NORTH HAVEN >> Notre Dame-West Haven reached the Class L playoffs a year ago. But this year’s edition dug itself a deep hole to start the year. The Green Knights were 0-2 with losses to Bishop Hendricken (R.I.) and then mighty Shelton. It was a virtual death knell in a competitive Class L playoff race.
But now, with three-consecutive victories, the Green Knights have brought meaning and purpose back to their season as it hit the midpoint. And they’re hoping Friday night’s 49-34 gut-check victory over North Haven is the catalyst for a strong second half.
Where last week receiver Nico Ragaini was the hero in a 34-7 victory over Fairfield Prep, this time it was more of a collective effort with Josh Witkowsky leading the charge. He ran for 144 yards and scored four touchdowns as Notre Dame-West Haven rallied back from a two-touchdown deficit early in the second half.
“The game was on the line and we all stepped up as a team and came to win,” Witkowsky said. “We were really confident in ourselves and we’re ready to go.”
Quarterback Chris Elias completed 14 of 20 passes for 206 yards and a touchdown, he also ran for a touchdown. Nico Ragaini had a relatively quite night (for him, at least) with seven catches for 90 yards.
Notre Dame improved to 3-2.
“Those first two teams we played — that Rhode Island team is a legit football team and then Shelton the next week — we were this close to winning those games,” Notre Dame coach Tom Marcucci said. “So we’re a pretty good football team.”
Though it struggled against a — frankly — bizarro North Haven passing attack which torched the Knights with 26 of 35 passing for 336 yards, Notre Dame’s defense made sure the Indians were one dimensional. The Knights held North Haven’s notoriously run-heavy single-wing to just 37 rushing yards on 31 carries.
“We challenged the kids at halftime to show some toughness,” Marcucci said. “And we did have it. We just struggled (in the first half).
“I told (North Haven coach) Anthony (Sagnella), you guys looked like Foran out there. They threw the ball well and they were very precise. They couldn’t run it, but they could throw it. He’s a great coach and they do a great job preparing those kids. But I thought our kids got stronger as the game went on.”
North Haven, meanwhile, fell to 3-2. North Haven’s Mark Montano caught 8 passes for 114 yards and three touchdowns. Jack Steinman completed a majority of North Haven’s passes (23 of 32) for 274 yards and three touchdowns. Tom Dodge also threw a touchdown pass.
But what ultimately doomed North Haven was being worn down up front by Witkowski and the Green Knights’ relentless linemen.
“(Notre Dame is) really good up front and we’re a team that prides itself on controlling the line of scrimmage. Tonight, we didn’t do that,” North Haven coach Tony Sagnella said.”We lost control of the line. That, to me, was the difference.
“Yeah, there were a few mistakes here and there. We made a few more than they did. But, the bottom line is, you gotta win that battle in the trenches.”
For awhile, however North Haven was in firm control of the game. The Indians had a 21-14 lead at halftime and led 27-14 after the first drive of the second half, which culminated in a 4-yard touchdown pass from Steinman to Steve Erbe.
But Notre Dame scored four-consecutive touchdowns to not just erase the deficit, but take command. Witkowski capped a pair of drives with short touchdown runs to put the Green Knights ahead 28-27 after three quarters. Jordan Gargiulo’s interception of Steinman set up the go-ahead score.
“Josh is an hard-nosed, old-school football player. He could have played in the 50s or 60s,” Marcucci said. “He’s not real big, but he’s a physical kid and he likes to play and he showed it today. He wants the ball all the time.”
Notre Dame got the ball back again and Elias found Justin Morehead for a 29-yard touchdown strike. Morehead contorted his body to make a diving catch at the pylon.
The Green Knights quickly added a backbreaking touchdown thanks to a fortuitous bounce. Noah Fearnley scooped up a fumble by Gargiulo on a punt return and alertly raced 50 yards to give Notre Dame a two-touchdown lead.
“I couldn’t tell you what happened there,” Notre Dame linebacker Frank Longley said. “I’ve never seen that done before. I was right next to it and I saw the ball come out and my jaw just dropped. It was awesome.”
Though North Haven pulled within eight points on Mark Montano’s third touchdown catch of the game, Witkowsky iced the game with a 4-yard touchdown run.
“We’re definitely back in it now,” Longley said. “We’re back.”
Both North Haven and Notre Dame have byes next week. They’ll need the extra week off. North Haven will face Shelton and Notre Dame will take on West Haven on Oct. 21.
“We’re happy to get the bye, but there’s no rest for the weary,” Marcucci said.
Notre Dame-WH 49, North Haven 34
NOTRE DAME-WH 7 7 14 21 — 49
NORTH HAVEN 7 14 6 7 — 34
NH–Tom Dodge 1 run (Colin Finkle kick)
ND–Chris Elias 4 run (Jared Gallbronner kick)
NH–Mark Montano 22 pass from Jack Steinman (Finkle kick)
ND–Josh Witkowsky 5 run (Galbronner kick)
NH–Montano 16 pass from Tom Dodge (Finkle kick)
NH — Steve Erbe 4 pass from Steinman (kick failed)
ND–Witkowsky 3 run (Gallbronner kick)
ND–Witkowsky 3 run (Gallbronner kick)
ND–Justin Morehead 29 pass from Elias (Galbronner kick)
ND–Noah Fernley 50 fumble return (Galbronner kick)
NH–Mark Montano 8 pass from Steinman (Finkle kick)
ND–Witkowsky 4 run (Galbronner kick)
Team Records: NDWH 3-2, North Haven 3-2