TRUMBULL — The last play of the 2019 Connecticut high school football season had already reached legendary status by the time Newtown wide receiver Riley Ward ripped off his helmet, tossed it high into the air and raced across the end zone to embrace a mob of delirious teammates.
The top-seeded and undefeated Nighthawks won the CIAC Class LL championship in walk-off fashion, 13-7, over third-seeded Darien on a misty, fog-filled afternoon at Trumbull High School’s McDougall Field, scoring on the final play of the game with no time remaining.
Adding to the magnitude and emotion of the moment was the fact that the win, the championship — Newtown’s first football title since 1992 — came on the seventh anniversary of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that killed 20 students and six staff members.
Hearts once shattered around Newtown were now filled with pride as the Nighthawks scored 13 fourth-quarter points to take the title home.
“I didn’t expect it to end like that,” said Darien coach Rob Trifone, whose team finished the season 11-2. “I certainly thought we were going into overtime. Newtown is a great football team and they had a lot of motivation today, as they should have. It hurts to lose like this, but I’m happy for them. It was anyone’s game.”
On the final play, which began with just 3.3 seconds left on the clock, Ward gathered in quarterback Jack Street’s 36-yard pass — which came out of the fog as if it had been dropped from the heavens by a group of angels — and raced in for a score, giving Newtown the stunning victory.
“I love this town,” said Ward, a senior. “I love everybody who came out and supported us. I’m just at a loss of words.”
The game had been billed as a showdown between two of the state’s top defensive units and it didn’t disappoint, as the Nighthawks and Blue Wave battled for each and every yard they got.
Newtown finished with 238 total yards (only 79 on the ground) while Darien managed 235 yards of offense.
“I knew both defenses were very, very good,” Trifone said. “I was very impressed with how our defense shut down (Newtown’s) running game. We gave up very little on the ground. But we just gave up those two big plays to (Ward).”
Earlier in the fourth quarter, Street was facing a third-and-10 from the Newtown 25 when he scrambled to get away from a heavy surge of Wave defenders to hit Ward for a 75-yard scoring strike with 6:58 to play.
That tied the game, but both teams still had two possessions to score before the clock hit zero.
Newtown just happened to wait until the clock literally did before it scored again.
“I don’t think you can write a better ending, winning on the last play,” Newtown coach Bobby Pattison said. “It’s basically a walk-off, right? It’s surreal. I couldn’t believe he was that open and I was just looking around for somebody to hug.”
Trifone said he wasn’t sure what happened on the last play, saying his defense was set up to prevent exactly what happened.
“They just brought (Ward) all the way across the field and we were in a nickel defense with somebody over the top,” Trifone explained. “I’m not sure what happened because that’s what it was supposed to try to prevent.”
As the two teams slugged it out, Darien had taken a 7-0 lead with 6:43 left in the second quarter.
Blue Wave quarterback Peter Graham (15-for-37, 129 yards) led Darien on a 13-play, 60-yard scoring drive that was capped when the senior quarterback hit Ryan Mulliken in the end zone for a 9-yard scoring strike.
After trading two sets of possessions, the Blue Wave appeared to get a break late in the closing minutes of the half when they recovered a Newtown fumble on the Nighthawks’ own 26-yard line.
During its ensuing possession, however, Darien fumbled the ball back to end the scoring chance.
“We squandered some opportunities,” Trifone admitted.
Street was 6-for-18 passing for 142 yards for Newtown while Miles Rick was the top ground-gainer with 48 yards on 18 carries. Ward had five catches total for 145 and the two scores.
Darien running back Will Kirby led the Blue Wave offense with 114 well-earned yards on 24 carries.
“Our running back, Kirby, was sometimes a toe away from breaking it,” Trifone said.
In the end, though, Newtown’s defense never broke and the Nighthawks would claim a championship the town would remember forever.
“It’s unreal,” Street said. “To win on a day like today, it’s just an unbelievable community win.”