By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Bristol Central football program is looking for another 7-3 ledger this season and with a victory over cross-town rival Bristol Eastern on Thanksgiving, the ending would certainly be a sweet way to finish up.
This group has lost some tough games to the heavyweights of the Central Connecticut Conference but with some speedsters on the field, the Rams have a good shot of winning their third straight Thanksgiving Day battle.
But Eastern is hardly a pushover and while Central quarterback Dathan Hickey will have a target on his back all day long, he’s probably going to be the toughest athlete from Muzzy Field to stop.
Overall, Central possesses more team speed than Eastern does and that is a huge advantage for the Rams.
Central is looking for its fifth straight win to end the campaign and let’s look at the Rams’ on Thanksgiving as the program is going for its seventh, and biggest, victory of the year at the annual Battle for the Bell:
Bristol Central – Visiting squad
Head Coach: Jeff Papazian (Fourth Thanksgiving game as Central’s head coach. He’s 2-1 on Turkey Day as a coach).
Date and Time of the event: 10:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
Central 2017 Team Record: 6-3 overall
Last Year: Central defeated Eastern by a 30-12 final in 2016.
The Series: The Rams have the advantage in the all-time series, 33-23-2 and are looking to make it three consecutive victories over the Lancers.
Series Fact: Central won the big game from 1999-2005 behind the likes of Timmy Washington and the Hernandez boys. And 2015 started a new tradition of consecutive victories for this current group.
Players to watch: Dathan Hickey (sr, WR/DB); Isaiah Miller (sr, QB/DB); Frankie Jenkins (sr, DL); Michael Guzman (sr, LB); Alex Lape (sr, OL/DL); Adam Ewart (sr, OL/DL); Nigel West (sr, WR); Gabe Updegraff (sr, OL/LB); Justus Fitzpatrick (jr, WR/DB); Darrell Payton (jr, RB); Isak Gonzalez (jr, DL); Josh Carrasquillo (sr, DL); Nate Rosa (jr, WR); Va Dominic (jr, DB); Ryan Rodriguez (jr, TE/DL); Deklan Zukowski (jr, LB); Jose Navedo (jr, CB) Jake Salinas (fr, LB); Nick Ruffino (so, DB); Galen Hickey (so, WR/DB); Damar Hamilton (sr, kicker).
Why Bristol Central will win…We talked about the speed and fast feet Central has and things won’t change during this year’s encounter.
Sure, the two guys who rushed for a combined 335 yards last year’s Thanksgiving Day game, Luis Medina (27 carries, 233 yards) and Isaiah Miller (19 carries 102 yards), won’t be playing this time around but Central can still move the ball on the ground with zest.
And it starts with the Yale bound Dathan Hickey (171 carries, 1069 yards, 26 touchdowns in 2017), the jack-of-all-trades combo player who has filled in for Isaiah Miller at QB (36-for-94, 485 yards, 3 TD’s) and is the man in Central’s offensive schemes.
Not the chucker Miller is, Hickey picks his spots to launch passes, but his strength is in the running schemes and if his offensive line gives him any kind of seam and holes to dash through, look out.
And if you’re going to kick the ball to him in any kind of special team situation, you’re asking for trouble as Hickey can and will make punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns.
Hickey will be joined in those endeavors by back Darrell Payton (91-630, 6 TD’s) and Justus Fitzpatrick (27-291, 2 TD’s).
The threesome will be running all over the field on Thanksgiving and if the Eastern defense is going to allow the likes of Hickey, Payton, and Fitzpatrick to run wild, this is going to be another long game for the Lancers.
The loss of Miller, the squad’s quarterback, certainly hurt this season but the injured warrior is still on the sidelines, still talking it up, and is in the middle of every time out, imploring his mates to continue fighting, and playing with energy.
Over the past four games, Central has rolled up 159 points (39.8 points-per-game) which includes 104 of those coming over the past two games alone.
That means the Rams are on fire heading into the Muzzy Field challenge.
Defensively, this squad has shown much better over the second half of the season, allowing 22.3 points on the board over its final four games – not bad considering the opponents.
And it’s going to be up to the defense to help win this one.
Isak Gonzalez is a big-time stopper on defense and will be just one of many to contribute in the Rams’ schemes.
Freshman Jacob Salinas is trouble on defense as well while Mike Guzman, Jose Navedo, Jenkins, Jalen Boxley, Gabe Updegraff, Josh Carrasquillo, Dominic Va, Nathan Rosa, and even sophomores like Austin Brown and Galen Hickey all make up a big defensive outfit.
This contest will have to be a team effort on the defensive end because Eastern has a crafty QB, a slick running core, and more than a couple options to throw to all over the field.
If the Rams are going to look to shut the door on Eastern quickly, with multiple scores over a timely fashion, then Central is a lock in this showdown.
Bottom line, a signature win today helps to erase that 2-3 start to the campaign.
The X-Factor: Health.
Central is 6-3 this season but with a healthy QB and a couple of additional players who went down during the year, the squad should have been vying for a state tournament berth on Thanksgiving.
So, a lot of two-way players, who normally get tired as the game moves along, are even more so with added responsibility.
And will Alex Lape be ready to go?
He’s a huge difference-maker on the line for Central but he’s been on the sidelines with injury issues over the past few weeks.
If the Rams want this game, all hands on defense must be on the deck and the likes of Lape playing on the line will go a long way.
Bristol Central can NOT…Lose control on the field.
Penalties have killed this squad in 2017 and some of those have come after the whistle has blown and whatnot.
The 34-7 loss against Maloney is proof positive of a game the Rams should have been able to hang around in but, frankly, untimely penalties cost the squad.
Central has been flagged for 737 penalty yards this season, which is over 81 yards-a-game.
This is a city series game and you know there’s going to be some, um, not-exactly PG language going back and forth between the squads on the field, so those flags will be flying early and often and will prove costly.
And Central doesn’t want to make this a passing contest either.
Sure, Hickey can chuck the ball a bit, but the program’s strength is in its running attack.
Remember in the game between the schools last year, the Rams did not make a pass completion all game long and if Hickey wants to test the Eastern secondary, the Lancers have some answers defensively.
Lastly…Before coach Papazian and his staff sit down for Thanksgiving turkey, let’s be frank about something.
Muzzy Field is still Bristol Central’s house. Don’t be fooled for a second that it’s not.
So even though it’s not a ‘home’ game for Central on Thanksgiving, it really is.
And that’s a huge deal as T-Day has been a glorious day for the Central program more times than not.
And the winner is…Central looks like the favorite.
The Rams have the offensive firepower, and the speed, to give the Lancers fits all over the field.
Hickey is a proven running back, and the young man is a winner, whose play at the quarterback position, for not being a natural QB, has been outstanding. Tip your cap to him.
Again, being healthy is the key and not picking up foolish penalties is another important factor.
Central is looking to reestablish a winning streak on Thanksgiving after several years of just the opposite.
Don’t expect much tomfoolery that day (don’t forget the $99 gold watch that turned coach Jeff’s wrist green before the T-Day game last season, a deal that was too good to be true. Great purchase, coach) because Central will be checked into this event.
And the winner on Thanksgiving is: Oh, I’m sorry, we’re all out of time this week…