London ball

The Day – NFA defeats New London 9-8 in nation’s longest-standing rivalry

New London – It wasn’t a masterpiece, but Norwich Free Academy football coach Jason Bakoulis will take it.

His Wildcats beat New London 9-8 on Thanksgiving in a Division I Eastern Connecticut conference game, the 159th meeting in the nation’s longest-running high school rivalry.

The game had as many safeties (two) as it did touchdowns and had no impact on places in state tournaments or league titles. It was all about rivalry.

“You have to win this game. This is the match, ”said Bakoulis. “We’ve been fortunate to have some great alumni who have come back and spoken to the team over the past two weeks.

“And the message was that it doesn’t matter what your record is. It doesn’t matter what their record is. You have to win this game. And for our seniors it’s for the rest of your life. I’m very happy our seniors got to come out as they did it.”

The NFA (4-6, 2-1) led 7-0 after a quarter, 7-2 at halftime, trailed 8-7 and scored the deciding points on a safety with 3:39 to play in the third quarter. But the Wildcats ended the win with a practice that earned zero points.

Following a punt from New London (6-4, 0-3), the NFA took over in its 39 with 4:36 to go. Eight running plays – all sophomore Talon Amado Jr. – produced just 29 yards and stalled. But that left the Whalers with just 30 seconds left and 68 yards from the end zone. Four games later, NFA’s Gage Hinkley intercepted a pass from Rhodia Perry when time ran out.

“They didn’t accomplish their ultimate mission, but they kinda did,” New London coach Johnny Burns said of the NFA campaign.

The winning safety came when the NFA managed to knock the ball down on a punt on the New London 1 on a play that was close to being a touchback. In the next game, NFA’s Jordan Ribeiro tackled Lio Griffin-Hill in the end zone. Bakoulis did not remember having won a game on a safety.

“No, I lost a game on a safety,” Bakoulis said. “Getting that safety was exactly what we needed. So we’re going to take it.”

The New London sideline believed the game should have been seen as a touchback.

“These calls are part of the game,” Burns said. “We’re not the NFL. We live with this and we know the officials are doing their best. So I hope they got it right.”

Amado caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Jayden Desilus to top off an 81-yard drive to open the game. Brady Conley’s extra point brings the score to 7-0. New London’s Jonathon Mercado tackled Desilus in the end zone for a safety halfway through the second quarter. Griffin-Hill came up center and went 40 yards without a touchdown for a touchdown on the second play of the second half to give the Whalers an 8-7 lead.

“We always want to win every game and obviously we always want to win on Thanksgiving,” Burns said. “In our losses we seem like a bouncing ball. This one was the epitome of our season. Just a bit of a bounce here and a bounce there.

“Our kids, I’m proud of the way they competed,” said Burns. Our line was undersized in several of our matches. But we make the four of you go. We are proud of it. ”

NFA’s Amado carried the ball 23 times for 89 yards and New London’s Griffin-Hill had 121 yards on just nine carries.

NFA leads the 80-68-11 series.

The match was the 159th in the rivalry, dating back to the first meeting of the NFA and Bulkeley School in New London in 1875. In 1951 Bulkeley and Chapman Tech, also in New London, closed. The 1951 match at Morgan Park in New London ended in a scuffle and the rivalry took two years off, resuming in 1954.

The teams met twice a year from 1976 to 1980 when the two were members of the Southeastern Athletic Conference with Fitch and St. Bernard. The Thanksgiving rivalry began in 2000.

Interestingly, the teams hadn’t actually played Thanksgiving since 2017. The 2018 game in New London was moved to Thanksgiving Eve to beat an arctic blast that was coming. The 2019 game in Norwich has been moved to Thanksgiving Eve afternoon due to a social media threat. And last year’s game did not take place due to COVID-19.

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