NEW BRITAIN - An unbeaten record, a primetime game and plenty of momentum gave the New Britain football team a chance to make a statement Friday night.
The Hurricanes were in a perfect position to do so against Southington, a team they had not beaten in their last eight tries and only once in the last 11 years entering the game. Then in the blink of an eye - 58 seconds and 80 yards to be exact - it was over.
Blue Knights quarterback Jacob Drena led a methodical final drive, hitting on six of his final seven passes to set up Tanner LaRosa’s game-winning 4-yard run with 36 seconds left to hand New Britain a 27-24 loss.
It was an opportunity missed and a chance to show the state the Hurricanes (4-1) weren’t the same team - one that had been inconsistent at best in previous years - it had been coming into the season.
“That’s a good team over there,” senior lineman Devon Bishop said. “Both teams gave 110 percent and we both wanted it a lot. For us, it’s back to the drawing board. You won’t see us in this position again.”
They certainly don’t want to be. Nor can they afford it with half the season remaining and games against East Hartford (5-0) on Nov. 2 and Berlin (5-0) to end the season.
As New Britain walked off the field, Southington applauded the Hurricanes for their effort. It was, after all, the most competitive game between the two programs since New Britain head coach Tebucky Jones and Blue Knights head coach Mike Drury took over their respective teams.
It was the first time since 2011 the matchup had been decided by a single score. But there are no moral victories in football.
There is too much time invested, especially in a sport where hours and hours of preparation are put in for the culmination of three hours one day a week. Every game matters. A win and a loss can mean the difference between getting into the playoffs or not, as Southington learned the hard way last season.
And this loss hurt. You could see it in the players’ faces - a mixture of anger, frustration, sadness and what-could-have-been when they headed off the field at Veterans Stadium.
New Britain held the lead for all but six minutes and 12 seconds heading into the final 4:41 of the game, before Drena went to work. The Hurricanes were able to do want they wanted on offense - Shawn Robinson ran the ball for 152 yards and two touchdowns- and limit the effectiveness of Southington’s passing game. Drena completed just 16 of his 35 passes for 211 yards and was just 3-for-17 in the first half.
In the huddle on the field afterward, Jones was honest with his players, as he always is. Told them where they had to play better and where things went wrong. At the same time, he let them know the disappointment better be short lived. The 24-hour rule applies to a loss the same way it applies to a win.
“I told [our players] they have to put the loss behind them,” Jones said. “But at the same time hold onto that feeling and use it. There’s a lot of football left to go. We’ll be back.”
That will be the key. For the first time all season, the Hurricanes found themselves in a highly contested matchup, especially in the end.
New Britain had won its first four games easily, outscoring its opponents 164-33, including 76-27 in the first half and 87-6 after halftime. The Hurricanes hadn’t scored less than 30 points in any game.
On Friday, while New Britain outscored Southington 18-7 over the first 24 minutes, it gave up a season-high 20 points in the second half and managed to find the end zone once.
The Hurricanes will need to show they can rebound and that this was a one-time thing.
“We have to keep the same energy from when we start to when we finish,” New Britain quarterback Tahje Yopp said. “Me as a quarterback, I have to make better throws and we have to learn from and clean up the mistakes we made.”
There were times the Hurricanes didn’t do themselves any favors. Penalties, a constant issue the last few seasons, were so again against Southington. New Britain was flagged 12 times, including twice on third down in the first quarter that led to LaRosa’s first touchdown run of the night.
The good thing is the Hurricanes will have an extra week to correct those mistakes with a bye before getting into the second half of the season, beginning with Hall on Oct. 19.
It will just be a matter of whether the loss to Southington was an anomaly in a season that has the makings to be so much better than the last three.
That, of course, will be up to New Britain.
“We’re going to stick to the game plan that the coaches have been putting in and working for us,” Bishop said. “We’ll be back.”
David Glovach can be reached at (860) 801-5085 or firstname.lastname@example.org