DURHAM >> North Branford and Coginchaug were both in football rebuilding mode this season. Meeting for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, it seemed only fitting that the teams needed extra time to crown the first “Battle of Route 17” champion.
After leading the Thunderbirds on a sensational game-tying touchdown drive in the final minute of regulation, senior quarterback Dylan Blake scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime to lift North Branford to a thrilling 28-22 victory over the Blue Devils Thursday in Durham.
Blake showed great urgency in rallying the T-birds from a 22-0 deficit. During the postgame celebration, however, he seemed in no hurry to relinquish the championship trophy.
“We battled to the end,” Blake said. “Everyone likes to do better and we would have loved to make the playoffs this season but we didn’t. I’m happy we got the win in our last game.”
Trailing 22-14, North Branford regained possession at its own 43-yard line after a fourth down pass from Coginchaug senior Justin Faiella fell incomplete with 1:10 left to play. Coginchaug coach Steve Croce gambled on the fourth-and-7 play hoping to end the game with a first down.
“I knew our defense was tired,” Croce explained. “They were out there the whole second half and they played their butts off. Every single kid that you saw out there is a two-way player. I just tried to put the pressure off them and it didn’t work out.”
Blake quickly marched the T-birds downfield with pass completions to Charles Walcott, Keane Regan, and Sydney Franklin. Blake then found Walcott on a slant over the middle for an 11-yard scoring toss that made it 22-20 with just 30 seconds left.
Blake’s 2-point conversion pass to senior Matt Sibley sent the game into overtime.
“I thought we’d have a shot but we got down there pretty quick,” North Branford coach Mark Basil said. “Our team did a good job using the field, managing the downs, getting out of bounds when we had too and spiking it.”
Coginchaug turned the ball over on the first overtime possession with T-birds senior Dylan Nowak pouncing on a Faiella fumble. Blake scored the game-winner on the next play, racing untouched into the end zone from the Kansas tiebreaker’s 10-yard line.
“I saw an opening and ran right through it,” said Blake, who completed 13 of 20 passes for 206 yards. “It was a nice play. I always have confidence in my team. I trust my linemen and I trust my receivers to catch the ball.”
The Blue Devils (1-9) built a 22-0 lead in the first half on a pair of touchdown runs from senior Ben Choplick-Ward and a 14-yard touchdown pass from Faiella to senior Bryan Shields. Ward’s second score came on a 54-yard run.
“We were on our heels the whole first half and couldn’t get anything clicking,” Basil said.
Walcott, a freshman who scored three touchdowns, gave the T-birds a spark midway through the second quarter with a five-yard touchdown run. North Branford then closed the gap to 22-14 early in the third quarter when Blake threaded an 18-yard pass to the back of the end zone where Walcott made a terrific diving grab before sliding out of bounds.
Coginchaug senior Rick Sorensen gained 72 yards on 16 carries to just go over the 1000-yard mark for the season.
“We played eight sophomores this year and made seven quarterback changes with four different players,” Croce said. “So it was hard to find an identity. The experience the kids gained was invaluable. It’s a blueprint that we can build on for next year.”
Sophomore Nick Mancini rushed for 67 yards on 13 carries and also caught three passes for 66 yards for North Branford (6-4).
“This was a year I was hoping to go 5-5 because I knew that we were down,” Basil said. “Anything beyond that was gravy for us so it felt good to get this win.”
NORTH BRANFORD 28, COGINCHAUG 22 (OT)
NORTH BRANFORD 0 6 8 8 6 — 28
COGINCHAUG 14 8 0 0 0 — 22
COG-Ben Choplick-Ward 4 run (pass failed)
COG-Ben Choplick-Ward 54 run (Rick Sorensen run)
COG-Bryan Shields 14 pass from Justin Faiella (Taylon Fay pass from Faiella)
NB-Charles Walcott 5 run (kic k failed)
NB-Charles Walcott 18 pass from Dylan Blake (Walcott pass from Blake)
NB-Charles Walcott 11 pass from Dylan Blake (Matt Sibley pass from Blake)
NB-Dylan Blake 10 run
Team records: North Branford 6-4; Coginchaug 1-9.