NEWTOWN -- Three yards -- that's what the Newtown High School football team needed to gain to make a two-point conversion and tie Ridgefield in the frantic final seconds of Tuesday night's Class LL tournament quarterfinals. Yet those three yards was the longest distance the Nighthawks had to travel all season.
Pressured by two linemen, Newtown quarterback Drew Tarantino's conversion pass was knocked down in the end zone and eighth-seeded Ridgefield held on to beat the top-seeded Nighthawks 35-33 in a game that won't soon be forgotten.
Ridgefield, which held a 35-13 second-half lead, advanced to the Class LL semifinals where it will face Southington Saturday at West Haven High (2 p.m.). The win marked the Tigers' first triumph in the state tournament since it captured the title in 2002.
"We're the first Ridgefield team to win in the state tournament in a while," said Tigers senior running back Will Bonaparte, who was the workhorse out of the backfield. "Being the No. 8 seed and beating the No. 1 seed makes it even sweeter."
The hard-running Bonaparte rushed for 226 yards and three touchdowns on 36 carries for Ridgefield (10-2), which controlled most of the first half and carried the momentum through a good portion of the third quarter. The SWC champion Nighthawks (12-1) got their offense going in the second half, as Tarantino was able to spread the ball around to his talented group of receivers.
Senior running back Cooper Gold, who was held in check for most of the game by the Tigers' defense, scored on a 6-yard sweep to the left, making it a 35-33 game with 16 seconds remaining. On the two-point conversion attempt, Tarantino dropped back to pass, but was pressured by Ridgefield's Patrick Weston. His pass attempt was incomplete and the Tigers had their long-awaited state victory.
"We tried to get the ball over the middle in the end zone, it's a play we work on a lot in practice," Newtown coach Steve George said of the conversion attempt. "Unfortunately, we didn't block too well on that play. It's a very tough loss. We had our opportunities in the red zone in the first half. We just didn't capitalize."
Ridgefield scored on its second possession, with quarterback Ryan Dunn capping a 71-yard drive with a 6-yard run up the middle with 4:48 left in the first quarter. Bonaparte's 1-yard run off right tackle, put the Nighthawks in a 14-0 hole 57 seconds into the second quarter.
Newtown closed to within 14-7 when wide receiver Julian Dunn used his 6-foot-2 inch frame to reach over a defender and haul in a 13-yard pass from Tarantino off a fade route midway through the second quarter. The Tigers, however, took a two-score lead into halftime on Bonaparte's 4-yard run off a direct snap with 3:17 to go in the second quarter. He gained 131 yards in the first half on 23 carries.
"Will is a phenomenal athlete," Tigers coach Kevin Callahan said. "He can make you miss, he can run around you or he can run past you. He's very tough to stop."
Meanwhile, the Nighthawks had trouble sustaining drives in the opening half and when they did move the first down chains, they didn't capitalize on their chances in the red zone. Weston and fellow lineman Austin Drukker put the heat on Tarantino in the first half, while linebacker James Turner helped the Tigers contain Newtown's running attack.
"We did a good job against the run and our defense played well against a quarterback that gives teams fits," Callahan said. "Being the No. 8 seed makes our kids really challenge themselves, it really motivates them."
Bonaparte's second carry of the second half resulted in a 63-yard touchdown, as he broke loose down the left sideline, giving Ridgefield a seemingly commanding 27-7 advantage. Troy Frangione's 1-yard run cut Ridgefield's lead to 27-13, but the Tigers responded to go up by three scores again. Dunn connected with receiver Chris Rossini, who caught the ball in the back of the end zone with 3:55 to go in the third quarter.
Feeling their season slipping away, the Nighthawks went deep into their playbook to put points on the scoreboard. Gold pitched the ball to Frangione, who then pitched it to Dunn. Rolling to his right, Dunn threw across the field to Tarantino in the end zone at the 11:17 mark of the fourth quarter, making it 35-27.
"I felt like we were moving the ball well the whole game," Tarantino said. "We had to open our playbook up a little bit, though, because they did a good job against the run. Give them credit, they made plays defensively when they needed to."
After Newtown made it a one-score game, it drove to the Ridgefield 21-yard line with five minutes left in the final quarter, but defensive back Jake Boscia made a key tackle on a pass play on fourth-and-two, holding the Nighthawks 1 yard short of a first down.
Then came the final drive that saw Newtown move the ball down the field behind a pair of clutch first-down runs by Gold and receptions by Jack Lago and Dunn that moved the chains. But cashing in on two-point conversions with the game on the line is tough, as the Nighthawks are well aware of.
"This loss hurts a lot, I feel bad for our seniors, who are a great group of players," George said.
Said Bonaparte: "This was a great team effort, we knew we had this type of performance in us."
RIDGEFIELD 7 14 14 0--35
NEWTOWN 0 7 13 13--33
R--Ryan Dunn 6 run (Petros Papadopoulos kick)
R--Will Bonaparte 1 run (Papadopoulos kick)
N--Julian Dunn 13 pass from Andrew Tarantino (Connor Miller kick)
R--Bonaparte 4 run (Papadopoulos kick)
R--Bonaparte 63 run (Papadopoulos kick)
N--Troy Frangione 1 run (kick failed)
R--Chris Rossini 18 pass from Dunn (Papadopoulos kick)
N--Troy Frangione 11 pass from Tarantino (Connor Miller kick)
N--Tarantino 11 pass from Julian Dunn (Miller kick)
N--Cooper Gold 2 run (pass failed)