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Newtown High School’s football team fell behind by three touchdowns early on, battled back and trailed by just seven points early in the third quarter, then saw the visiting Shelton Gaels pull away for a 55-21 win in the Class LL state playoff quarterfinals, at Blue & Gold Stadium, on November 29.
The Nighthawks, seeded third in the bracket, showed plenty of fight despite surrendering 21 straight points to the sixth-seeded Gaels from the start, and being without two of their top players on both sides of the ball for most of the game. Michigan-bound Ben Mason, a running back/linebacker, was sidelined with an undisclosed injury; and Hunter Cobb, a running back and defensive back, who was banged up in the November 23 win over Masuk of Monroe, played sparingly.
“It’s very hard to lose 90 percent of your offensive production,” said Newtown Coach Steve George, whose Nighthawks had to alter their game plan in limited time coming off a short week and not knowing the status of Mason and Cobb until just before the playoff opener.
“Some kids stepped up tonight,” said George, pointing out that quarterback Justin Dunn took on more responsibility, and wide receiver Jack Miller played a significant role on offense, not only catching the ball but also taking a bulk of the handoffs.
Michael Garner had key receptions as the Newtown offense moved the ball well at times, but simply couldn’t stop the Gaels who knocked the Hawks out of the state playoffs for the second year in a row.
Miller caught a pair of touchdown passes from Dunn in the first half, and Dunn caught a TD pass from Mark Hall, on a trick play. The Dunn TD reception cut Shelton’s lead to 28-21 early in the third quarter. The Gaels reeled off four unanswered touchdowns – including a trio of scores in the third – to put the game out of reach.
After being stopped on its opening series, Shelton capitalized on the first of a pair of costly special teams mishaps by the Nighthawks. The Gaels recovered a fumble on a Newtown punt return, at the Nighthawk 23 yard line, and scored just 3:28 into the game. Quarterback David Wells connected with David D’Amore on a 16-yard score on third and three for a 6-0 lead. The extra point attempt was blocked.
On the first play of the second quarter, Wells extended the lead on a six yard scamper, and tacked on a two-point conversion run, making it 14-0 seven seconds into the second.
Just 1:07 later it was 21-0 thanks to a five-yard blocked punt return by Robert Wood after Robert Valeri got his body on the kick attempt.
Newtown got on the board with 7:15 to go before the half. Dunn threw to Miller for a 28-yard scoring play as Miller used his speed to run the ball for the final 25-or-so yards after receiving the short pass.
After a stop on defense the Nighthawks went back to work on offense and closed to within 21-14 as Dunn again threw to Miller – this time for a 34-yard score – after a couple of chain-moving hookups with Matt Bucci earlier in the drive.
The Gaels answered on a seven-yard wells QB keeper in the final minute of the first half, making the score 28-14 at the break.
Shelton used several trick plays, mostly with direct snaps to Ronnie Rich, to keep the Nighthawks guessing.
It took Newtown only 1:10 to open the second-half scoring on a trick play of its own. A direct snap to Miller and handoff to Hall was followed by Hall completing a pass to an open Dunn in the paint for a six-yard score. Miller set up the TD with a 60 yard rush on the first second-half play from scrimmage.
Shelton again answered as Wells scored on another keeper, this one from one yard out, with 6:16 left in the third.
The Gaels recovered a fumble on the next play from the line of scrimmage and, just one play after that, Wells hit D’Amore on a 41 yard score, making it 42-21 with 5:49 to go in the quarter.
Wells added a 17-yard run into the end zone late in the third, and Rich capped the scoring on a one-yard TD rush.
“It was very tough looking out there thinking about all of the plays I could have helped the team make,” said Mason, adding that many of his teammates made strides in this setback. “The underclassmen are upperclassmen now – it’s time for them to start making the plays and they did a lot of that tonight.”
Those underclassmen-turned upperclassmen will look to continue the winning ways of the program that posted a 10-0 regular-season record this fall. The final-year players, meanwhile, will be missed.
“It’s a great group of seniors. You won’t find a better group of kids than that,” George said.