Anthony Paolino intercepted a pass with 34 seconds left to play and returned it for a touchdown to seal Bristol Central’s seventh straight win in the annual Battle for the Bell Thursday at Muzzy Field. The Rams scored on their first possession then held off the Lancers the rest of the way for the 13-6 win.
Leading 7-6 late in the game Central put together a time-consuming drive that carried them all the way to the Lancers’ 18 before coming up a yard short on fourth down. With 39 seconds left and no timeouts, Eastern scrambled to try to cover the 82 yards for the win.
But on the first play of the drive, Paolino stepped in front of the screen pass and went unimpeded into the end zone to give the Rams a cushion. The two point attempt that would have sealed the win failed, but the Lancers could get off just two plays before time expired.
“Paolino intercepted that screen pass every time we did in practice,” said Central coach Jeff Papazian and he did it again today when it counted the most.”
The interception and a first half fumble recovery earned Paolino the Defensive Player of the Game award for the Rams. “The interception was big,” said Papazian, “but I think the strip and recovery in the first half was an even bigger play. They were driving then and that play helped us turn the momentum.”
For Eastern it was a game of almosts and could have been’s. The fumble in the second quarter after a 17-yard gain was a momentum killer after they had battled back into the contest. A penalty on an extra point made the task more challenging and left the Lancers a point down and scrambling late. A crucial holding call on a fourth down play that appeared to stop the Rams deep in their own territory helped to keep Central’s final time-consuming drive alive and a first down by inches for the Rams after a big defensive play by the Lancers allowed Central to eat up more clock in that final drive.
“Some unfortunate errors hurt us today,” said Eastern coach A. J. Julius. “We just didn’t make the plays when we needed them most. I thought we did a lot of good things today. We just couldn’t get that play we needed to sustain our drives.”
Central scored on its first possession. The Rams started at their own 20 after a strong opening kickoff by Gavin Damboise. With Tre Blair and Johnny Rios sharing the ball carrying duties, the Rams drove to midfield before Blair broke free for a 48-yard touchdown run with 5:54 to play in the period. Oscar Kuzniar kicked what would become a crucial extra point to give the Rams a 7-0 lead.
Central took that 7-0 margin into the locker room after stopping the Lancers on each of their three possessions of the half. The crucial play was Paolino’s fumble recovery at the 30 after Eastern had put together its best drive of the half.
The Lancers came out strong off the second half kickoff and marched 57 yards in eight plays, all on the ground. A big run by Jack Hartley opened the drive and a 14-yard run by Rayshon Andrews put the Lancers inside the ten before Kyle Babin punched it over from the one. But a penalty on the extra point forced the kick back five yards and it bounced off the upright, leaving the Lancers trailing by a point.
The Rams followed that score with a drive that took up the rest of the third period before it stalled after a penalty at the Eastern 27. But the Lancers could not get beyond midfield and kicked the ball away with seven and a half minutes left. There would be only 39 seconds remaining when they got it back.
Aided by the costly fourth down penalty and a big conversion on fourth and one, the Rams ate up most of the remaining time with a 14-play drive that took them inside the Lancers 20 before they turned it over on downs. One play later Paolino’s interception sealed the win.
“Bristol Central came out and chewed up yards,” said Julius. “They do good things out there and Jeff (Papazian) always puts them in position to be successful. I’m happy with the contribution of our seniors today but credit to Bristol Central. They did a really nice job today.
Jaiden Fore was the Offensive Player of the Game for the Lancers. The junior running back had 93 yards on 15 carries to lead the attack. Austin Shorette, who was all over the field, making tackles all day long, was Eastern’s Defensive Player of the Game.
Blair was the Offensive Player of the Game for the Rams. The senior carried the ball 35 times for 207 yards and joined the long list of 1,000-yard season rushers for the Rams. Blair finished the year with 1,053 yards rushing after converting to quarterback midway through the season.
“Obviously Tre was really good today,” said Papazian. “We kept asking ‘have you got one more in you?’ And he kept responding. We trust him with the ball in his hands. We know he’s going to be safe and smart with it.”
“You have to credit the guys up front as well,” he added. “It is not an easy offense to block for. We snap it direct to Tre and things happen fast. We tried to keep Bristol Eastern a little off balance and I think we did a good job of that today.”
In a game where there were only five passes attempted, the offenses were well grounded and both teams did a good job of defending as the yards were hard to come by. Fore had 93 yards and sophomore Jack Hartley added 55 for the Lancers. Eastern completed two of three passes for negative yardage.
Central’s Nik Salinas connected with Mason Stokes for 20 yards on the only pass the Rams got in the air.
“Defensively I think this was the best four quarters we’ve played all year,” said Papazian. “We told the kids at half time that Eastern was going to come out and give it their best shot and they did that. They converted, but our guys hung in there and didn’t fold emotionally after the score.
“It’s been a long season,” he added. “I’m not sure that this today erases everything that’s happened this year, but it’s certainly nice to close it out with a win. I’m happy for the kids. I’m happy for the seniors.”
The Rams finished the season at 2-8. Eastern Ended at 3-7. It was the final game for Central seniors Tre Blair, Geovannie Colon, Nik Salinas, Johnny Rios, Can Tomak, Mason Stokes, Zack Telke, Andrew Sarkis, Jonmanuel Gomez, Julius Powell and Matt Carneiro.
Eastern’s seniors are Joe Arborio, Josh Aubin, Kyle Babin, Dylan Bartucca, Ashlou Brewer, Shane Brookman, Brady Brown, Kamren Budnick, Brandon Camacho, Trent Dubois, Connor Gimpl, Evan Gleifert, Cooper Harris, Fassa Kamano, Jeremy Kolloverja, Jackson Mitchell, Nicholas Prytko, and Austin Shorette.