CROMWELL >> Behind the leadership of senior captains Jack Granger, Tyler Meeker and Ty Kartiganer, whom their head coach John Bozzi called “the best captains we’ve ever had,” a stingy, opportunistic defense that got better as the year wore on, and a well-balanced offense, Coginchaug rolled into the CIAC Class S playoffs with a 35-6 Thanksgiving Day victory against Cromwell at Pierson Park.
The seventh-seeded Blue Devils (9-2) will meet defending Class S champion Ansonia (11-0) in the state quarterfinals on Tuesday.
“It’s amazing,” said Granger. “This is the first time in history that Coginchaug is going to the playoffs and that’s real special.”
The Blue Devils victory Thursday in the first annual Home for the Braves Bowl (the game was dedicated to help raise awareness about the issue of homeless military veterans) was their eighth straight.
“We’ve been in the playoffs for the last eight weeks because we knew if we wanted to go we couldn’t lose,” Bozzi said. “So next week will be our ninth playoff game.”
The Blue Devils senior captains led the way again against Cromwell.
Meeker, the Blue Devils quarterback, gave Coginchaug a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter with a 50-yard touchdown run. Meeker also tossed a pair of a touchdown passes to Jake Ober and Devin Rodrigue late in the second quarter, lifting Coginchaug to a 27-6 halftime advantage.
Granger led all rushers with 101 yards on nine carries and scored one touchdown en route to being named the Blue Devils offensive player of the game. And Kartiganer, who was the Blue Devils outstanding defensive player, spearheaded a defense that forced six turnovers and held the Panthers to 173 total yards.
“Jack, Tyler and Ty are three of the best captains we’ve ever had,” said Bozzi. “They pulled this team together. They wouldn’t let them get down early and they’ve led us on this streak.”
Senior Ryan Murphy and junior Josh Smith also did a terrific job anchoring the Blue Devils defensive line, while junior linebacker Eric Sbona recovered three fumbles.
“They’re a big, physical team and they did a nice job capitalizing on our mistakes and forcing turnovers,” said Cromwell coach Chris Eckert.
Kartiganer’s big fumble return set up the Blue Devils second touchdown, a 21-yard scamper by Granger, who also the added the extra point kick for a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Cromwell (4-7) answered with a 73 yard scoring drive, cutting the lead to 14-6 when sophomore quarterback Jarius Bailey hit Nelson Carlson with a screen pass that went 34 yards for a touchdown.
But with less than two minutes to go in the first half, Meeker ( 3 of 7 for 56 yards) found Ober on a slant play for a 35-yard touchdown, and two plays after Sbona recovered a Panthers fumble, Meeker rifled a 15-yard TD pass in the end zone to Rodrigue.
Ober, who gained 71 yards on 13 carries, scored his second touchdown on a six-yard run to give Coginchaug a 35-6 lead with 1:38 left in the third quarter.
“I thought we were very gritty,” said Bozzi. “Cromwell came with a lot of intensity like we knew they would. Their defense has been stellar all year and we dented them just enough to put us in position to win the game.”
Bailey, who quarterbacked the Panthers when junior Emir Cirikovic got hurt in the second quarter, gained 63 yards on 22 attempts. Senior lineman Jon Weaver (offense) and senior lineman Joey Chaves (defense) earned outstanding player of the game honors for Cromwell.
“We’re very young and the future is bright,” said Eckert. “But it’s real tough right now for the seniors to go out like this.”
This is Coginchaug’s fourth year as a non-cooperative football team. In 2010, the Blue Devils just missed the Class S playoffs, losing a tiebreaker for the eighth and final spot to Sacred Heart (Waterbury). In 2009, the Coginchaug/Vinal Tech co-op made the Class MM playoffs, losing to East Lyme 39-0 in the semifinals.
“This has been a special season and we’re real excited about playing Tuesday,” said Granger.
Said Eckert: “(Coginchaug’s) on a roll and I wish them the best of luck in the playoffs.”