AVON — When Justin Barron hauled in a strike from Suffield Academy teammate Tyler Van Dyke with just over five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of the NEPSAC Class A Kevin Driscoll Bowl, it seemed like a perfect coda to an incredible journey, a wonderful career and a glorious, unbeaten championship season.
But hold on.
If opposing QB Tyler Phommachanh and Avon Old Farms were known for anything this year, it was this: They were the kings of the comeback.
Sure enough, Avon Old Farms quickly rallied and had the ball with 2 minutes, 33 seconds remaining for a chance to send the game to overtime.
Not this time. Suffield’s Peterson Monexant, on a blitz, burst through the AOF line, ran down the elusive Phommanchanh and stripped the ball away. Lineman Aiden Michaud recovered and that was it, Suffield Academy ran out the clock on a 29-21 victory Saturday at Avon Old Farms’ Ryan Field.
Now, they could celebrate. And it was a wild one.
Suffield Academy completed its fourth unbeaten season under 11th-year coach Drew Gamere and sent its exceptional cast of Division I recruits off as champions.
“It’s amazing,” said Van Dyke, a Glastonbury native who will leave in January to begin his anticipated career at the University Miami. “We’ve talked about ever since freshman year. It’s an amazing experience to finish with these guys, undefeated. Avon played a hell of a game. We just came out on top.”
Van Dyke accounted for all four Suffield Academy touchdowns, throwing scores to four different receivers, including Darien’s Will Rolapp, Khari Johnson, Penn State commit Jaden Dottin in the second quarter as the Tigers built a 19-7 halftime lead.
As good as Van Dyke was in his final game, Suffield’s defense might have stolen the show. It forced four Avon Old Farms turnovers and Kareem Moumina blocked a punt that Mozi Bici, the 2018 New Haven Register State Player of the Year from Greenwich, recovered to set up a field goal for a 22-7 lead early in the third quarter.
“This game means everything to us,” said Bici, a Suffield Academy postgraduate who hasn’t lost a game and has won two-consecutive football championships as a player since Greenwich’s 2017 Class LL championship loss to Darien. “We’ve been preparing for this, visualizing it since the beginning of the season. We just came out and we were ready to play. We wanted this bad.”
With Nehemiah Thompson, a 6-foot, 215-pound star tailback from San Fernando, Calif., hobbled by a knee injury sustained weeks ago, Avon Old Farms was forced to rely solely Phommachanh, the younger brother of Clemson QB Taisun Phommachanh, and his sterling receiving corps to keep pace.
Phommachanh was game, throwing strikes to Graham Walker in the first half and New Canaan’s Wyatt Wilson (Air Force) in the third quarter to get Avon within 22-14. But he was often chased around and down by Suffield Academy’s relentless pass rush, led by Monexant, defensive ends Kami Nader and Kechaun Bennett, of Windsor.
And then Justin Barron catches this absolute dime from Tyler Van Dyke to put Suffield Academy up 29-14 with 5:39 left. (And the overcrowded sideline bulldozes your camera man) #cthsfb
Wow. That should do it pic.twitter.com/3O4E1z1PhQ
— Sean Patrick Bowley (@SPBowley) November 16, 2019
“Our kids played hard,” said Avon Old Farms coach Pierce Brennan, whose Erickson League champion finished 8-1. “We turned the ball over five times, had a punt blocked… yet, we were still in it in the end.
“Suffield’s a great football team. We made mistakes, they capitalized on them. That’s what a championship team does.”
Suffield’s defining moment came midway through the final quarter. Dottin picked off a Phommachanh heave and Barron, from Rocky Hill, corralled a long Van Dyke pass into the red zone.
On third and 10, Barron ran a hitch-and-go he sold beautifully. And, with just a flick of his wrist, Van Dyke lofted a picture-perfect ball that Barron caught in stride as he fell into the end zone for a 29-14 lead with 5:39 remaining.
“I was just trying to sell the hitch as long as I could before I had to take off,” said Barron, who’s committed to Syracuse. “Tyler threw a great ball. I just made a play.”
It was a play, Van Dyke said, they’d practiced endlessly. “Justin’s a hell of a receiver,” Van Dyke said. “They thought were were just going to get the quick first down. But we just threw it deep and it worked out perfectly.”
But, of course, Avon Old Farms wasn’t finished. Phommachanh quickly found fellow Bridgeport native Josh Tracey for a 33-yard score to pull the Winged Beavers within 29-21 with 3:40 left.
Thanks to a holding call, Suffield couldn’t get a crucial first down and had to punt the ball back. Avon Old Farms started at its own 20 and got to midfield with under 2 minutes left when Monexant made his championship-winning strip sack.
“We had to make something happen,” Gamere said. “It’s tough because, do you blitz or not? If you blitz, you leave an opening with some terrific skill. But we felt we had to make something happen.
“Peter Monexant, he’s a four-year starter for us. And we’ve moved him all over the place — to corner, to running back to linebacker. He’s one of those guys who’s a program guy and it was really nice to see him make that play.”
The Suffield players lingered on the field long after hoisting the New England championship trophy, almost unable to let the moment go.
“I’m not going to be sad yet,” Gamere said as he watched his guys from across the field. “But in a couple of days, it’ll start to sink in. I appreciate all that they brought. It’s a great group of young men that are going to go on and be successful. And that’s really the reward. Not what they did here, but what they do from here.”