A game above all the rest

Thanksgiving tilt in 1994 stands out in series between longtime Valley rivals

Naugatuck quarterback Joe Edmonds is tackled by Ansonia’s Jason Dziubina on the final play of overtime on Thanksgiving in Ansonia in 1994. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVES

Editor’s note: This is the second story of a short series commemorating anniversaries of significant moments in Woodland and Naugatuck sports history. This story looks at the 25-year anniversary of the greatest game in the history of the Naugatuck-Ansonia Thanksgiving football rivalry.

After 120 meetings between Naugatuck and Ansonia on the high school gridiron, most fans of a certain age would have no trouble picking out the single best game of the Thanksgiving tradition.

Nov. 24, 1994. Jarvis Stadium. Twelve thousand people. Overtime.

The only part the Garnet and Grey faithful don’t like to remember: Ansonia, 28-21.

“It is tough to swallow,” former Naugy running back Dan Conklin said in a 2017 interview with the Republican-American. “It took years to actually look back and realize we played in a real special game. At the time you are just playing a game and you want to win it more than anything. Years down the road you realize how special it really was.”

Naugatuck and Ansonia both entered the game with 9-0 records. The Greyhounds were one victory away from returning to the Class LL playoffs for a shot to defend their 1993 state title, but they also knew that a loss might knock them out — this was still during the era when only two teams made the state finals in each of six divisions.

The Chargers, meanwhile, sought revenge from suffering a 22-0 shutout defeat the previous year that also kept them out of the state playoffs. They entered the game without their first-string defense having surrendered a point all season.

There were modern-day legends on both sides: Joey Edmonds, Jahmal Francis and Conklin playing for Craig Peters, and Ron Tate, Steve Coughlin and Phil Mrazik suiting up for Jack Hunt.

They were all surrounded by an estimated 12,000 fans, lined up five and six deep around the fence, stretching the frames of the bleachers, poking their heads through any available sightline.

The Greyhounds held a 13-7 lead at halftime thanks to a 2-yard run by Marlon Fernandez and a 23-yard pass from Edmonds to Francis. But the Chargers scored on their first two possessions of the second half on a 1-yard run by Tate and a 26-yard hookup between Coughlin and Mrazik to take a 21-13 lead into the fourth.

Midway through the fourth period, Naugatuck began a drive in an attempt to tie the game. Mrazik picked off Edmonds to end the threat, but the Greyhounds’ defense stood tall to give their offense one more shot.

“I sat on the bench by myself and I thought, ‘We might lose this game,’” Edmonds said in 2017. “Then the defense stepped up and we got the ball back.”

With 1:46 left and the ball on the Naugatuck 33, Edmonds stepped under center and took a snap in the Greyhounds’ traditional double-wing, two-tight end formation. The criss-cross scissors play started with a handoff to Fernandez, who came across the backfield from his left wing spot.

Fernandez then gave the ball to a crossing Josh Sanford, who reached the 35 before pitching left to Edmonds. The quarterback made Mrazik miss a tackle at midfield and jetted to the end zone.

“Once I handed it to Marlon, I peeled off to the outside because I knew Josh was coming on the inside to run the option,” Edmonds recalled. “When the corner came up, Josh was a heady kid and he pitched it to me. I gave Phil (Mrazik) a quick jab step to the outside, and when I was running after that, it was probably the fastest I have ever run in my life — I kid you not. I didn’t hear anything and the only thing I saw was that goal line.”

After back-to-back timeouts to discuss the game-tying two-point conversion attempt, Conklin, lined up at fullback in a three-wide set, took a quick handoff and plunged into the end zone to send the game to overtime — the first extra session in series history.

Ansonia’s Arthur Denby, right, breaks up a pass to Naugatuck’s Josh Sanford on Thanksgiving in Ansonia in 1994. –REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN ARCHIVES

The Chargers had the first possession in the Kansas tiebreaker, which gave both teams a first-and-goal opportunity from the 10. Tate scored his third touchdown of the game on a 6-yard run to make it 28-21, forcing the ‘Hounds to score on their ensuing series.

On fourth-and-goal from the 6, Edmonds rolled left on a bootleg but couldn’t shake the pressure by Ansonia’s Jason Dziubina. A desperation heave toward Francis missed its mark, and the Chargers came away with the most memorable victory in the century-old rivalry.

“Right after I fell to the ground and the game was over, people were rushing onto the field,” Edmonds said. “Coach was like, ‘Everybody get back to the bus,’ because it was getting crazy. I was the first one back to the bus because I was devastated. I could have sworn we were going to win that game. You play your whole life for that game, and we lost.”

Edmonds still remembers what happened next.

“I am sitting there by myself, and the next person to come onto the bus was Coach Hunt, and I couldn’t believe it,” Edmonds said in the 2017 interview. “He shook my hand and told me what a pleasure it was watching me play during my career and in that game.

“I thought to myself, ‘Wow, this is one of the greatest high school coaches ever, everybody is celebrating their win, and he takes the time to walk down to our bus to talk to me. When he passed away on Thanksgiving morning (2012), I might have been the only kid from Naugatuck who stood in line out in the freezing cold for an hour and a half to pay my respects at his wake. That is how much that gesture meant to me.”

Edmonds and lineman Jay Segetti both earned spots on the New Haven Register All-State team that season, while Jahmal Francis earned the same honor by the Hartford Courant. Despite the loss and missing the state championships, the Greyhounds still finished fifth in the state media poll, ahead of two state champs.

The game remains the last time a crowd of more than 10,000 watched Naugatuck and Ansonia on Thanksgiving.