Hawks give Chargers all they can handle

Woodland’s Joe DeDomenico (6) breaks away from the pack and returns a fumble for a touchdown against Ansonia Nov. 8 in Ansonia. -EMILY J. TILLEY/REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN

ANSONIA — It might have been the best football game the Naugatuck Valley League has seen in the last decade.

Even though Woodland fell painfully short of upsetting Ansonia in a 26-20 thriller at Jarvis Stadium on Nov. 8, there was little for the Hawks to rue except the final score.

“Everyone gave 110 percent,” Woodland two-way star sophomore Jason Palmieri said. “A couple of things went wrong, a couple of things went right — that’s life and that’s football. We gave it all we got.”

In a battle of unbeatens with the inside track at the NVL championship on the line, Ansonia squeaked out its 93rd consecutive win over NVL opposition thanks to a blocked punt and a frantic defensive stop.

The game-winning sequence started with less than 30 seconds remaining, when Woodland’s Brayden Curtin toed his own 6-yard line awaiting a punt snap in a 20-all tie. Ansonia’s Jadin Blackwell burst through the middle of the Hawks’ protection and smothered the attempt.

One play later, Shykeem Harmon dove in from 3 yards out for the go-ahead touchdown to make it 26-20 with 16 seconds left.

Taking over at their own 35 following Ansonia’s out-of-bounds kickoff, the Hawks refused to disappear. Tyler Bulinski threw over the middle for Jason Palmieri, who turned it into a 38-yard gain to the Chargers’ 27.

Bulinski’s next attempt fell incomplete, and on the final play of the game, he was dragged down by Garrett Cafaro as he desperately threw downfield. The ball landed in the arms of a skidding Tyler Cafaro at the 10-yard line.

“After the punt block, the mentality was to stop them and not let them score,” Palmieri said. “Once they got into the end zone, (our mentality) was to go score. We just came up short.”

Woodland (7-1) gave Ansonia (9-0) all it could handle on a brisk evening. The Hawks snagged a 14-12 halftime lead on the strength of a 37-yard hookup between Palmieri and Bulinski and a 31-yard fumble-return touchdown by Joe DeDomenico, both in the second quarter.

“Joey DeDomenico is one of the best defensive backs in our league, if not the state, and he came up big when we had to come up big,” Woodland coach Chris Moffo said. “He’s recovering fumbles, sprinting to the ball, batting balls down, flying around, and because of him, (Ansonia) wasn’t able to complete the balls they’ve completed on other teams and against us in the past. I thought our secondary played very well and our interior six took care of (business). We just came up one play short.”

When Harmon — who grinded for 185 yards and three touchdowns on 35 carries — scored late in the third to make it a 20-14 Chargers lead, Palmieri and Bulinski responded again. They hooked up for a 40-yard gain, followed by a 22-yard touchdown connection to tie the game at 20 with 11:16 remaining.

“They click,” Moffo said. “Tyler and Jason work hard together. They’re coming early and staying after (practice). They work at it and they’re able to excel.”

Palmieri finished with five catches for 145 yards, while Bulinski was 11 for 27 with 221 yards passing.

The teams traded punts early in the fourth before the Chargers mounted a 5 1/2-minute drive that ended when James Champagne picked off Sheldon Schuler in the end zone with 49 seconds remaining. The Hawks, though, went three-and-out to set up the punt attempt that Blackwell blocked.

“I couldn’t be prouder of those guys,” Moffo said. “That’s one of the best teams in the state of Connecticut, and we came out and played with them. They made one more play than we did, and they got the victory.”

The Hawks will Oxford (2-6) Friday.

Woodland still has a good shot to return to the Class S playoffs for a second straight season.

A Woodland victory over surging Seymour (6-3) — which also came close to knocking off Ansonia in a 35-32 defeat Nov. 14 — on Thanksgiving eve would likely secure a playoff berth for the Hawks.

A win over the Wildcats won’t be easy. They had won three straight, including a 20-17 overtime win over Naugatuck on Nov. 8, before narrowly losing to the Chargers. The Wildcats are led by dual-threat quarterback Kevin Harmeling and running back Curtis Dion.

Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving eve at Seymour’s DeBarber Field. A win could give the Hawks a home quarterfinal in the Class S playoffs, which might also put them on the same side of the bracket as the Chargers.

“Hopefully we’ll see (Ansonia) again,” Palmieri said. “I think they hope they see us again. That’s the best game Ansonia’s had in a long time. I hope we can give them another one.”