MIDDLETOWN – Both Middletown and Maloney stumbled their way into the CIAC Class L playoffs after being “outplayed” – the assessment of each team’s head coach – in their regular-season finales.
The question, then, became this: Which team would regain its footing and play well enough the longest Tuesday night to win their playoff opener?
Answer: Maloney – by about a whisker.
No. 2 Middletown’s potential game-tying pass attempt fell incomplete in the end zone on fourth down with 2:47 remaining and the seventh-seeded Spartans held on for a 20-14 quarterfinal victory at Rosek-Skubel Stadium.
Maloney (9-2) rallied from a 14-0 first quarter deficit by turning three Middletown turnovers into their only scoring drives of the game. The Spartans also held the second-seeded Blue Dragons (9-2) scoreless over the final three quarters.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Maloney coach Kevin Frederick said. “We’ve been down in games before. We were just trying to play one play at a time and just try to claw our way back into the game. We had to make a couple of adjustments to stop the run.
Middletown Jonta’e Dempsey-Brown hit Stephen Hill Jr. for 34-yard score.
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) November 28, 2018
“Middletown is a well-coached team. They have good athletes. We were fortunate to come out with the win.”
Waiting for Maloney in Sunday’s semifinal is Platt. The No. 6 Panthers upset No. 3 Naugatuck 12-6 on Tuesday to force a second game against their crosstown rival in as many weeks. The Panthers beat up on the Spartans on Thanksgiving, 36-20.
For Middletown, a 7-0 loss to Windsor last week, coupled with their latest playoff ouster, spelled an abrupt end to a season that began with a nine-game winning streak.
“It’s tough to explain. It’s just tough to explain,” Middletown coach Sal Morello said. “You get a chance against a team like this to knock them out, you’ve got to knock them out. And we didn’t. We kept them around, they got better, they got the momentum … give them all the credit.”
Maloney scored the deciding touchdown on its first possession of the second half after Middletown quarterback Jonta’e Dempsey-Brown fumbled on a third-and-long scramble at the Maloney 46.
Sophomore James Tarver (96 yards, 28 carries), the Spartans’ workhorse halfback, helped move the ball down the field, and on third-and-goal from the 5, Elliot Good found Victor Marquez from 6 yards out with 7:20 left in the third quarter. The conversion pass for two failed.
— Pete Paguaga (@PetePaguaga) November 27, 2018
Middletown punted after its next possession stalled at its 45. Dempsey-Brown’s punt was downed at the 1-yard line, and although Maloney marched down the field on a 15-play drive and failed to score on fourth down from Middletown’s 9, the Dragons were going to have to work to tie it.
And they almost did. Taking over with 9:49 left, big ground gains from DaJuan Lomotey and a fourth-down conversion by Brown put the ball in Maloney territory. A pass interference penalty gave Middletown a first down at the 17. A third-down throw from Brown into the end zone went too long. On fourth down, his pass on a slant to Kenny Fountain hit Fountain in the hands and fell complete.
Maloney ran out the final 2:47.
“There was no panic in our kids. We just didn’t capitalize when we had the opportunities,” Morello said.
Morello couldn’t have hoped for a better start to the game. The Dragons scored on their third play from scrimmage – a 37-yard run by senior Xzavier Reyes (17 carries, 118 yards). Matt Aresco’s kick made it 7-0. On their ensuing possession, Lomotey’s 15-yard touchdown run was called back by a holding penalty.
The next time Middletown got the ball, Dempsey-Brown used play action to help Stephen Hill Jr. get free over the middle for a 34-yard scoring pass and a 14-0 lead.
— Elliott Polakoff (@ElliottPolakoff) November 28, 2018
After forcing another Maloney punt, Middletown could have gone up three scores, but Brown’s 32-yard run down the sideline was negated by another holding call.
“It looked like we had command of the game and we had two touchdowns called back. We kept them around,” Morello said. “(Maloney) did a great job coming back in the second quarter. You have a chance to put ‘em away in the first half, and we didn’t, and that’s what got us.”
Dempsey-Brown was intercepted three times in the first half, two of which led to Maloney scoring drives. The Spartans’ first took 11 plays and ended with a 6-yard scoring pass from Good to Marquez.
After Vincent Martinez picked off an underthrown ball by Dempsey-Brown, Maloney drove 48 yards in seven plays and was helped along by a Middletown facemask penalty. With 1.3 seconds left, Good found Maurice Brackett open over the middle on a slant pattern for a 14-yard score. Marquez caught the two-point conversion pass to tie the game at intermission.
“When it was 14-0, I was saying, ‘Let’s get the next score,’ ‘’ Morello said. “Then we had the two (touchdowns) called back, then the interception. Then it’s 14-6 and (Maloney is) starting to believe, then they get another stop and they score again before the end of the half, and they’re believing. It’s a 14-14 game instead of 28-0.
“In a game like this, your margin for error is small.”
MALONEY 20, MIDDLETOWN 14
MALONEY 0 14 6 0 —20
MIDDLETOWN 14 0 0 0 — 14
- Mid: Xzavier Reyes 37-yard run (Matthew Aresco kick)
- Mid: Stephen Hill Jr. 34-yard pass from Jonta’e Dempsey-Brown (Aresco kick)
- Mal: Victor Marquez 6-yard pass from Elliot Good (run failed)
- Mal: Maurice Brackett 14-yard pass from Good (Marquez run)
- Mal: Marquez 5-yard pass from Good (pass failed)