By MICHAEL LETENDRE
BRISTOL – Trailing by one point with just the fourth quarter to play, the Bristol Central football team turned to its defense to wrestle the ball away from surging Bristol Eastern.
And with the Lancers threatening to enter the red zone, the Rams came up with their biggest fumble recovery of the season.
At the Central 24 yard line, the Rams’ Ryan Rodriguez snatched the ball via fumble with 11:45 to play but 71 yards later, Central was stuck on the Eastern one yard line on fourth down.
That’s when Justus Fitzgerald punched in a one-yard jaunt for the game-winning touchdown as Central came-from-behind to capture a 24-19 victory from Muzzy Field in Bristol the day after Thanksgiving.
It was the fourth straight victory for the Rams over the Lancers.
“Our kids showed so much resolve all year that they truly believe they’re always in the game,” said Central coach Jeff Papazian. “At halftime, I said ‘All right guys, we’ve been here before [against] Middletown, Maloney, Platt and Newington. We were down at the half and it’s a 24 minute football game right now.’ And to their credit, like they’ve done all year, they just went out, they kept playing football, and kept chipping at it, and chipping at it, and chipping at it and eventually, we broke the rocks.”
Central ended the season at .500 (5-5 overall, 3-2 Division-II West) while the Lancers — who emptied the kitchen sink against the Rams — finished at 0-10 but showed grit and determination, almost pulling off the victory.
“They did everything we asked them to do and more to be honest with you,” said Eastern coach Anthony Julius of his team. “They were making some adjustments on the fly out there on their own and they were playing the way we thought they were capable of playing all year.”
“I’m really proud of the effort they gave today.”
Central rolled up 272 yards on the ground — 337 overall — as Central quarterback Justus Fitzpatrick, who earned the Bristol Central Offensive Player of the Game award, zipped up 171 yards on 30 carries with two touchdowns while throwing for two more, making five connections for 65 yards.
Jose Navedo (two passes, 27 yards) and Victor Rosa (2-25) each caught a Fitzpatrick pass for TD’s while Darrell Payton was effective in the ground schemes, generating 66 yards on 14 carries.
Credit belongs to Eastern quarterback Justin Marshall — the Eastern Offensive Player of the Game — as the athlete zipped up 92 hard yards on the ground off 19 carries while hitting 6-of-8 passes for 105 yards.
He was also one of the Lancers’ leading tacklers on defense.
“One of the toughest kids I’ve ever coached, by far, mentally and physically,” said Julius of Marshall. “[There was] a lot of adversity throughout the seasons that he’s had [and] for him to finish with the game that he had today, he put us on his back and he fought to the end.”
Matt D’Amato made a few tackles for losses and was the Eastern Defensive Player of the Game while also capturing two receptions for 45 yards.
Eastern’s Trinidad Gonzalez, Alex Valley, Edgar Santiago, Jaden Laprise, and Elijah Gagliardo all made stops for the Lancers.
Rodriguez was the Central Defensive Player of the Game while teammates Deklan Zukowski, Jakob Salinas, Jose Navedo, and Fitzpatrick were all juggernauts in the Rams’ defensive sets.
Central controlled the ball for nearly 30 minutes at the event and that prevented the Lancers from adding points to its tally.
The Rams were also 5-for-5 on fourth down while cashing in on its first four chances in the red zone.
Central went three and out to open the contest — as did Eastern — and the game was quickly afoot with no score.
On its next drive, the Rams quickly moved the ball up field, grinding it out.
The 14th play of the drive saw Fitzpatrick find a wide open Jose Navedo for a 14-yard touchdown strike as Central took a 6-0 edge with 23 seconds left in the first period.
Eastern got into Central territory to open the second quarter off a 25 yard completion from Marshall to D’Amato and the squad was threatening Central’s red zone.
Eastern got stuck on Central’s 24 on fourth down but a big 13 yard run from Treyvon Daniel — plus a Central personal foul — played the ball on the six yard line and the goal line was in sight.
And off a solid block from Trinidad Gonzalez (four carries, 12 yards), Marshall ran up the middle six yards for a touchdown and when Jack Bachand kicked in the extra point, Eastern led 7-6 with 8:44 to play in the half.
But Central quickly responded.
Off a 12 play drive that encompassed 65 yards, Fitzpatrick blasted his way into the end zone but a personal foul on the Rams put the squad far back on the two-point conversion try.
A false start by Central drove the team even deeper towards midfield, the throw by Fitzpatrick was short and with 3:21 left in the second, the Rams’ edge was 12-7.
Daniel made a huge return on the ensuing kickoff – getting Eastern on the Central 36 yard line.
Marshall then zipped up a 20 yard rush to get to Central’s nine yard line with 2:24 showing on the clock and the end zone was in sight.
And then Eastern’s QB — off excellent time management by the Lancers — ran outside and to the left into the goal for a one yard touchdown.
Bachand’s extra-point try bounced off one of the goal posts but Eastern led 13-12 with 34 second left in the stanza.
To end the half, Eastern’s Dylan Garcia made a huge sack on Fitzpatrick and the Lancers took a one-point edge into the half, 13-12, despite some big rushing numbers from Central.
The Lancers opened the third period with the ball and off a long 3-and-20 play, Marshall made a huge touchdown connection with Laprise.
Threading the needle, Marshall ducked, covered and found Laprise — somehow guiding the ball through two Central defenders — as the receiver sprinted into the goal untouched on a 61 yard TD reception and Eastern led 19-12 with 7:44 left in the third.
Fitzpatrick then took Central’s first rush of the third period 37 yards as the Rams were quickly in Eastern territory.
D’Amato later made two huge tackles for losses before Fitzpatrick found receiver Victor Rosa and he dove into the end zone for a 11 yard TD reception but off a blocked kick, Eastern still led but it was just by a slim 19-18 lead with 3:47 left in the third.
“We made a couple quick adjustments at halftime that [assistant coach Sal Cintorino] made that took away some of the things Eastern was hurting us with in the first half. I though in the second half, [Central] did a much better job, especially defensively, kind of taking the emotion out of the game.”
And off a squib kickoff by Central, it was a jump ball. But the Lancers recovered it and the offense was back to work.
Eastern ran the ball back onto Central’s part of the field but the horned sounded to end the third period with the Lancers still on top by one, 19-18.
Fifteen seconds into the final period, the ball was fumbled by Marshall, recovered by Rodriguez, as the defense came up with a huge turnover and with 11:45 remaining, Central went on the attack.
‘It’s been there all year for us,” said Papazian of the Central defense. “We put them in some bad spots in the first half but once our offense kind of got clicking, our defense [took over]. Like I said, our defense has been there all year for us.”
Fitzpatrick ran Central into Eastern territory — looking for the go-ahead score.
Laprise then made a big tackle on Rosa for a short gain but a personal foul was called on the Lancers — putting the ball into the red zone at the Eastern 14 yard line.
Fitzpatrick found Navedo to get Central on the four yard line but a chop block foul put the ball back towards the 20.
The Rams got right back to the Eastern two yard line on third down but Fitzpatrick was stopped short of the goal by Gonzalez and with 7:21 left to play, Central called timeout on a fourth-and-goal situation.
And Fitzpatrick capped the drive with a one-yard plunge for a score but his two-point conversion pass was caught by Gagliardo and at the 7:17 mark of the fourth, Central reclaimed the lead at 24-19.
A nice return by Eastern’s Josh McConnell — off his own fumble — got the ball to the Central 48 yard line and the Lancers were looking for a bounce-back score.
And then it was fourth-and-six with 5:29 left for Eastern. But an incomplete pass to Gagliardo in a crowd gave the ball back to the Rams and the turnover saw the home team hold both the ball and the lead.
But the Eastern defense forced Central to fourth down and with 3:09 left to play, the Rams called timeout.
Navedo then ended up rushing for a first – avoiding a tackle by Laprise – and Central had a new set of downs.
An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty — during Eastern’s second timeout — gave Central a fresh set of downs at the Lancers’ 28 with under 90 seconds remaining.
And the Rams ended up running out the clock as Eastern dropped a hard fought 24-19 decision to Central.
“Unfortunately, we just didn’t get the ball back there in the end,” said Julius. “I had all the confidence in the world that if we able to get a stop there, I thought we were going to go down the field and score.”
Central displayed some discipline late, securing the ball off an Eastern turnover, and keeping it until the final horn sounded.
“We talk about trying to make this thing just a football game, try to leave the emotion, and all the other nonsense out of it,” said Papazian. “It’s really hard to do though. I think we did a better job of it in the second half.”
And for Central, who had to forfeit a couple games late in the season, the outfit played a focused game down the stretch — picking up the victory for the fourth straight time against Bristol Eastern and ended the campaign on a high note.
“I’m proud of my team,” said Papazian.