WATERBURY — It’s been a season of ups and downs for the Greyhounds but on Friday night at Municipal Stadium, Naugatuck made the kind of plays that championship teams make in big situations.
You would have been hard-pressed to find a fan that actually gave Naugatuck a chance in this game, going up against 8-0 Holy Cross, the top-ranked team not only in the Naugatuck Valley League but also in Class SS.
The 3-5 Greyhounds resemble the walking wounded, with 21 players trying to overcome injuries, and in the biggest game of the season had to resort to an entirely different backfield from the one that opened the season with a win at Seymour.
It was a perfect recipe for a mismatch, but on this Friday the 13th, all the bad luck that Naugatuck had suffered throughout the season came back and turned the tables, as the Greyhounds stunned Holy Cross and every fan at Municipal Stadium in an 8-0 shocker.
“You talk about a gutsy performance,” said Naugatuck head coach Rob Plasky.
“It’s amazing the resiliency of this team with 21 players battling injuries. We have done some good things this season, but we haven’t finished. Tonight we finished.”
Naugatuck went three and out on its initial series, and Josh Tulley unloaded an impressive, 55-yard punt that pinned Holy Cross back at its own 18-yard line. Cross began to move the chains and was deep in Naugatuck territory when Iman Farimani intercepted a Ryan Plourde pass to end the Crusaders’ drive.
Naugatuck went three and out again, but Tulley low-balled a line drive punt that was fumbled, and Tyler Conklin made the recovery. The lanky junior took off on a 23-yard jaunt to the Holy Cross goal line and with 2:41 left in the first half, pounded it in from a yard out for a 6-0 Naugatuck lead.
Holy Cross was moving the ball but had nothing to show for it, except three turnovers that aided the Greyhounds’ cause. The Crusaders were intent on coming out in the second half and claiming the lead.
Holy Cross was breathing down Naugy’s neck with a first-and-goal at the 6-yard line, midway through the final quarter. Naugatuck was clinging to a 6-0 advantage that appeared to be going away in an instant.
That instant never came for the Crusaders, as seniors Dan Mariano, Anthony McKernan and James Motasky joined forces with sophomores Dan Morton and Mike Schebell and juniors Nathan Hollie and Alex Grosso to come up with the biggest goal line stand of the season.
A procedure penalty on third down, followed by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, pushed the Crusaders all the way out to the 21-yard line, and the drive was over. Naugatuck took over and tried desperately to run out the clock.
The Greyhounds were forced to punt with 5:07 remaining, and Tulley again came through by unloading pinpoint kick that skidded out of bounds at the Holy Cross 1-yard line. Teammates gave their heavy-footed kicker a well-deserved back-pounding after his second 50-yard punt of the game. On the next play, Mariano shook off an arm injury that earlier had sent him to the sidelines and barreled in on Cross QB Brandon DiClementi, dropping him in the end zone for a safety.
“I just tried to kick it as far as I could and get it to the corner,” Tulley said. “We have been battling all season, and the seniors on this team are determined to give it every ounce we have ‘til the final game.”
“Two 50-yard punts, that’s how you win football games,” Plasky said. “And to have Mariano come in after getting injured and making that play makes me so proud of the character of this team. They just don’t quit.”
That would be the final salvo as Naugatuck made the 8-0 lead hold up, running off the final 4 ½ minutes. Quarterback Tyler Conklin converted a third and a fourth down to keep the chains moving.
Running backs Erich Broadrick and Iman Farimani also picked up key first downs, as the final seconds ticked off the clock and the celebration behind the Naugatuck bench started in the stands. Greyhound fans had just witnessed a Friday the 13th whami.
“This was like a championship game for us and each one of these kids stepped up,” Plasky said. “We have JV players filling in, and they are playing at a varsity level. Hats off to my coaching staff that have turned these younger guys into football players.”