SIMSBURY >> The North Branford offense wasn’t its usual high-powered self on Saturday, but its defense made up for it. The Thunderbirds are now getting another chance to play for a state title.
Paul Pastet threw a touchdown pass to Shelby Franklin in the first quarter and Andrew Sarmento added a field goal late in the fourth as No. 4 North Branford posted a 10-6 victory over No. 1 Northwest Catholic in a Class S-Small Division semifinal matchup Saturday afternoon at Simsbury High.
North Branford (11-1) advances to the final where it will meet No. 2 Capital Prep/Achievement First (11-1) on Saturday at 10:30 a.m. at Central Connecticut State. Capital Prep advanced to the final by overcoming a 13-point deficit to defeat Canton 28-21.
The Thunderbirds entered Saturday averaging 46 points per game, but the stout Indians defense and steady rain combined to turn this one into a slugfest.
“Our defense was outstanding,” North Branford coach Mark Basil said. “It was a good game and a shame someone had to lose, but I’m just really proud of our kids and how they kept it together and led each other to victory.”
North Branford took a 7-0 lead with 4:28 left in the first quarter on an eight-yard hookup from Pastet to Franklin. Both teams had a chance to add points in the first half, including a North Branford drive which ended with four unsuccessful plays from inside the 2 in the final minute of the second quarter.
The Thunderbirds nursed their lead into the third quarter before the Indians were able to power their way down the field. Owen Tyler and Delano Robinson took turns moving the ball on the ground and Robinson capped the 74-yard march with a 9-yard TD run to cut the lead to 7-6 with 4:08 to play in the third.
Northwest Catholic missed the extra point, which continued to loom large as the game wore on. The Indians were able to drive into Thunderbirds territory twice in the final five minutes, but couldn’t come up with any points.
After recovering a North Branford fumble, Northwest Catholic started a drive with Robinson taking the snap directly and pounding the Thunderbirds defense. Robinson went for 17 on first down and 9 on the next play before breaking one off down to the North Branford 17.
The drive stalled as the Thunderbirds’ defense stiffened and the Indians hurt themselves with a pair of holding penalties. On 4th-and-15 from the 36, Franklin was there to bat the pass down and give North Branford the ball.
“We were rolling at the end there and my boys were fighting,” said Northwest Catholic coach Mike Tyler, who announced he’d retire as coach at season’s end. “I can’t say enough about the team and the boys and how hard they fought. I’m just so proud of them.”
North Branford then turned to its star. It turned out to be the right call.
Austin Calamita took a handoff on a sweep from his own 23, hurdled two Indians defenders and raced down the sideline to the 4 to set up a 1st-and-goal.
Northwest Catholic held and forced a 20-yard field goal by Sarmento to make it 10-6 with 2:55 to play.
Saturday was the final game for Tyler, who had previously announced his plans to retire at the end of the season. The Indians didn’t want him to go out on a loss, and they drove from their 25 to the North Branford 48 where they faced a 2nd-and-8 with 1:13 to go.
“I’m really, really proud of our whole football team,” Tyler said. “We were able to move the ball in the second half, but the holds killed us. It is what it is, but it’s just too bad.”
After a timeout, Robinson dropped the snap and was lucky to get back to the line of scrimmage. A screen to Robinson was sniffed out by the Thunderbirds, setting up a 4th-and-11 and John Manzi’s pass to Clayton Stewart fell short.
North Branford is now playing for a state title for the second time in three seasons. In 2012, the Thunderbirds ran into Arkeel Newsome and Ansonia in the Class S final and were beaten 59-26. Basil says that loss will help some this time around.
“This group of seniors were sophomores back then, and they looked up to a lot of guys on that 2012 team,” Basil said. “I know a lot of them learned from those kids and it’s paying off this season. We are coming back with some experience and they know what it’s like to be there. So hopefully we will go in prepared and give it our best.”
North Branford 10, Northwest Catholic 6
North Branford 7 0 0 3 — 10
Northwest Catholic 0 0 6 0 — 6
NoBfd—Shelby Franklin 8 pass from Paul Pastet (Andrew Sarmento kick)
NWC—Delano Robinson 9 run (kick failed)
NoBfd—Andrew Sarmento 20 FG
Team records: Northwest Catholic 10-2; North Branford 11-1