NEWTOWN — Striving for perfection is an impossible task regardless of the task itself, but on the gridiron it’s something team spends countless hours working towards.
For Newtown, which is on the doorstep of something special as it faces Simsbury in the Class LL semifinals, a dominating defense has achieved perfection more often than not this fall.
The Nighthawks (11-0) have been blanking teams at an extraordinary rate down the stretch. A 35-0 win over Norwich Free Academy in the quarterfinals meant a fourth shutout in five games when disregarding a safety yielded to Masuk the previous week. Newtown is 48 minutes from a first state final berth since 1992, and its defense is why the school is two wins away from a perfect season.
“We plan to dominate on defensive side of the ball,” said senior James Knox. “When you plan to dominate, good things happen. We pride ourselves on perfection, whether that is in a pursuit drill, if you take one step off the coaches will get on you. We harp on perfection because if you do you’re usually going to be a great team.”
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) October 26, 2019
There are no holes in the unit, which has been rejuvenated by defensive coordinator Nick Tarantino. A more aggressive approach has led to 33 sacks and 13 interceptions. Stars at each level wreck whatever plan the offense implements, and a swagger that resembles the gaudy chain the unit uses for whenever one of its players comes up with a turnover is evident.
Newtown has allowed 78 points in 11 games this year.
“We’ve been a little bit more aggressive than in the past,” Nighthawks coach Bob Pattison said. “We’re trying to utilize the different personnel that we do have. Sometimes in the past your best 11 players were your best 11 and you’d keep those guys on the field. We’re trying to make sure we have the best 11 for any situation.”
The Nighthawks have experience on their side, too. Seniors are all over the field, most of who were starters last year. Knox (nine sacks) and Zach Loomis (5.5) lead a defensive line that has controlled the line of scrimmage against every team. Rotating players has allowed the unit to stay fresh; nine players total have registered a sack.
The 6-foot-4, 240-pound Knox, who is headed to the University of Columbia, has emerged as one of the breakout players in the state this year.
— Ryan Lacey (@RyanLacey11) November 16, 2019
“Last year he didn’t have the opportunity for a lot of sacks because we were asking him to do other things,” Pattison said. “It’s great to see him make those big plays in big games and see him get the credit he deserves. You have to win the line of scrimmage or you’re going to have a hard time winning games. James has helped us win the line of scrimmage for the last two and-a-half years.”
Jared Dunn is putting together an All-State season at linebacker. His nine sacks are tied for the team lead with Knox, and his 75 tackles (including 20.5 for loss) lead the team by 30. Dunn and Jack Mulligan form a dynamic one-two punch that compliment each other in every way.
Newtown is a brick wall. NFA goes backward for — like — the 10th possession tonight.
Newtown blocked the punt and takes over in NFA territory…
Just a couple plays later, Jack Street hits Luke Hannon for a 28-0 lead. 4:20 left 3rd.
We are, of course, done here
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 5, 2019
“When (Dunn) flies around the field and makes those big hits, it gets us fired up and makes everyone want to do the same,” Loomis said. “He’s good at hyping us up, and Jack is good at getting everyone where they have to be.”
The “no-fly zone” in the secondary has more than held up in the back end. Jack Zingaro, Connor Moran, Will Swierbut and Luke Hannon among others, including the returning Miles Ricks, have prevented the big play more often than not against several quality passing teams on the schedule. Swierbut was moved to safety before the season and leads the team with five interceptions.
“We wanted a ball-hawk type kid in the middle and (Swierbut) is having a tremendous year,” Pattison said. “Not only does he have the ball skills, he comes up in the run and makes a lot of open field tackles. It’s overall a team defense, everyone has to do their job and they are.”
The latest performance was likely the most impressive yet. The Nighthawks allowed -2 yards in the first half and less than 100 for the game as they terrorized NFA to the tune of 10 sacks. Though the Wildcats were down the depth chart at quarterback, they possessed a dangerous offense that was nonexistent last Wednesday.
“When we get to the quarterback everyone gets hyped,” Loomis said. “It keeps the train keeps rolling; we got one sack at the beginning of the game and it just kept happening and we ended up with 10.”
Confidence is high after that performance, and the stars appeared aligned to end the season in fitting fashion. It’s all added up to a group that could shed the label of previous years and deliver the school a championship.
“I’m extremely proud,” Knox said. “About the past eight years we’ve been labeled as ‘they get in but get knocked out in the first round, or can’t get past the second round. It’s been a fuel for us that we want to change that and set a new mold.”
James Knox had just finished his work for the night in Newtown’s 35-0 QF win over NFA, and @MetalNED is giving him postgame poo quizzes: “How many sacks do you think you guys had tonight?” #crhsfb pic.twitter.com/ZgFn9ltNQK
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) December 5, 2019