SANDY HOOK —With Newtown and Masuk combining for three touchdowns the first three drives of Wednesday night’s SWC football showdown, it seemed like the much-anticipated matchup was going to be a back-and-forth, high-scoring duel.
Yet the game settled down quickly and all of a sudden an offensive battle became a physical, hard-hitting defensive struggle.
Newtown, however, had just enough offense and plenty of defense to keep its perfect record intact and add another conference title to its collection.
Receiving 126 yards rushing from Dan Mason and touchdown runs from Luke Melillo and Jared Dunn, Newtown completed an undefeated regular season, beating visiting Masuk 21-14 in front of a large Thanksgiving Eve crowd.
Up next for the 10-0 Nighthawks is next week’s CIAC Class LL tournament. Newtown, which celebrated its Senior Night, entered Wednesday night’s game ranked fourth in Class LL.
“It definitely feels really good, we accomplished a couple of our goals by winning the SWC championship and going 10-0,” said Mason, a senior.
Added Nighthawks coach Bobby Pattison: “It is a great accomplishment for these kids. They put a lot of work in the offseason to get to this point. Hats off to Masuk, they played tough and were awesome.”
Masuk, which got a 99-yard touchdown reception from junior receiver Christopher Tillotson and a 44-yard scoring run from junior Daniel Verrastro, finished its season with a record of 5-5.
“There is a lot of heart on this team, I feel like we have gotten better and better each week,” Masuk coach Joe Lato said. “It was an enjoyable being around this group and we are going to come back strong next season.”
With Masuk backed up to Newtown’s 1-yard line, Verrastro caught quarterback Thomas Juliano’s pass at the 30-yard line and broke loose down the right sideline for a 99-yard touchdown, bringing the visitors to within 21-14 with 10:05 remaining in the fourth quarter. The play tied a state record for the longest receiving touchdown.
“Tommy put it right there for him and Chris is something else,” Lato said. “He’s a great player, we’re used to seeing him make big plays.”
On Masuk’s ensuing possession it drove to the Nighthawks’ 20-yard line, but its drive was halted when Harry Lucas and Zach Loomis combined to sack Juliano with 3:31 left to play.
Masuk took possession in the final minute, but a sack by James Knox forced a Juliano fumble that was recovered by the Nighthawks with less than one minute left to play.
“It was back and forth the whole game,” said Knox, a 6-foot-4 junior. “I thought they wanted it more than us at times. This game definitely humbled us, we can’t play like this in the playoffs and win. Credit to our entire defense, we gave up two huge plays, but we never let up the entire game — every single play we were giving it our all.”
Matt Dubois and Evan Prestera also combined for a sack on Masuk’s final drive of the game. Dunn’s 33-yard run up the middle from 14 yards out put Newtown on top 21-7 at the 2:47 mark of the third quarter – a score set up by a Masuk fumble.
Newtown drove 55 yards on six plays for the game’s opening score. Mason carried the ball seven times for 31 yards during the drive, including a 21-yard burst on the second play of scrimmage.
Melillo, a senior quarterback, capped the drive with a 20-yard run up the middle. Junior Devin O’Connell converted the point-after attempt, giving the Nighthawks a 7-0 lead with 8:52 remaining in the first quarter.
“That came off a quarterback sneak and our fullback Dunn gave me a push and it pushed me through the line,” Melillo said. “They (Masuk) were tough. They loaded the box and made it hard for us to get the ball rolling on offense after the first quarter.”
Masuk came right back on its opening possession, using its running game to reach the end zone. Verrastro took a pitch from Juliano, cut right and dashed 44 yards down the right sideline, evening the score a 7-7 at the 6:34 mark of the first quarter.
The score didn’t stay tied for long. Mason’s 56-yard run off a sweep to the right side gave the Nighthawks the ball on the Panthers’ 2-yard line. The next play, Mason bulled his way up the middle, putting the home team on top with 5:30 left in the first quarter.
Senior Joseph Pagett intercepted Juliano on Masuk’s next possession, but the Nighthawks didn’t add to their lead.
The first half ended with Masuk junior Ian Jackson blocking a 27-yard Newtown field goal attempt. He returned the blocked field goal to midfield as time expired and Newtown leading, 14-7.
“We were in the red zone a few times, but we didn’t finish,” Pattison said. “I was happy to see that we had some good defensive stands at the end.”
After the game began with a scoring flurry, both defenses settled in and were stingy. Knox, a junior and Joe Zeller stepped up on the defensive line for Newtown, while Dubois led the linebacker corps.
Verrastro and linebacker Austin Pompa helped pace the defense for Masuk, which put forth a good showing. The victory puts Newtown in a position of possibly hosting a quarterfinal-round game in the Class LL tournament next week.
PLAYERS OF THE GAME
Mason helped the Nighthawks’ get off to a fast start in the first quarter by moving the first down chains with some significant runs. Newtown’s entire defensive line was strong throughout, pressuring Juliano and penetrating into the Panthers’ backfield.
“This team was like a family, I like the way we responded during the tough times, the bad times we experienced,” said Juliano, who passed for 196 yards. “We just bonded really well. Tonight, we settled down and started doing what we needed to do offensively. Defensively, we played really well throughout the game against a great team.”
Said Mason: “Both teams wanted it and we definitely got the momentum back with some big sacks at the end of the game. We are confident heading into the playoffs.”
NEWTOWN 21, MASUK 14
MASUK 7 0 0 7 — 14
NEWTOWN 14 0 7 0 — 21
N — Luke Melillo 20 run (Devin O’Connell kick)
M — Daniel Verrastro 44 run (Nolan McCarter kick)
N — Dan Mason 2 run (O’Connell kick)
N — Jared Dunn 14 run (O’Connell kick)
M — Christopher Tillotson 99 pass from Thomas Juliano (McCarter kick)