiver has one of the best pairs of hands in CCC Division II play.
And quickly, the Newington lead was now a 9-7 deficit with 9:12 to go in the third.
“[It was] concentration,” said Laprise of the game-winning touchdown reception. “I knew it was a big play. I had to produce for my team and it proved to be big.”
Kolloverja made an intercept of a Sanchez pass on the first play of the ensuing drive but a late turnover gave the ball back to the Indians.
Eastern then forced two consecutive Newington punts and, with the Lancers still leading 9-7 midway through the fourth period, time was beginning to become a factor.
Off the last Eastern punt of the showdown with 4:06 remaining, Newington had one final crack at it, down two points and starting out on its own 15 yard line.
Sanchez made a huge fourth down run to keep the series alive but off an incomplete pass with 1:16 to play, it was fourth-and-long with Newington stuck on the Eastern 47.
Needing 14 yards to move the chains, Sanchez made a dash for it but when Kolloverja tackled the QB, it was only a five yard gain, Eastern took over on downs and with 1:07 remaining, the home team needed just one first down to ice the game.
On third-and-one, Marshall snuck up the middle for a three yard gain, getting that all important first down to the cheers of the crowd.
And once the final horn sounded, it was bedlam at Alumni Field with players, coaches, and students storming the turf as Eastern scored a huge 9-7 win to break the losing streak and get the season moving back in the right direction.
“It’s all about them,” said Julius about his players. “They worked hard and they deserved this one.”
NOTES…It was coach Anthony Julius’s first scholastic victory and is now eighth all-time in wins in program history…The last time Eastern won a game by scoring nine or fewer points was back on Oct. 28, 2005 when the Lancers defeated Platt 7-0 from Ceppa Field in Meriden.