DEEP RIVER — Valley Regional/Old Lyme had the play. It had the open receiver and, with a good throw, it was going to at least tie Pequot Sassacus rival Cromwell/Portland and send the game into a second overtime.
Throwing proved difficult all night for the Warriors, whose regular quarterback, Ryan Santos, had been hobbled with an ankle injury much of the last few games.
So Valley coach Tim King figured he’d try and catch the Panthers off guard by running a gadget play with one of his best players, receiver Jason O’Brien.
O’Brien rolled right, then stopped and looked left for Jae’len Arnum, who was wide open and streaking toward the end zone. O’Brien waited a split second before throwing off his back foot.
“It just didn’t get there,” King lamented afterward.
It didn’t and Cromwell/Portland’s football team exploded from their sidelines to celebrate a 21-14 victory that, frankly, was more of a battle of attrition than an instant classic.
But Cromwell/Portland, now 6-1, had plenty of reason to celebrate. The Panthers had, after all, just saved their season from a prolonged trip to the infirmary. Valley Regional fell into a similar position at 5-1.
“This game is always a battle,” said a giddy Cromwell/Portland coach Randall Bennett. “No lead is safe. They made plays, we made plays and we’re just happy to come out on top.”
Just six days before, C/P’s unbeaten season came to a stunning end with a 35-20 loss to Old Saybrook/Westbrook. Since the Class S playoff race typically is unforgiving of two-loss teams, Cromwell/Portland’s once-promising season would have taken a dark turn had O’Brien completed the pass.
“That was a crazy one, hats off to Old Saybrook, they played a good game and we weren’t able to execute when we needed to,” Cromwell/Portland quarterback Bryce Karstetter said. “But we had to get out here this week. We knew what we needed and we went out and were able to do it.”
It was far from easy.
Cromwell/Portland scored a pair of touchdowns early in the first half — a pair of Bryan Lockwood touchdown runs — but was shut out the rest of the way as Valley eventually rallied to tie the game.
The teams combined for seven turnovers. The Panthers also missed two long field goal attempts, from 35-yards out in the third quarter and a 32-yarder with 4.5 seconds left in regulation.
But in overtime, after being backed up by a false start, Karstetter scored the go-ahead points in overtime on a tough, 3-yard run.
“I was telling coach, the emotions I was going through were insane,” said Karstetter, who completed 14-of-31 passes for 168 yards and an interception. “At first, I was super happy. At halftime I was like, OK, we’ve got to get going. Then I was kind of sad and then mad…”
“I’ve never felt this way after a football game before. It’s insane.”
After being stymied by Cromwell/Portland’s defense (and by its own mistakes) for most of the first half, Valley Regional finally made a game of it on the final play from scrimmage before halftime.
With time running down, Santos bolted for the goal line only to have the ball jarred loose with a hit by Zac Cyr. But O’Brien was first to pounce on it when it bounded into the end zone. After a conference, referees ruled it a touchdown to pull Valley within 14-6 at the break.
O’Brien came through again late in the third quarter. After teammate Brian Rankin jumped on a touched punt on the Cromwell/Portland 15, O’Brien snared an 11-yard touchdown pass from Santos on fourth and 4. Arnum’s 2-point conversion run tied it up at 14.
“Our quarterback is injured, he’s been hobbled,” King said of Santos, whom he often replaced with sophomore Jack Cox and Arnum out of the wildcat to give his senior’s tender ankle a break. “He came out tonight and toughed it out.”
The teams traded punts, back-breaking penalties and turnovers throughout fourth quarter.
Valley looked as if it would get a crack at winning the game in the final minute. But Cromwell/Portland’s 6-foot-3 senior Nick Wright — in his first season playing varsity football — was inserted at safety for the first time in his life and picked off Cox at the Cromwell 45.
“In a game like this, you need to come to play your A-game and we didn’t,” said King, whose team fell to 5-1. “We had too many turnovers and penalties, mistakes, not being focused…
“I will say the kids didn’t give up. They didn’t fold the tents down 14-0. They fought tooth-and-nail to tie it up. We just couldn’t get anything established on offense.”
Wright immediately caught a 20-yard pass down to the 15, giving Panthers a shot at winning in regulation. But kicker Matt Pepe (who had an interception earlier in the game), missed it wide left.
Wright finished with six catches for 103 yards for Cromwell/Portland. O’Brien had five catches for 60 yards and a touchdown and Nick Braga had 11 carries for 88 yards for Valley.
Freshman Owen Brunk and sophomore Marc Treglia recovered fumbles and Kevin Hinkel added an interception for the Panthers, who forced five turnovers overall. Arunum had an interception for Valley.
“It’s great,” Wright said. “Last week kind of crushed our spirits a little bit. Winning a game like this definitely gets us amped again.”
CROMWELL/PORTLAND 21, VALLEY REGIONAL/OLD LYME 14 (OT)
CROM/PORT 7 7 0 0 7 — 21
VALLEY/OL 0 6 8 0 0 — 14
CP–Bryan Lockwood 4 run (Matt Pepe kick)
CP–Lockwood 1 run (Pepe kick)
VROL–Jason O’Brien fumble recovery in end zone (kick failed)
VROL–O’Brien 11 pass from Ryan Santos (Jae’len Arnum run)
CP–Bryce Karstetter 3 run (Pepe kick)
This article has been updated from its original to correct that Cromwell/Portland forced five turnovers, adding Kevin Hinkle’s interception in the first quarter.