Nighthawks’ Furious Comeback Bid Falls A Couple Yards Short

Newtown High School’s football team nearly erased a three-touchdown deficit but came up just short in a tough-to-swallow 35-33 loss to visiting Ridgefield in their Class LL state playoff quarterfinal round game at Blue & Gold Stadium on December 3.

The top-seeded Nighthawks battled back from a 28-7 third-quarter deficit only to get stymied on a potential game-tying two-point conversion with just 16 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. No. 8 Ridgefield (which posted a 9-2 regular season record) pulled off an on-paper upset to advance to the semifinals. The Nighthawks, on this cold evening, suffered their first loss of the fall.

Only one team will become Class LL champions, Newtown’s Julian Dunn noted after the game. “This year we did think it was us that had a shot but we came up short,” he added.

Just barely.

The Nighthawk defense clamped down late in the game and the home team’s offense had a trio of fourth-quarter possessions, down just 35-27, with a chance to draw even. The Hawks took over possession, following a Ridgefield punt, at their own 19 yard line with 3:09 left and pieced together a 15-play, 81-yard drive, capped by Cooper Gold’s two-yard rushing score. Quarterback Drew Tarantino narrowly escaped a sack and managed a pass attempt for the two-point conversion as he was taken to the ground. The ball fluttered to the turf and Newtown’s remarkable season was all but over.

The never-give-up Hawks nearly recovered Connor Miller’s onside kick, but a Ridgefield player pounced on the pigskin at the visiting team’s 40 to seal the win with 12 seconds showing on the scoreboard clock.

“We came two yards short,” Newtown Coach Steve George said.

Newtown, after falling behind 28-7 and 35-13, showed plenty of grit and determination to make a game of it. Tarantino’s one-yard TD run, set up by Dunn’s 22-yard leaping catch, brought the Hawks to within 28-13 with 8:45 to play in the third.

After the NHS defense forced a punt, a Ridgefield interception led to a score and a 22-point cushion with 3:55 to go in the third. The game appeared to be all but over but Newtown answered less than a minute later.

Ethan Carpenter’s 59-yard kickoff return gave the home team a spark — and the ball at the Ridgefield 29. An 18-yard run by Gold led to Tarantino’s clutch fourth and ten touchdown strike to Troy Frangione from 11 yards out. Otto Kerler added the extra point to make it 35-20 with 2:56 to go in the third.

After Newtown’s defense forced only the second Ridgefield punt of the night late in the third, the Hawks put together a 55-yard scoring drive that carried over into the fourth quarter. The drive was highlighted by some trick plays, including a pair of Dunn completions. The drive was capped by another key fourth down conversion by the Nighthawks. On fourth and three at the 11, Gold took the handoff from Tarantino and handed the ball to Dunn who passed to Tarantino for a rare QB touchdown reception with 11:16 to go. The play brought the crowd to its feet and the Hawks suddenly within striking distance.

All of the momentum seemed to be on Newtown’s side when Nick Samuelson recovered a fumble at Newtown’s 41, but the Hawks couldn’t punch the ball into the paint, twice failing to convert fourth downs.

Newtown’s final drive included a head’s up play by Dunn in which the receiver broke up a likely Ridgefield interception in the end zone.

The Tigers jumped out to a 14-0 lead before the Nighthawks were able to get their offensive gears going. Newtown got on the scoreboard when Tarantino connected with Dunn for a leaping 13-yard reception in the back corner of the end zone early in the second quarter. The scoring strike was set up by a 22-yard run by Gold.

Ridgefield quarterback Ryan Dunn and running back Will Bonaparte both came up with plays to stake the Tigers to the early lead.

“We gave up some big plays on offense in the first half and that put us in a little bit of a hole,” George said.

Trailing 21-7 at the half, the Hawks got a boost from intermission pep talks from the upperclassmen, Tarantino said. And a mix of the team’s usual offense and some trick plays helped get his team back into the game, the QB added.

“I think we moved the ball well against them,” Tarantino said. “They had a good defense. They played us well tonight,” Tarantino said.

Ridgefield’s defensive line was tough to move and, as a result, Gold couldn’t find much running room in the early going. Some draw plays proved successful for Newtown’s ground game in the second half, but it just wasn’t enough.

Newtown’s season was a memorable one highlighted by the team’s second straight South-West Conference championship triumph. George will miss his seniors.

“Words can’t describe it,” the coach said of his team’s efforts this season.

Tarantino, who has passed for more yards in a season than any other NHS quarterback, and thrown more career TD passes than anybody in school history, credited the coaches for their play calling as well as providing life lessons, and his teammates for their efforts throughout his record-setting career.

“It’s been a great ride,” Tarantino said.

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