The reign of the Darien Blue Wave is over.
The Newtown Nighthawks scored the first 16 points of the game and then held off the three-time defending champions in the second half for a 26-15 victory in the CIAC Class LL football quarterfinals Tuesday night at Blue and Gold Stadium.
Much like their loss to New Canaan in last week’s Turkey Bowl, turnovers were a big part of the Wave’s downfall on Tuesday.
“You can’t make those kind of mistakes against a team like Newtown,” Darien head coach Rob Trifone said. “They’re a very good football team and I give them a lot of credit. But we had two crucial turnovers in two crucial spots when we had momentum, so we gave it right back.”
For the Nighthawks, the SWC champs who went unbeaten during the regular season, the victory was huge, as they’ve had several quick exits from the playoffs over the years.
“I’m so proud of them,” Newtown head coach Bobby Pattison said of his players. “Our kids were focused and they were fired up. For us, it’s a confidence factor and our kids aren’t afraid. We play a style of football — run the ball, get first downs and physically exert our will on our opponent and we did that tonight.”
No. 3 Newtown (11-0) will take on another FCIAC opponent in the Class LL semifinals, as it plays at No. 2 Greenwich (11-0) at 12:30 p.m., Sunday. The Cardinals were 49-13 winners over New Britain in the quarterfinals.
For Darien, the loss is the end of two streaks, as the Wave had won three straight Class LL titles and had reached the state finals in five consecutive seasons. Darien also hadn’t lost back-to-back games since 2007.
“We didn’t convert when we needed to offensively, and we gave them a little too much on defense,” Darien senior co-captain Connor Fay said. “Hats off to them, they came out ready to go. I think we did too, but they clearly executed better than we did.”
Newtown got a big boost on both sides of the ball in the first quarter.
Darien’s defense had stopped the Nighthawks cold on the opening possession and the Wave took advantage of a short field to move the ball down to the Newtown 9-yard line.
Newtown stepped up and held Darien on fourth-and-goal, as a host of Nighthawks burst through the line and tackled Sam Wilson at the five.
Newtown then covered 95 yards on 14 plays, converting four third-down plays and scoring on a three-yard run by Dan Mason.
“That felt great coming out and getting that first stop,” Newtown senior co-captain Joe Pagett, a strong safety, said. “The opening drive and the first drive out of the half sets the tone for the game and I think we needed that stop to get us going through the game.”
Darien fumbled the ensuing kickoff, with the Nighthawks’ Matt Dubois recovering at the Darien 23. On third-and-11, quarterback Luke Melillo scrambled and found Riley Ward for a first down inside the five, and Mason scored again, this time on a two-yard run, to make it 13-0 early in the second quarter.
A 32-yard field goal by kicker Devin O’Connell made it 16-0 in the second quarter before the Wave finally got on the board courtesy of the defense, as Wilson blocked a punt out of the end zone for a safety with 2:37 left in the half.
Newtown got the ball back and marched downfield behind Melillo, with O’Connell kicking another 32-yard field goal to make it 19-2 at halftime.
“We expected them to come out in some serious running stuff and they did and we were able to put it down, so they went to the next option which was throwing the ball,” Fay said. “Shame on us for not stepping up and being able to defend that. We took away their first target and we were proud of that, but if we can’t defend all facets, then that’s the result.”
Darien’s defense stepped up the pressure in the second half and gave the offense a chance to rally. The linebacking corps of Fay, Wilson and John Henry Slonieski was key, and defensive end Will Bothwell was huge up front, collecting three sacks.
Quarterback Cooper Hancock connected with Peter Bredahl for a 25-yard TD pass with 1:01 remaining in the third quarter, cutting the deficit to 19-9.
Darien’s defense forced a quick three-and-out to start the fourth quarter, but just when it seemed as if the tide was turning, a fumble on the ensuing punt gave Newtown the ball back when Pagett recovered.
The Wave had one final gasp with a late 80-yard scoring drive which was capped by a 29-yard strike from Hancock to TJ Cornacchia with 3:52 remaining. Pagett blocked the PAT, but the Wave had closed the gap to 19-15.
With Darien needed a stop, Newtown put the game away with a time-killing drive which ended with a 10-yard scoring run by Mason with five seconds on the clock.
“I wouldn’t have asked for a better group of guys to do it with,” Fay said of his career with Darien football. “At the end of the day, we’re all going to have to go home tonight and say did we give it our all and did we do it for each other? If we can say that truthfully to ourselves and to our brothers, then we’ll be able to live with ourselves. And if we can’t, shame on us.”
“We came in this year knowing we had graduated everybody and we knew this would be a challenging year,” Trifone said. “We were elated we were 9-0 and then you go against a gigantic New Canaan team and a very big, physical Newtown team and that was our achilles heel. It’s disappointing any time you lose and unfortunately, it is what it is.”
Class LL Quarterfinals – Newtown 26, Darien 15
Darien 0 2 7 6 – 15
Newtown 7 12 0 7 – 26
N – Dan Mason, 3-yard run (Devin O’Connell PAT)
N – Mason, 2-yard run (PAT failed)
N – O’Connell, 32-yard field goal
D – Safety, Sam Wilson blocked punt out of end zone
N – O’Connell, 32-yard field goal
D – Peter Bredahl, 25-yard pass from Cooper Hancock (Will Kirby PAT)
D – TJ Cornacchia, 29-yard pass from Hancock (PAT blocked)
N – Mason, 10-yard run (O’Connell PAT)