Avon a tough test for Gilbert/Northwestern football on Saturday. Story by Gerry diSimas.
By GERRY deSIMAS, JR.
AVON – Avon High football coach Jim Caouette has seen the growth of his team over the first seven weeks of the season. “We’ve gone from a team that gave away a few games to one that can finish games,” he said.
On opening day, the Falcons saw Canton score with no time left on the clock for a 17-14 victory. It was Avon’s first-ever loss to Canton. Three weeks later, Avon saw a furious fourth quarter rally fall short in a 21-18 loss to Valley Regional/Old Lyme – the closest decision so far this year for the undefeated Warriors (7-0).
Avon is a more confident team as they come to Winsted this Saturday for a game against rival Gilbert/Northwestern at 2:30 p.m. at Van Why Field that could decide the first Pequot West Division title. The Falcons (5-2, 4-1 Pequot West) have won three straight games with victories over North Branford, Nonnewaug and Granby, respectively.
There is a lot on the line for the Falcons. With a win, Avon can win a share of the Pequot West championship. It would be their sixth Pequot Conference divisional crown in the last eight years.
A win by Gilbert/Northwestern (5-1, 3-1 Pequot West) would nearly cement the first outright league championship by the Yellowjackets since winning a Northwest Conference title in 1975. Upon further review, Gilbert was among three teams (Tolland and Ellington/Somers) that shared the Pequot Uncas Division title in 2001 with a 4-1 record. Tolland was 8-2 that year, Ellington was 6-4 and the Yellowjackets were 5-5.
With a win over Avon, the Yellowjackets only have two Western Division games left with Nonnewaug (2-4) and Housatonic/Wamogo (0-7), which has forfeited its last two games due to injuries and a low number of players available to take the field.
Avon is also looking to keep their Class L playoff hopes alive. They are ranked 13th with the top eight teams earning a ticket to the tournament.
Jimmy Murphy is the man to stop if you want to slow down the Falcons. The 5-foot-6 All-State linebacker has been spectacular this season. He never stops driving. He plays with intensity and fire on both sides of the ball.
Even in the minutes after a big win over Canton, Gilbert/NWR coach Scott Salius was worried about Murphy. “We’ve been thinking all year how to stop him,” he said.
Murphy has scored a team-leading 16 touchdowns – 13 on the ground and three on pass receptions from quarterback Noah Hahn, who has already thrown 13 TD passes in just seven games which is a new single season record for Avon.
His performance was stunning in a 41-38 win over North Branford as Avon scored twice in the final 26.6 seconds to beat the Thunderbirds for the first time since 1973.
In just the second half, he had a sack and a tackle for a loss. He made a tackle on North Branford’s Josh Melaccio late in the fourth quarter that may have prevented a touchdown that would have iced the contest. When he fell, there was nothing but open field ahead of Melaccio.
Murphy ran back two kickoffs for 32 yards, rushed for 79 carries and caught four passes for 50 yards – just in the second half. He scored 3 TDs in the game.
Hahn completed a 7-yard pass to Murphy with 26.6 seconds left to cut the North Branford lead to five points. On the kickoff, Avon kicker John Burdick belted the ball off a North Branford defender. The ball sailed up into the air and Murphy leaped, grabbing the ball in mid-air. He took the onside kick to the Avon 46-yard line before getting tackled.
A pass in the flat from Hahn to Murphy gained 28 yards to the Avon 26-yard line. On the next play, Hahn threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Justin Reichler (5 TD receptions this season) for the game-winning score with 11.4 seconds left.
“These kids don’t quit,” Caouette said. “They play for 48 minutes.”
Last week against Granby, Murphy ran two TDs and 134 yards on 10 carries. His second TD run was a 26-yard run in the third quarter. On the run, Murphy was surrounded by three Granby defenders near the 20-yard line. But they didn’t knock him down or try to drive him out-of-bounds. While the Bear defenders relaxed, Murphy spun and tip toed into open space and zipped down the sideline for the touchdown.
Hahn has had some strong games throwing the ball, too. He tied a single-game school record with 280 yards against Valley Regional/Old Lyme, completing 15-of-28 passes and throwing 3 TD passes. In the second half of the North Branford win, he completed 11 of 17 for 151 yards.
While Avon has scored 38, 41, 41, 42 and 35 points in their last five games against Granby, Housatonic/Wamogo, North Branford and Lewis Mills, respectively, this game will probably come down to Avon’s ability or lack of ability to contain Gilbert’s outstanding running back Tony Ortiz.
Ortiz ran for a career-high 293 yards with a career-long run of 90 yards on a touchdown run that helped the Yellowjackets beat Canton, last week 28-15. It’s the second-best rushing performance in school history behind Devin Molway (313 yards vs. Canton in 2011).
“(Ortiz) found the holes and broke a lot of tackles,” Gilbert QB John Lippincott said. “He was popping out of nowhere.” Ortiz has run for 1,087 yards and nine TDs.
Canton forced four turnovers a week ago (two interceptions, 2 fumbles) and still lost. Avon will have to convert if they force any turnovers.
It has become a good rivalry, too. Gilbert leads the overall series, 18-12 and has won the last two games. A 7-0 win in the final game of the 2010 season denied Avon a spot in the Class L playoffs. The Yellowjackets won in 2011 by a 20-10 score.
Gerry diSimas operates the Collinsville Press.com