By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – The Thanksgiving football day game in Bristol went exactly according to plan on Thursday, Nov. 23.
If you’re from Bristol, you know the deal about scholastic football on Thanksgiving: Throw all the records out, expect the unexpected, and it’s not over until it’s over.
And that exact script came to pass because Bristol Central was chased all game long by Bristol Eastern and with just over five minutes to go in the showdown, the score was all tied up at 21-21.
But Yale-bound Dathan Hickey turned in consecutive 75-yard touchdown runs as the Rams slipped by the Lancers 33-27 from Muzzy Field in Bristol.
And the Rams needed just about every single one of those points because Eastern (2-8) kept the pressure on and simply fought and fought to the bitter end – even scoring on the last play of the game as a comeback bid ended up just falling short.
“Hats off to Eastern,” said Central coach Jeff Papazian after the game. “They played a great game. They played us really tough and had us on our heels for most of it. Credit to our kids for kind of riding the rollercoaster – the ups and downs of it, all the emotion [that] they try like crazy to take out of this game. It’s hard.”
Hickey was slick from the opening series, earning the Thomas R. Monahan Offensive Player of the Game Award for Central behind a 27 carry, 334 yard, four touchdown effort that kept the Central crowd cheering for more.
Throughout the history of the Battle of the Bell, only Tim Washington in 2000 complied more yardage in a single game than Hickey. Washington scooped up 353 yards on 41 carries – 14 more than Hickey had to work with as the senior running back/quarterback averaged 12.3 yards-per-carry in a dominating performance against Eastern in the 59th meeting between the programs.
“When you have a kid as good as Dathan Hickey, he makes it hurt,” said Eastern coach Anthony Julius. “Those two big [75 yard] plays kind of really hurt us there in the end. It just proved to be too much for us to overcome.”
Central now leads the Thanksgiving Day series 34-23-2 and has won three straight over the Lancers.
Justus Fitzpatrick zipped up 65 yards and a TD on just two rushes while Darrell Payton helped to augment the Central offense with seven carries and 65 yards.
Overall, the Rams collected 433 yards of total offense to close out the season at 7-3 after a 2-3 start.
The Central offensive line showed its mettle repeatedly, giving the running trio seams and gaps to sprint through as the yardage came pouring in to open game play.
“That’s my first crew since they were freshman that came through” the program said Papazian of the senior class. “So many of them have been playing [varsity] since sophomore year. There’s so much experience there and such a good culture on the offensive line. I said all year, Darrell and Dathan, they get a little crease and it’s a problem.”
Devin Dawson earned the Defensive Player of the Game honors and was one of many defensive standouts who had their hands full in both the Eastern rushing and passing attacks.
The Lancers showed its mettle in the passing game as junior QB Justin Marshall made a season best 19 passes (out of 29) for 173 yards and a touchdown.
Sophomore Elijah Gagliardo, the beneficiary of Central trying to put a lid on wide receiver Jaden Laprise, made a career high of eight catches, hauling in 93 yards.
His interception and team-leading seven tackles on the day helped earn Gagliardo the Eastern Defensive Player of the Game though he probably could have earned both offensive and defensive awards that day.
Laprise shook off the Central defense in spots during the showdown, collecting seven passes for 59 yards while Ariza Kolloverja, playing in his final contest for the Lancers, made three catches for 23 yards and a touchdown, ultimately earning Offensive Player of the Game honors for his efforts.
In the ground schemes, Kolloverja compiled 72 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown, Steven Hopkins added 11 carries for 46 yards while Laprise made two rushes, one leading to a nine yard TD score.
Marshall and Matt D’Amato also added yards in the running game for the Lancers.
“Our kids battled on offense all day,” said Julius. “Our offensive line did a really good job against [Central’s] front and they’re a good defense. So, for us to put points on the board against them [was good]. They did a lot try to take away Jaden. We still found ways to get him the ball, but Eli stepped up and had a really nice day in the passing game.”
“Justin played well and Ariza and Steven did a great job running the ball most of the morning.”
It was the highest scoring game between the schools since 2008 as the squads combined to put 60 points on the board.
In that 2008 showdown, Eastern beat Central 34-28 – the record for combined points in the series.
Central marched right up the field on its first drive of the game, running for six first downs, and Hickey rushed it up the gut for a one yard touchdown score – capping 13 plays that encompassed 81 yards – as the Rams scooped up a 7-0 edge with 5:28 left in the first period of play.
But Eastern responded quickly as Marshall connected with Gagliardo for a huge 45 yard reception – Gagliardo’s longest catch of the season – and when Kolloverja scampered in for an eight yard touchdown sprint, it was all tied up at 7-7 with just seven minutes into things.
D’Amato then helped foil a Hickey pass to force Central into a fourth down situation and a punt.
Off a 16-yard punt, Marshall found Gagliardo for another first down reception, but Central’s Mike Guzman made a huge tackle for a loss on a Steven Hopkins catch and with 1:22 left in the period, Eastern was going to push the envelope on a 4-and-6 situation.
An interception by Jose Navedo at the Central one-yard line then gave the ball back to Rams.
Central attempted to cash in on the turnover when Fitzpatrick went 36 yards on a quick sprint up the field, but the rush ended the period as the squads were knotted up at 7-7 after one.
To open the second stanza, a personal foul on Central and a tackle for a loss by Tyler Varasconi forced the Rams to punt once again with 10:01 remaining before the half.
However, it was three and out for Eastern and the Central defense made another mid-game stand count.
“Since they moved Kolloverja back to running back, they’ve been able to move the ball pretty consistently week in and week out [against] just about everybody they’ve played,” said Papazian. “I think we had a great scheme going in and again, with our backs against the wall, we responded time in and time out.”
On the ensuing punt, Hickey made some big gains and Fitzpatrick eventually sliced through the middle of the Eastern defense for a 29-yard rushing touchdown and with 3:19 left in the second tilt, Central went in front again, 14-7.
A penalty after the Central kickoff pushed the Lancers back 15 yards, Hopkins made two big rushes to eventually get Eastern to midfield but with 24 seconds remaining in the half, the Lancers had to travel fifty yards to get into the goal.
Laprise made his first catch at the game, a nine yard reception, and Eastern was at the Central forty-one with 16 seconds left.
However, the Lancers could not cash in and at the half and the Rams held a 14-7 edge with the Eastern getting the ball to start the third period.
The Lancers went three-and-out to open the second half but Gagliardo made a pickoff of Hickey at the Central 41 – racing down to the six yard line – and a Rams’ penalty on the play saw Eastern set up ship from the three.
Hopkins eventually powered into the Central goal, scampering one yard to the left, as Eastern tied up the contest at 14-14 with 9:24 left to play in the third.
But Hickey put in the work on the following drive and when he took the ball from his own 48 yard-line, he eluded two Eastern blockers – going 52 yards into the end zone – as Central retook the lead at 21-14 just fifty-three seconds after the Hopkins TD.
Eastern marched into Central territory on the ensuing drive – entering the Central red zone – and at the Central nine, the Lancers used a little tomfoolery – going to the reverse to pick up six points.
Laprise took it, went a little east and west, before finally breaking the plain of the goal as the game was retied at 21-21 with 2:54 left in the third period on the John McPhee extra point.
Central then went three-and-out and as Eastern took the ball with 1:01 left in the third, looking for its first lead in the contest.
And at the third period buzzer, the showdown was all knotted up a 21-21 with 12 minutes to go and was still anyone’s game from Muzzy Field.
“The defense, you’ve got to give them all the credit in the world,” said Julius of Eastern. “Their offense is a load to handle, especially on the ground. They come at you with a lot of different plays, a lot of different angles, and when you have two kids as explosive as Hickey and Fitzpatrick, you’re going to have your hands full and if you make mistakes, they make it hurt.”
“But for the most part, the defense played very well today.”
Eastern got the ball all the way down to the Central 22 yard line but the drive ended on an incomplete pass that could have been a pass interference penalty on Central with 5:53 showing on the clock but was not called.
And then, the play of the game came and went.
On a 2-and-7 situation, Hickey was about to get sacked by Kolloverja but the elusive fellow somehow got away, found an opening in the middle of the infield and sprinted 75 yards for the go-ahead score.
“A couple of his long runs were [off] missed tackles,” said Julius of Hickey’s jaunts. “Those missed tackles, when you have a kid as athletic as he is, they turn into big plays. You tip your cap to him. When you [allow Hickey] 330 yards on the ground, it’s hard to win a football game.”
“You’ve got to give all the credit there to Bristol Central.”
But Hamilton missed the extra point as Central’s lead was just 27-21 with 4:57 to go.
And Eastern was quickly on the move, getting to the Central 39 with 1:53 remaining.
The Lancers had all three timeouts in hand but was stuck on fourth-and-seven situation.
To end the drive, Gagliardo slipped when Marshall threw his pass to the receiver and with 1:49 left, Central took control of the ball on the turnover.
Hickey then made it academic with another 75 yard mad dash into the end zone and with 1:29 to play, the Rams were in front, 33-21.
With no time left on the clock, and Eastern refusing to yield, Kolloverja hauled in a nine yard touchdown pass from Marshall to make the final score 33-27.
Eastern finished the campaign at 2-8 but lost its final four games of the season by a total of 22 points, less than one touchdown per contest.
“Our kids fought and battled all day long,” said Julius. “They kept answering and coming back…I’m really proud of their effort.”
For Central, the squad just missed out on a playoff berth but off the power of a five-game winning streak to end the season, the senior class went out on a winning note.
“The guys played great for four quarters like they have all year,” said Papazian.
THOMAS R. MONAHAN
PLAYER OF THE GAME AWARDS – 2017
BE Offense: Ariza Kolloverja
BE Defense: Elijah Gagliardo
BC Offense: Dathan Hickey
BC Defense: Devon Dawson
Battle of the Bell Year-by-Year
Bristol Central leads 34-23-2
1959 — Bristol Central, 14-0
1960 — Bristol Central, 20-0
1961 — Bristol Central, 20-0
1962 — Tie, 6-6
1963 — Bristol Eastern, 16-0
1964 — Bristol Eastern, 21-0
1965 — Bristol Eastern, 14-0
1966 — Bristol Eastern, 20-13
1967 — Bristol Central, 8-0
1968 — Bristol Eastern, 20-13
1969 — Bristol Eastern, 27-6
1970 — Bristol Eastern, 32-22
1971 — Bristol Central, 34-0
1972 — Bristol Central, 16-12
1973 — Bristol Eastern, 7-0
1974 — Bristol Eastern, 7-6
1975 — Bristol Central, 19-0
1976 — Bristol Central, 20-6
1977 — Bristol Central, 24-21
1978 — Bristol Central, 22-6
1979 — Bristol Central, 8-6
1980 — Bristol Central, 12-0
1981 — Bristol Central, 13-8
1982 — Bristol Central, 18-13
1983 — Bristol Central, 6-0
1984 — Bristol Central, 33-8
1985 — Bristol Eastern, 14-8
1986 — Bristol Central, 31-0
1987 — Bristol Central, 22-0
1988 — Bristol Eastern, 14-12
1989 — Bristol Central, 20-13
1990 — Bristol Central, 34-14
1991 — Bristol Central, 20-14
1992 — Bristol Central, 24-0
1993 — Bristol Central, 18-0
1994 — Bristol Eastern, 22-6
1995 — Bristol Central, 12-0
1996 — Bristol Eastern, 29-14
1997 — Bristol Eastern, 33-7
1998 — Bristol Eastern, 35-7
1999 — Bristol Central, 28-6
2000 — Bristol Central, 39-0
2001 — Bristol Central, 36-12
2002 — Bristol Central, 38-0
2003 — Bristol Central, 20-0
2004 — Bristol Central, 20-0
2005 — Bristol Central, 20-7
2006 — Tie, 14-14
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
2015 — Bristol Central, 12-4
2016 — Bristol Central, 30-12
2017 – Bristol Central, 33-27
Bristol Central Rams
Date Opponent Result
Saturday, Sept. 9 at Hartford Public 26-6, Win
Friday, Sept. 15 vs. Windsor 29-19, Loss
Friday, Sept. 22 vs. Wethersfield 33-0, Win
Friday, Sept. 29 at Maloney 34-7, Loss
Friday, Oct. 6 at Middletown 56-26, Loss
Friday, Oct. 20 vs. Newington 20-17, Win
Friday, Oct. 27 vs. Capital Prep 35-28, Win
Friday, Nov. 3 at Platt 43-26, Win
Thursday, Nov. 9 vs. East Catholic 61-18, Win
Thursday, Nov. 23 at Bristol Eastern 33-27, Win
Bristol Eastern Lancers:
Date Opponent Result
Friday, Sept. 8 at E.O. Smith 14-7, Loss
Friday, Sept. 15 at Middletown 35-0, Loss
Friday, Sept. 22 at Maloney 34-7, Loss
Thursday, Sept. 28 vs. Newington 9-7, Win
Friday, Oct. 6 vs. Farmington 19-12, Win
Friday, Oct. 20 at Platt 52-39, Win
Saturday, Oct. 28 at Hartford Public 24-14, Loss
Friday, Nov. 3 vs. Wethersfield 14-13, Loss
Thursday, Nov. 9 at Manchester 25-20, Loss
Thursday, Nov. 23 vs. Bristol Central 33-27, Loss