CROMWELL >> The Cromwell/Portland football team made head coach Chris Eckert’s return to the sidelines a winning one as the Panthers topped Stafford/East Windsor/Somers, 39-7, in a Pequot Conference battle Friday night at Pierson Park.
Eckert missed the Panthers’ opening day win against Coginchaug last Saturday while serving a one-week suspension following a preseason hazing incident.
“It’s an awesome feeling to be back,” Eckert said. “It was difficult being away but my two little girls and my wife, Jenny, gave me a lot of support, along with the faculty at the school and the kids. It’s great to be back. It’s very sweet. But now it’s about a lot of work. We’re just going to keep moving this bus forward and see where it goes.”
Cromwell/Portland senior quarterback Jarius Bailey completed 7 of 10 passes for 132 yards and tossed three touchdowns. Kristian Sapp and Mayze James each had two touchdowns, while Nelson Carlson rushed for 149 yards on 11 carries, including a 60-yard touchdown run.
The Panthers (2-0) built an 18-0 lead in the first half. Bailey found senior Andrew Pepe (three catches, 85 yards) for a 47-yard scoring toss on Cromwell’s first possession. Early in the second quarter, Bailey hit Sapp in the corner of the end zone with a 15-yard TD toss to make it 12-0.
Sophomore Dianta Highsmith’s blocked punt set up a short TD run by Sapp that stretched the Panthers lead to 18-0 with 3:49 left in the first half.
Stafford (1-1) then had a great chance to get back into the game when its defense forced a fumble in the backfield, the ball recovered by junior linebacker Nick Oulette. A Panthers’ personal foul penalty during the scramble for the loose ball set the Bulldogs up with a first and goal at the 6-yard line with just 1:09 left.
But Stafford couldn’t convert thanks to a holding call, a quarterback sack and a fumble on the final play of the half.
“We work on a scoop and score drill three times a week and I thought in that situation if we scooped it up and were in the end zone, it’s 18-6 there,” Bulldogs first-year coach Brian Mazzone said. “Tonight we made a lot of mental mistakes and in the second half we couldn’t recover from those.”
Carlson’s 60-yard TD run made it 26-0. Bailey’s third touchdown toss, an 18-yarder to James, gave the Panthers a 33-0 advantage with 11:50 left in the fourth quarter.
“It’s difficult to keep everybody happy because everyone wants the ball on every snap,” Eckert said. “But I think we’re doing a good job in spreading the wealth.”
Stafford avoided the shutout when junior quarterback Nate Lajoie zipped a pass to sophomore Juwan Brown for a 27-yard TD play.
Lajoie completed 6 of 16 passes for 184 yards, while senior Jake Hinkel gained 28 yards on nine carries.
“We really have a bright future,” said Mazzone, noting that the addition of Somers, which left Ellington to join the Stafford/East Windsor cooperative team, is paying dividends. “We had 45 kids out, including 14 freshmen and sophomores that played today. Maybe we’re not on Cromwell’s level yet but we’ll get there.”
The Panthers defense, led by Justice Taylor, Ethan Roy and Jack Wilson, bottled up the Bulldogs running attack and sacked Lajoie six times.
“It’s a great win,” Eckert added. “I was very happy for three quarters. We kind of let the pedal off the metal for the fourth quarter. But for three quarters we played very hard and very intense. We executed what we needed too.”