By Marc Silvestrini, Mirror Correspondent
MIDDLETOWN — Standing near midfield at Rosek-Skubel Stadium in the wake of his team’s 24-9 loss to four-time defending CIAC Class L champion New Canaan, Middletown High coach Sal Morello succinctly summed up his team’s difficult and disappointing evening.
“That was a very good team out there tonight,” he said. “They’re big, they’re talented, they’re well-coached. They’ve got a ton of weapons. We needed to bring our A game to come out on top tonight. We needed to play a lot better.”
The top-seeded Blue Dragons scored the first and last points of Tuesday’s first-round playoff game, but gave up 24 straight points over the first three quarters to create a deficit they were never able to overcome.
Though only outgained by 61 total yards — 266 to 205 — the Dragons continually hurt themselves with turnovers and penalties, most of which seemed to occur at the worst possible time. In all, Middletown lost three fumbles and was flagged for 11 penalties that cost them 80 yards of real estate.
“You can’t make the mistakes that we made tonight against a team like this,” Morello said.
Middletown finished its season at 10-1 after compiling a 10-0 record during the regular season — the first unbeaten regular season for a Middletown team since 1985.
The Dragons started off on the right foot, taking the opening kickoff and driving 81 yards in eight plays to the Rams’ 20 from where Mike Aresco kicked a 37-yard field goal to stake Middletown to an early 3-0 lead.
Quarterback Stone Belzo helped set up the score by going 3-for-3 on the drive, including a key 31-yard completion to Nico Cavaliere.
But New Canaan’s response was exactly what you’d expect from a program that has won every Class L title since 2013 as the Rams launched an 11-play, 69-yard drive off the ensuing kickoff.
The three-minute drive was aided by two critical penalties called against the Dragons –pass interference, which wiped out a third-down incompletion and gave the Rams a first down at the Dragon 18; and a borderline personal foul for a late hit that set up the Rams with a first-and-goal at the Middletown 8. It ended on the very next play when Drew Pyne, New Canaan’s nifty sophomore quarterback, rolled to his right, turned the corner and raced into the end zone to give the Rams the lead.
Grant Morse’s extra point made it 7-3 with just over four minutes left in the opening quarter.
One of the game’s key sequences, according to both Morello and New Canaan coach Lou Marinelli, took place in the opening minute of the second quarter, just after Middletown’s Nygell Smikle sacked Pyne in the shadow of his own end zone on the final play of the first quarter, leaving New Canaan with a fourth-and-17 from its own 3.
Marinelli sent out Morse, presumably to punt, but Morse took the snap and threw an accurate pass to Luke Morton, who was perched close to the first-down marker. But Middletown’s Amirh Brackett-White flashed across the field and hit Morton hard enough to jar the ball loose, resulting in an incomplete pass that set up the Dragons with a first-and-goal at the 3.
On the very next play, Belzo attempted to slip into the end zone but was met in the hole by New Canaan’s Jack Conley — all 6-foot-7 and 315 pounds of him — and fumbled, with the ball bouncing directly into the hands of the Rams’ Charlie Hane.
“That was a big play,” Marinelli said. “Who knows how things would have played out had they scored there?”
New Canaan stretched its lead to 14-3 with four and half minutes to play in the half when Pyne engineered a five-play, 85–yard touchdown drive. With the ball at the Rams’ 34, Pyne completed three straight passes to Quintin O’Connell covering 19, 27 and the final 22 yards to paydirt.
Morse concluded New Canaan’s next possession with a 29-yard field goal at the gun to make it 17-3 at the half.
The Rams extended their lead to 24-3 by taking the second-half kickoff and marching 70 yards in seven plays. Pyne capped the drive with his second eight-yard touchdown run of the day off an option play.
Middletown, showing the grit that enabled this team to enter the game undefeated, came back with a four-minute, 88-yard drive of its own late in the third quarter. The drive, which featured a marvelous 33-yard, toe-dance-on-the- sideline grab of a Belzo pass by Camryn Wynn, was capped by a 10-yard strike from Belzo to DeAaron Lawrence.
“Give them a lot of credit. They were a good team, and they gave us one tough fight tonight,” Marinelli said. “I can see how they got to 10-0.”
Morello also was quick to give his team credit.
“Our kids fought and fought,” he said. “I told them I was very proud of them and very proud to be their coach. That was a very good team we played tonight, and we just came up short.”
He added that a10-0 regular season is a much better measure of his team than the playoff loss Tuesday night.
“We can’t let what happened tonight define our season,” he said. “We should always remember this as a great season, a special season.”