AVON – The visiting North Branford football team had the game in their command. Or so it seemed. After Avon had taken a 14-point lead after one quarter, the Thunderbirds scored 25 consecutive points. At one point, they scored touchdowns on four straight possessions.
However, Avon hung around and make some big plays, scoring two touchdowns in the final 26.6 seconds of the fourth quarter to hand a stunned North Branford squad its first loss of the season Saturday in an emotional 41-38 Pequot Conference shootout.
The Falcons played the game with heavy hearts. The uncle of All-State linebacker Jimmy Murphy died unexpectedly earlier this week. Michael Murphy played football at Avon High in 1979 and 1980, earning All-Northwest Conference honors.
Jimmy Murphy presented Michael’s son with the game ball after the victory. “I think there was an angel with the No. 25 (Michael Murphy’s number in high school) watching over us today,” Avon coach Jim Caouette said.
An angel may have been watching but the Falcons earned this victory with hard work and desire.
Avon led 14-0 after one quarter. But North Branford (4-1) surged late in the second half in the third quarter. Thunderbird QB Eddie Miller threw three of his four touchdown passes in the second half to Shelby Acquah-Franklin (25 yards), Josh Melaccio (8) and Austin Calamita (51). The long pass to Calamita with 3:24 left in the third period gave North Branford a 32-21 lead.
Avon (3-2) cut the lead to five on a 37-yard touchdown run from Jimmy Murphy early in the fourth quarter, 32-27. But North Branford seemed to have the game under control after a 35-yard touchdown run from Miller with 7:14 remaining and a 38-27 lead.
With 1:42 remaining, Avon forced North Branford to punt and the Falcons took over on the Thunderbird 40-yard line. Avon QB Noah Hahn, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 151 yards in the second half, completed a 21-yard pass over the middle to Stephen Griffin. Avon got another 15 yards on a North Branford penalty because Griffin had his helmet ripped off on the tackle.
A 17-yard completion from Hahn to Justin Reichler put the ball on the North Branford 7 with 1:12 remaining. Two plays later, Hahn completed a 7-yard pass to Murphy with 26.6 seconds later. An attempted two-point conversion run failed and North Branford led, 38-33.
On the kickoff, Avon kicker John Burdick belted the ball off a North Branford defender. The ball sailed up into the air and Murphy leaped, grabbing the ball in mid-air. He landed and got it to the Avon 46-yard line before getting tackled.
A pass in the flat from Hahn to Murphy gained 28 yards to the Avon 26-yard line. The Falcons called timeout with 17.8 seconds remaining. On the next play, Hahn found Reichler running down the left sideline for a 26-yard touchdown pass with 11.4 seconds left. Hahn’s pass to Luke Meaney for the two-point conversion made the score, 41-38.
“These kids don’t quit. They play for 48 minutes,” Caouette said. “I’m so proud of them. It was a great team effort. I’m so proud of my coaches. They worked hard all week to help prepare these kids for this.”
There were many key plays from many Falcon players. Dylan Marquis had some key catches for first downs in the first half. Reichler caught a 89-yard touchdown pass from Hahn, which is the second-longest TD reception in school history.
Reichler blocked an extra point attempt in the second quarter and Avon stopped three North Branford two-point conversion attempts.
Murphy was simply outstanding. Playing with a white towel hanging from his belt recognized his late uncle, Murphy was all over the field, especially in the second half. He had a sack and a tackle for a loss. He made a tackle on North Branford’s Josh Melaccio late in the fourth quarter that might have prevented a touchdown that would have iced the contest. There was just open field ahead of Melaccio.
Murphy ran back two kickoffs for 32 yards, ran for 79 yards on nine carries and caught four passes for 50 yards – just in the second half. He scored 3 TDs in the game.
“He ran the ball like a man possessed,” Caouette said. “We know he is our horse and we’ll keep riding him.”
Avon beat North Branford for the first time since 1973.
Thunderbird coach Mark Basil credited his players for the strong second half including a 26-point third quarter. “It was an attitude adjustment in the second half,” he said. “We played better and we were more aggressive. We had a few mental mistakes in the first half. In the second half, we came out with a little more assertiveness.”
NOTES: MIchael Murphy played on the 1980 Avon team that went 9-1 and shared a Northwest Conference title with Woodrow Wilson of Middletown. His five TD receptions in 1980 was an Avon High single season record at the time. That 1980 team scored 345 points, which was a single season record until it was broken in 2008. … Reichler’s 89-yard TD pass was the second longest TD reception in team history. The longest TD reception was 92 yards as Vince Savarese scored on a pass from John Cianci against Wolcott Tech in 2009.
Avon 41, North Branford 38
North Branford (4-1) 0 6 26 6 — 38
Avon (3-2) 14 0 7 20 — 41
A: Jimmy Murphy 6 run (John Burdick kick), 6:24
A: Justin Reichler 89 pass from Noah Hahn (Burdick kick), 0:24
NB: Austin Calamita 51 pass from Eddie Miller (kick blocked), 1:35
NB: Shelby Acquah-Franklin 25 pass from Miller (run fails), 11:37
NB: Calamita 35 interception return (run fails), 10:42
NB: Josh Melaccio 8 pass from Miller (Acquah-Franklin kick), 7:09
A: Stephen Griffin 54 run (Burdick kick), 5:58
NB: Calamita 67 pass from Miller (Acquah-Franklin kick), 3:24
A: Murphy 37 run (pass fails), 11:49
NB: Miller 35 run (pass fails), 7:14
A: Murphy 7 pass from Hahn (run fails), 26.6
A: Reichler 26 pass from Hahn (Luke Meaney pass from Hahn), 11.4