Conard hosted Manchester in West Hartford Thursday night in the team’s first full game of the season.
By Paul Palmer
The Manchester Red Hawks brought their high octane, big play offense to West Hartford and handed the Conard Red Wolves a 37-21 football opener.
The visitors dominated things with a running attack that went for more than 300 yards and a passing game that cleared the 100-yard hurdle as well.
Conard opened with a six-play drive that ended with a punt to the Manchester 42. Junior quarterback Emanuel Sampel hit Joseph Mugovero with a quick opener that the junior wide receiver turned into a 57-yard touchdown, and less than 3 minutes into the game they were on top 6-0.
On Conard’s next possession, quarterback Julian Schneider was picked off by linebacker Julian Ortiz who rumbled for what looked like a second quick score for Manchester. But a holding call during the runback took away the points and put the Red Hawks in business at the 14-yard line. On first down it was a run up the middle and six more for Manchester, but a second missed PAT made it 12-0.
After Conard was forced to punt on the next possession, Manchester took over at its own 15-yard line. On second down Sampel was sacked by Bruce Jones and Ryan Gillis and it was third and 22 from the 5. Sampel threw a screen pass to Mugovero in the flat and he raced 93 yards down the left sideline to make it 19-0 with just under 4 minutes to play.
Manchester’s speed and strong blocking kept the Conard defense on their heels all game long, especially when the Red Hawks went off their own left side. “They are extremely quick,” said Conard head coach Matt Cersosimo of Manchester. “We didn’t have a good enough response to it.”
It looked like it was going from bad to worse for Conard, as Manchester recovered the ensuing short kickoff at the Conard 29, but on first down Sampel’s pass was tipped by Conard’s Gillis and fell to teammate Noah Macko who jetted down the sideline 65 yards to pay dirt, and Conard was on the board at 19-6. The momentum swung the host’s way as they forced a punt from the visitors, and Schneider engineered a 12-play drive that carried over into the second quarter.
Facing a fourth-and-goal at the 3, the Red Wolves tried to run a trick play with Ben McIlhoney taking the handoff running right, before stopping and throwing to the end zone, but the pass fell incomplete and Manchester would take over on downs.
Manchester got some breathing room once again going off the left side on a 63-yard run that set them up deep in Conard territory. They would punch it in on the ground from 14 yards out, but the 2-point conversion failed making it 25-6 with 6:06 left in the half. After Conard came up a yard short on a punt fake, it was Sampel and his offense taking all the air out of McKee Stadium when Xavier Rodriguez bounced a run outside and raced down the right sideline for a touchdown with 1:37 to play in the half.
The third quarter saw Conard’s defense stiffen and stop a pair of drives, setting up the offense as the quarter was running down. As the game moved into the early fourth quarter, Schneider and Nathan Blumes passed and ran the ball to the 5, and Blumes willed his way into the end zone with a tough run and the score was 31-13. Conard went for the onside kick but Manchester was ready and recovered it at the 38. After a sweep brought the ball to the 5, Sampel tried to hit a receiver over the middle, but it bounced off Conard’s Ben Hardman and into the hands of Gillis, who raced 90 yards to the end zone.
Conard opted to go for 2, and it was Blumes stiff-arming his way through would-be tacklers to pull the Red Wolves to within 10 at 31-21 with 8:29 to go. “He is a workhouse who can carry the ball and carry people on his back,” Cersosimo said of his junior running back.
Having scored twice in under 2 minutes, Conard and its fans were back in the game and feeling a comeback win was possible. A failed onside kick squirted out of bounds and Manchester took over at the 47. After a pair of runs brough the ball just inside the 30, Conard looked to have made a big stop on defense, but officials flagged the play for a helmet to helmet hit, and the ball was moved to the 14.
One play later it was Manchester running the sweep to he left and finding the end zone. Conard responded with a long drive on the legs of Blumes that was stopped on a fourth-and-3 from the Manchester 20. The visitors gained the first down and then ran out the clock to secure the 37-21 win.
“In the second half we stopped being undisciplined and executed our schemes,” said Cersosimo after the game. “Give them [Manchester] credit, they got after us tonight.”
Next up for Conard is a trip to Newington on Friday, Sept. 22.
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