Week 3: North Branford (1-1) at Branford (2-0), 7 p.m.
BRANFORD – The border war is back, at least for one night only.
It took one school’s closing, another program halfway across the state dropping its varsity team and a game of schedule musical chairs for the Branford and North Branford football teams to finally play against each other once again, for probably this season alone, on Friday night.
“For us, it’s just an opponent on Friday night,” Branford coach John Limone said. “The stakes are a little higher because it’s a border war.”
The two programs haven’t played against each other since the Reagan administration.
“Yeah, we haven’t played them since 1985,” said Limone, a Branford graduate who played in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “We used to scrimmage a lot. We’d see each other at camp. I played here and it was always the woulda, coulda, shoulda, kind of thing going around.”
Since the last time the two teams faced off Branford has gone to two state championship games and won the Class MM title in 2005 while North Branford has reached three state title games. Both teams had simultaneous playoff squads in 2005 and 1996.
Branford’s players say the hypothetical talk still exists between the two sides.
“That definitely adds motivation,” Branford quarterback Sean Kelly said. “I really want to have a good game and show them who is better and end all the talk.”
Creed-New Haven closed in May, leaving an opening in the Hornets schedule for week three.
Originally Branford filled the void with its Thanksgiving rival – East Haven – which also had a void in its schedule, meaning the schools would play twice this season.
Less than a month later, Nonnewaug announced it was dropping to junior varsity, leaving open dates for its 10 Pequot League opponents, including North Branford.
The matchup seemed too good to be true.
“What happened was… really lucky,” Limone said. “It’s cool. Really it was a stroke of luck. It was a stroke of luck that we’re getting to play this game.”
The matchup pits a 2-0 Branford team – looking for its first 3-0 start since 2009 – and 1-1 North Branford, which is coming off an overtime loss against Pequot Sassacus Division favorite Cromwell/Portland.
While Branford’s side is pumped up, longtime North Branford coach Mark Basil said he doesn’t believe the rivalry is there anymore, at least not from the north’s perspective.
“For me, I’ve been in North Branford, living here, for 23 years and the Branford-North Branford (rivalry) was before my time,” he said. “I know for guys before me, it was a big deal. It hasn’t hit me as anything big (now).”
He added that he hasn’t heard any of his players talk about it either.
“It’s not at all anything you would think,” he said. “Back in the 70s that’s the way it was. I haven’t heard that from them. I don’t feel that coming from them.”
Basil, though, is looking forward to seeing where he team stacks up against an out of conference opponent.
“Whenever we have an opportunity to play outside the league the see where we compare,” he said. “That’s important to all of us.”
For two towns that are right next to each other, it remains odd to some that the two programs have not crossed paths for 33 years.
“Not playing against them all through youth was kind of weird considering they’re the town over from us,” Branford senior Jackson Seward said. “So, we’re definitely excited for what we call a border war.
“We can’t wait to play on Friday. We’re excited.”
Seward, who is returning to the lineup after missing last week’s game due to injury, should be excited. He wants to be just like his father.
Don Seward was on the 1985 Hornets squad that shut out North Branford.
“They won 34-0,” Seward said. “I’m hoping to follow in his footsteps.”
Some of the players grew up playing against each other. Some of them have gone to the same restaurants and ice cream parlors. Generally speaking, they have crossed paths everywhere except under the Friday night lights.
“We’re definitely excited to play against them,” Branford senior linebacker Chris Bouton said. “We just have a chance to prove which Branford is better. Hopefully, it’s the one without the ‘North’ that comes out on top.”
Branford is 2-0 for the first time since 2016 and is looking to improve to 3-0 for the first time since 2009. That season, the Hornets finished 7-3.
This season, the Hornets defeated Lyman Hall and Stonington mainly without Seward, their top player.
The senior running back and linebacker was injured in week one and missed the game last week. Younger players have stepped up, allowing the Hornets to win in spite of his absence.
“It’s speaks a lot about the kids that had to step in and fill that role,” Limone said. “We have to have that next-guy-up mentality.”
Players like Amari Phillips, Nick Chieffo, Ryan Hanniford, AJ Robinson, Bobby Olejarczyk, Spencer Landsbach, Cameron Mills have all stepped up to fill spots opened due to injuries.
In Seward’s absence, junior quarterback Sean Kelly has risen to the occasion and has picked up where he left off last season.
“Last year he came along and took every rep for us at quarterback,” Limone said. “He’s a smart kid, he’s a tough kid, he’s a good leader. Thanksgiving last year he had a big time break out game.”
In his final game of his sophomore season Kelly accounted for four touchdowns — two in the air and two on the ground — in the Hornets’ victory over East Haven.
In the first two games of his junior season, Kelly has thrown for 224 yards and three touchdowns and has added 189 yards and one touchdown on the ground. “I took it upon myself to step up,” Kelly said. “I think it translated on the field.”
Defensively, senior Chris Bouton has done more than enough in Seward’s absence. Last week against Stonington alone he had 10 tackles, three for a loss and two sacks – in the first half.
“He’s really a force for us,” Limone said.