FORRESTON – Through the first 10 weeks of the season, the Annawan-Wethersfield Titans’ defense has risen up to every challenge it has come across, usually passing with flying colors.
Despite giving up a season-high in points during Saturday’s second-round playoff game against Forreston, the A-W defense made a stand when it mattered most, helping the Titans advance to the 1A quarterfinals with a thrilling 30-26 win over the defending state champions.
“I’m feeling elation. My heart is racing. That was incredible,” said A-W head coach Logan Willits after the game. “Our kids did it for four quarters. We told them it was going to be a dog fight coming up to the defending state champions. It wasn’t going to be easy – we knew that. We just needed to keep battling for four quarters.”
Trailing by four with 3:20 left in the game, Forreston used its running game to move the ball to the A-W 25-yard line. The Cardinals, who only attempted seven passes, went to the air on second down with one-minute left. A-W’s Brady Kelley blitzed off the edge on the play and sacked Forreston quarterback Bailey Cullor to set up a third and long.
On the next play, Tevin Baker pressured Cullor, nearly sacking the senior QB, forcing an incompletion and prompting Forreston with a fourth and 15. On what would be Forreston’s final play of the game, Cullor lofted a pass downfield and was intercepted by Kelley to seal the A-W win.
“The big play on that drive was Brady Kelley with that sack. He came right off that edge and caught him for the sack and put them behind the sticks,” said Willits. “It put them out of their game, they were very limited from that point on. They had to throw it up and Brady again with the play to get the pick.”
Midway through the fourth quarter - leading 24-20 - A-W had possession deep in its own territory when quarterback Coltin Quagliano had a pass intercepted by Cayden Shelton, setting the Cardinals up inside the Titans’ 10-yard line. Three plays later, Cullor scored on a 2-yard keeper to put the hosts in front 26-24 with 5:32 left in the game.
“I told him that was a bad play call on my part,” Willits said of the Quagliano interception. “I didn’t give him enough space on the boundary and the kid make a heckuva play jumping up and getting it. He (Quagliano) was down. I said look at the clock, there’s five minutes left. We’re gonna get a shot. If we can score one, our defense just has to get one stop and we’re gonna win the game.”
“It definitely hurt me at first because they were so close to scoring,” said Quagliano, who finished the game with 408 passing yards and four touchdowns. “It hurt me for a minute but then I had (assistant coach) Tyler Litton and the other coaches talk to me about it. We had time on the clock, and I had to regroup myself and come out and play offense.”
On the ensuing A-W drive, facing a third and 10, Quagliano found Kale Nelson for a 26-yard completion. Two plays later, Quagliano escaped a sack, rolled out of the pocket a heaved a pass downfield which Nelson caught again before being tackled at the 2-yard line. Reece Gripp capped the drive with a 2-yard plunge to put A-W on top for good.
“He (Quagliano) came out firing dimes on the last drive and making plays,” the A-W coach said. “When he gets out of the pocket, he’s just dangerous.”
The Titans scored the first 18 points of the game, thanks to a big-play passing attack. With Forreston focusing its defense on slowing down senior wideout Julian Samuels (four catches, 87 yards), Isaac Shaw was the primary beneficiary for A-W.
On the Titans third offensive snap, Quagliano connected with Shaw for a 73-yard touchdown. Late in the first quarter, the duo hooked up again, this time for a 58-yard score. They completed the hat trick when Quagliano found Shaw for a 31-yard score late in the third quarter. Shaw had seven receptions in the game and 216 yards.
“We liked the middle of the field matchup, we could manipulate their linebackers a little bit with what we had going on in the run game,” said Willits. “We were just trying to get Isaac into favorable matchups for us, which is pretty much anywhere on the field and today it was in the slot.”
Kelley also hauled in a touchdown pass from Quagliano after the junior QB rolled out to his right and threw back across his body to find Kelley in the back of the end zone during the second period.
After falling behind 18-0, Forreston scored the game’s next 20 points. The Cardinals scored late in the first half when Jacob Boomgarden snagged a pass across the middle. They added a pair of rushing touchdowns in the third quarter – a 3-yard dive by Cullor and a 78-yard dash from Austin Mitchell. Forreston piled up 345 rushing yards in the contest.
“It’s darn near impossible to prepare for them because of their tempo and physicality,” Willits said of Forreston, which won the 1A state title in 2014, 2016 and last season. “That’s a hard-nosed football team on the opposite side and they played really well today. We made just enough plays.”
With Saturday’s win, A-W has now tied the program record with 11 wins. Forreston finishes the season with an 8-3 record.
“It’s unbelievable. We worked so hard from the start of the season; we knew we could be the team to get this far,” said Quagliano. “We battled adversity coming to Forreston, they’re a great football team. We felt confident coming into this game with our defensive and offensive game plan and I put that all on our coaches.”
The Titans will play host to Morrison, which is also 11-0, in the quarterfinals Saturday at Wethersfield Memorial Stadium. A-W will look to advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2016.