Ellington Takes Division Lead With Win Against Stafford Co-op

By Danny Atkinson

ELLINGTON-When the rival Ellington and Stafford/East Windsor/Somers football teams play one another, the anticipation and excitement surrounding the game is high. Entering Saturday afternoon’s game the one-loss Knights and undefeated Bulldogs were tied for first place in the Pequot League Uncas East division and both just outside the top eight in the Class S team rankings (the number of teams which qualify for the playoffs). The Stafford co-op was also looking to get revenge after last season’s   40-7 blowout by Ellington, the first game the schools competed against one another after ending their     co-op partnership. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the Knights aggressive defense and relentless ground game squelched those hopes quickly.

Ellington (5-1) took control early and defeated Stafford (5-1) 28-7 in front of a rowdy crowd in the rain. It received two rushing touchdowns each from senior Izaiah Castro-Vega and junior quarterback Robert Ecker, with Castro-Vega’s first TD going for 71 yards.

The Knights overwhelmed quarterback Nate Lajoie, sacking one of the best signal callers in CT seven times and limiting him to just 91 yards passing. Ryan Weitz (senior) and Nick Abbruzzese (junior) each sacked Lajoie twice. Abbruzzese also blocked a punt in the third quarter to set up Castro-Vega’s second touchdown.

Ellington now sits atop the Pequot Uncas with a record of 3-0 and is ranked seventh in Class S, with a tiebreaker over the number six Bulldogs.

“Our defense was lights out,” Knights head coach Sean Byrne said. “They had a great week of practice. We had some plays we picked up (from scouting Stafford) and the kids really executed our game plan.”

Ellington quickly established dominance on both sides of the ball in the first half, scoring two touchdowns and holding the Bulldogs offense to just 12 yards while earning five sacks. Stafford entered the contest having averaged nearly 34 points per game.

After Stafford’s game-opening drive ended with a sack by senior Nick Schickner and followed by a poor punt, the Knights offense went to work. Castro-Vega, Ecker and senior Wellington Silva gained consistent yardage on the first few plays with the help of efficient blocking. On third down, Ecker burst up the middle for a gain of 26 yards, taking the ball all the way down to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Ecker plunged into the end zone for a touchdown 5:15 into the quarter. Silva was injured on the drive and held out for the remainder of the game.

Stafford’s two remaining drives of the quarter were very similar to the first. Following Ellington’s touchdown, the Bulldogs went three and out, with Lajoie being chased down by junior Jack Leslie on third down after being unable to find any open receivers. On its third drive Stafford was again unable to gain a first down, as the Knights excellent pass coverage left little space for Lajoie or his receivers to make big plays.

The Bulldogs defense made a great play at the beginning of the second by knocking a pass out of Ecker’s hand and recovering the fumble at midfield, buts its offensive again went nowhere. Castro-Vega and his offensive line made sure to take advantage of this when Ellington got the ball back.

On third down from the 29-yard line, Castro-Vega demonstrated his myriad of skills. The captain took the ball from Ecker, weaved his way to the left sideline and proceeded to burst down the field, outrunning multiple defenders on his way to the end zone. The offensive line initially provided Castro-Vega with a large lane and continued to block defenders as he scored with 9:23 remaining.

“On that play I saw a big hole and just took advantage of it and ran through,” Castro-Vega said. “It’s all about our linemen, they do everything for us. They were pushing their defenders two or three yards down the field, and our runners were able to make cuts off of it.”

Neither team was able to mount a long drive for the remainder of the second, which ended with the Knights in front 14-0. Ellington earned two more sacks and junior Austin Beaudry recovered a fumble

Byrne emphasized the preparation the defense put in when asked about their performance against Lajoie.

“We worked all week on being disciplined, staying in the gaps and working on the angles we would use to tackle him. We were able to get him pinned in and overall we did pretty well,” he said.

Early in the second half, Stafford scored a touchdown off a turnover. Ecker fumbled at the Knights 9-yard line and running back Justin Grant scored on two plays  make it 14-7 just 1:36 in.

The score remained 14-7 the rest of the quarter, as both defenses played very efficiently. The Bulldogs lineman got more pressure on Castro-Vega and Ecker, resulting in no long gains. Meanwhile, Ellington continued to torment Lajoie as well as Grant. Junior safety Josh Prouty particularly did a good job in pass coverage.

Abbruzzese’s punt block was recovered with 1:30 left in the third at the Stafford 26-yard line, with Ellington advancing it to the 18 at the end of the quarter. Castro-Vega immediately went to work, running the ball 17 yards up the middle to the goal line and pushing his way in on the next play to give the Knights a 21-7 advantage.

“I think the offensive line did a very good job today,” Byrne said. “They gave us angles up front and came off the ball well. And Isaiah is one of the best players in the state, he generates a lot of offense for us.”

The Ellington offense continued to play well in the final minutes, with Engel helping to win by scoring on a quarterback keeper with 2:27 left.

Castro-Vega, who also plays at cornerback, discussed Ellington’s pass coverage.

“Coach (Eric) Knickerbocker reviewed the game plan with us all week against Nate and their deadly receivers and we answered the call. My man Ryan Weitz was especially a difference maker. He stepped it up and got pressure and sacks from nose guard,” Castro-Vega said.

Ellington is in good position to win the Uncas East division and has just one remaining division game against Coventry/Windham Tech/Bolton on Thanksgiving. The Knights will face tough opponents the next two weeks against Morgan and at Cromwell/Portland.

Byrne and Castro-Vega discussed the importance of defeating Stafford and the need to build on it.

“It’s a big win in the division and puts us in the driver’s seat. The kids were fired up to win. We have tough games coming up and need to work hard and be prepared,” Byrne said.

“Winning means a lot to us. We love the kids over there and it means a lot to play them again. To get better, we just need to keep working in practice and mesh on both offense and defense. If we trust each other, good things will come,” Castro-Vega said.

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