GROTON >> When the rain finally cleared after a more than 90-minute delay Friday night, some familiar faces were missing from the Norwich Free Academy sidelines.
Starting running backs De’Jean General and Ransford Darby were both out with injuries. But perhaps most notably, star quarterback Jawaun Johnson was also out — for reasons that haven’t been made clear.
Fitch took advantage of NFA’s shorthanded situation, notching four interceptions in an eventual 21-9 victory over the Wildcats.
Cleon Mclish scored a touchdown and had a pick and quarterback Robert Duncan scored a pair of TDs to lead the Falcons.
“These guys think they can win, and they know they can win,” Fitch coach Mike Ellis said afterwards. “In these clutch situations, our kids are making plays. They get the interception, they make the tackle for a loss, they’ll get the first down, they’re making plays when we need it. There’s your confidence right there.”
Still, Ellis knows things might have been different had NFA been healthy – especially if Johnson had been able to play.
“He’s a difference-maker, and we were very lucky that he was not in this ballgame tonight,” said the coach, who took over at Fitch this season after a long stint at Waterford. “We just hope he’s OK, that’s all. We know it’s a tough thing that happens, and it is what it is.”
Citing confidentiality issues, NFA coach Jemal Davis wouldn’t divulge the reason for Johnson’s absence. He would only say it wasn’t a school-related issue.
“If he could be here, we would have him here,” Davis said. “Circumstances now just won’t allow that. The key right now is to continue to go, and when he can be back, he’ll be back.”
Davis added that the team prepared a game plan this week with Johnson in it, but also with sophomore quarterback Shea McManaway as a contingency. McManaway wound up starting and playing the whole game.
“He’s gonna get better and have an opportunity to play, and we’ll get better from it,” Davis said. “I’m pleased with his composure, coming out and playing a full game for the first time in his high school career.”
Still, the loss of players — for whatever reason — took its toll this week.
“In my entire program, I’ve never experienced this in all my years, the number of guys out,” Davis noted. “But, regardless of that, they came out and they beat us. It’s just tough, trying to get things done. But these guys came out and had a good game plan. We had opportunities.”
The game was supposed to start at 6:30 p.m. but didn’t start until after 8 p.m., due to the rainy weather. Asked if he wished the game had been postponed, considering all his missing players, Davis said: “Our kids were excited for the opportunity to play. I don’t want to take away from what Mike has been able to do, getting those kids to believe. Their motivating factor was to beat NFA, and they did that. Regardless of who we’ve got out here, they beat us.”
McManaway threw an interception on the very first play of the game. The Wildcats fumbled the ball away on their second possession.
Fitch got on the scoreboard first on a Mclish 11-yard run on the second-to-last lay of the opening quarter. It would remain 7-0 at halftime as NFA moved the ball to the Fitch 10 but couldn’t punch the ball into the end zone.
The Wildcats evened it up on their first drive of the latter half, a 10-play, 62-yard sequence highlighted by McManaway’s 35-yard completion to Marquis Ward on 4th-and-10, and capped by DaiJohn Cummings’ one-yard run.
Mclish returned the ensuing kickoff 65 yards for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back on an illegal block penalty. The Falcons still managed to engineer a 12-play, 65-yard scoring drive, capped by Duncan’s two-yard QB keeper. Duncan and Luke Letellier had a pair of huge third-down hook-ups on the drive, the latter going for 18 yards to the NFA two to set up Vincent Baker’s scoring plunge two plays later.
Letellier picked off a McManaway pass on NFA’s ensuing drive. The Falcons pushed the ball to the NFA two, but penalties thwarted the drive and the Wildcats took over when Caleb Parker picked off a Duncan pass at the six.
But NFA went three-and-out, and on the second play of its next drive, Mclish picked off a McManaway pass and brought it to the Wildcats’ six. two plays later, Duncan scored on a keeper with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter.
NFA would bring the ball well into Fitch territory, but the Falcons came up with their fourth pick of the game to seal the deal.
Fitch took a safety with 18 seconds left to provide the final score.
Fitch 21, Norwich Free Academy 9
NFA 0 0 7 2 — 9
FITCH 0 7 7 7 — 21
F–Cleon Mclish 11 run (kick)
NFA–DaiJohn Cummings 1 run (kick)
F–Vincent Baker 1 run (kick)
Team Records: NFA 3-1; Fitch 3-1