Newtown High School’s football team overcame some turnovers, costly penalties, and overall inexperience to hold off a veteran-led Bethel squad for a 22-14 victory under the lights at Blue & Gold Stadium on September 20. The Nighthawks (2-0) made their home opener a victorious one despite being held scoreless in the second half for the second week to begin the season.
The stands were packed and the Hawks honored the Sandy Hook community by wearing special green uniforms, each of which read “Stay Strong” above the numbers on the back.
The Nighthawks had to stay strong to fend off a second-half comeback attempt by the Wildcats.
Bethel fell behind 22-0 at the break and, after scoring touchdowns in both the third and fourth quarters, had the ball late with a chance to get things evened up. Newtown came away with a pair of late takeaways to help seal things.
With the Hawks clinging to an eight point lead, Julian Dunn picked a pass near midfield and ran it back to the Bethel 35 with 2:12 to play. The Nighthawks appeared to have the game in hand when Cooper Gold picked up a clutch first down on fourth and one, but Gold had the ball stripped away and the Wildcats recovered in the shadows of their own end zone and less than a minute to go. A couple of plays later, Jaret DeVellis intercepted a Bethel pass and ran it out of bounds with 36 seconds to play, finally ensuring a victory for the home team.
Both teams took advantage of mistakes and turnovers to put points up on the scoreboard. The Hawks did all of their scoring in the second quarter, getting things going on a late-first quarter fumble recovery near midfield. One play after Newtown quarterback Drew Tarantino was sacked and lost possession on a fumble, Newtown’s Tim Krapf pounced on the ball when the Wildcats coughed it up themselves.
“That was a good play for all of us — big momentum,” said Krapf, crediting teammate Pat Donnelly for forcing the fumble. Krapf capitalized on the turnover when he finished off the ensuing drive with a four-yard touchdown run. Connor Miller’s extra point made it 7-0.
Bethel appeared to be in position to knot the score, converting a fourth and one at the NHS 31, but the Hawk defense dug in and forced a turnover on downs at the 29. On the ensuing drive, Newtown benefited from a pass interference penalty to move the chains and Dunn leaped for a 16-yard touchdown reception on third and ten. It was 14-0 NHS with 2:39 to play in the second quarter.
The Nighthawks forced a Bethel punt and took over at their own 15 with just 53 seconds left before the half. The Nighthawks were stopped and forced to punt but an encroachment penalty against the Wildcats during the kick gave Newtown a new set of downs. Tarantino somehow escaped a would-be sack, scrambled out of the pocket, and found a wide open Dunn for a 55-yard completion to the Bethel six yard line with ten seconds showing on the scoreboard clock. Timeout Newtown.
On the next play, Tarantino hooked up with Troy Frangione in the back of the end zone, over the middle, for what appeared to be the beginning of Newtown putting the icing on the cake of a lopsided triumph. DeVellis, the holder, took a high snap and started to put the ball down for another Miller point after attempt, but opted to run the ball into the end zone for a two-point conversion.
“It got us some momentum going into the half — which didn’t really carry over into the second half,” Frangione said of his TD.
Bethel had the ball for almost the entire third quarter, putting together a half-opening scoring drive that was aided by a Newtown penalty and sparked by its strong ground game. A successful two-point conversion made it 22-8.
Newtown was on its way to answering with at least a field goal after Jared Pearson turned a reception into a 37-yard gain all the way to the Bethel eight. That set up a 23-yard Miller field goal attempt which he booted through the uprights, but a delay of game penalty nullified the kick, took three points off the board, and backed Miller and company up five yards. His 28-yard try was blocked, keeping the Cats to within two scores.
In the fourth quarter, Bethel was facing a fourth down situation, but a Newtown personal foul for a hit out of bounds resulted in15 free yards and a new set of downs for the Wildcats at the NHS 31. The visitors kept running the ball and, eventually, scored on an eight-yard scamper to pull to within 22-14 with 8:35 to go. They went for two, but came up empty.
Newtown lost not one but two chances to put the game on ice. Prior to Gold’s fumble, Pearson — who had several key runs throughout the game — lost the handle on Bethel’s one yard line with 6:14 to go. The Wildcats moved the ball out to their 33 before Newtown’s Christian Morlock had a quarterback sack then combined with Markus Elken on another sack, giving the NHS consecutive sacks. That led to Dunn’s INT.
Newtown Coach Steve George acknowledged that his team played a strong first half in each of its first two contests, but sputtered in the third and fourth quarters both times.
“We need to come out of the half swinging in the third and fourth quarters so we can put a full game together,” George said. “We’ll get better. This happened to us last year.”
The coach noted that his team had early-season struggles a year ago. The Hawks went on to shake off a slow start, go unbeaten, and claim a South-West Conference championship.
“I’m happy with a lot of the good things that we did. I’m not going to let it overshadow what we did,” George said of the miscues against Bethel.
The NHS coach pointed out that he has only three or four seniors in the starting groups both on offense and defense. “We’re young. We have a lot of young players out there,” he said.
“We had a lot of young players on the field at the same time,” said Krapf, a junior, pointing out that several new-to-varsity and second-year players are in the game.
The Nighthawks are happy to have a couple of wins under their belts, but realize there is room for improvement. At the same time, however, the Hawks remain confident they’ll get better as the campaign unfolds.
“We’re going to become more experienced,” Frangione said. “It’s going to get better as the season goes on.”