For years, the New London Whalers have been stuck looking up at traditional Connecticut rivals Norwich Free Academy. Even in years when the Whalers have surged, like in 2016’s 9-0 regular season start, New London found itself on the short end of their biggest rivalry.
That these losses hurt is no surprise; a setback to an archrival always does. But it does mean a bit more on the Connecticut coast; New London and NFA played the first-ever high school football game in 1875 and haven’t stopped competing against each other since, even as the schools have moved into different classes within their own state.
All of that prior disappointment melted away on Thursday morning when New London — a 3-6 Whalers team, at that — stunning a solid, 5-4 NFA team, 26-22, to put a brilliant bow on the end of the team’s season.
“They were down 22-0, and the good lord was smiling at us,” New London coach Juan Roman told Norwich Bulletin sports reporter Jesse Sheehan. “We got a fumble through the end zone, a fourth down stop at the goal line and we end up winning the game. …
“The bounced back and they did what they had to do.”
A New London victory would have been a momentous finish to the season regardless of how it unfolded, but Thursday’s came with an extra dose of drama. NFA led the game 16-0 at halftime and appeared well on its way to a second-straight shutout of the Whalers. The start of the second half brought more of the same, with New London fumbling the opening kickoff and NFA scoring again to take a 22-0 lead with 11:18 remaining in the third period.
The Wildcats would never score again. And New London would score in bunches.
The Whalers put up a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter to move within striking distance. Meanwhile, they also stuffed NFA on a 4th-and-goal from the 1.
After both teams misfired on possessions early in the fourth, New London reached the red zone and then scored on a touchdown reception by tight end Elijah Parker from quarterback Owen George to pull within a 2-point conversion of a tie with just less than three minutes remaining. The conversion fell flat, and a subsequent onside kick didn’t travel 10 yards, seemingly giving the game to NFA.
Not so fast.
Instead, New London forced a NFA punt and got back the ball at its own 10 yard line with just 1:46 remaining. The following drive will go down in New London lore, with the Whalers moving down the field with a series of quick passes — including a completion of more than 40 yards which left just 7 seconds on the clock — to set up another Parker reception in the end zone and absolute delirium among his teammates on the field and bench.
The only chance NFA had to win fell short, as you can see at the top above, and the Whalers could celebrate the most memorable finish to their season and a New London-NFA game in years.
“We had confidence and trust in our team,” George told Sheehan. “We all believed in the win. We all believed we could come back, and we just did it. We drove down the field and won the game.
“This was for our seniors. I’ll miss them. It was a rocky season but this caps it off.”