Saturday’s NEPSAC Class A Mike Silipo Bowl between Brunswick School and Deerfield Academy was a back-and-forth battle, before a big crowd, featuring numerous plays spanning more than 20 yards.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, Deerfield just made a couple of more big plays.
Senior quarterback Liam O’Brien threw two touchdown passes, one of which covered 95 yards, in Deerfield Academy’s hard-fought 35-28 win over Brunswick in the NEPSAC Class A bowl game at crowded Cosby Field.
Visiting Deerfield claimed the NEPSAC Class A championship trophy with the victory, which capped a sensational 9-1 season. The Bruins finished their 2021 season with a record of 7-3, while facing their most competitive schedule in program history. This fall marked the first season that Brunswick played in the Northeast Prep League.
“This team has had a tremendous season,” Brunswick coach Mike Hannigan said. “This team has rallied together, battled through adversity, worked hard and they’ve earned everything they have gotten. To get this bowl game and for it to be a home game, is a testament to how hard the kids have worked and what a great job they have done this season.”
Bruins senior quarterback Danny Lauter threw two touchdown passes, while seniors Kha’lil Eason and Chris Gaine each ran for scores in the hard-hitting, intense matchup.
“Everyone expected us to be kind of average and we proved everyone wrong,” said Lauter, who will play football at Georgetown University next season. “We came out here and played our hearts out. Kudos to Deerfield, they are a really great team, with a lot of great players. This was a great season for us and I was excited to be a part of this team.”
Brunswick struck first, scoring on the game’s opening possession, courtesy of the speedy Gaine. After Eason gained eight yards on a screen pass from Lauter on the first play from scrimmage, Gaine dashed 57 yards to the end zone. Taking Lauter’s handoff, Gaine cut left and used his speed to break loose down the right sideline for the score. Junior Will Erdmann kicked the extra point and the Bruins held a 7-0 lead 59 seconds into the first quarter.
Deerfield tied the score at 7-7 on their second possession, driving 82 yards in 10 plays. O’Brien capped the long drive with a 1-yard run at the 10:54 mark of the second quarter. During the scoring drive, the University of Pennsylvania-bound O’Brien connected with senior wide receiver Geoffrey Jamiel four times for 35 yards.
The visitors took a 14-7 advantage on the game’s longest play from scrimmage. With Deerfield backed up at its own 5-yard line, O’Brien dropped back to pass and connected with senior wide receiver Alex Haight near midfield. Haight, who got behind the Brunswick secondary, ran down the left sideline all the way to the end zone, completing a 95-yard pass play for a touchdown. Stone Anderson, a junior, converted the PAT and Deerfield seized a 14-7 edge with 5:29 to go in the second quarter.
“Our quarterback Liam O’Brien is just such a composed kid,” Deerfield Academy coach Brian Barbato said. “He’s going to Penn next year and they’re getting a competitor and more important, a guy who can make split second decisions. He knows the game in a way that is on the college level. He steers the ship and we have some good outlets for him.”
The Bruins quickly responded though. Senior quad-captain/wide receiver Ashton Winegardner caught a 29-yard scoring strike from Lauter in the left corner of the end zone, evening the score at 14-14 late in the second quarter.
The Big Green entered halftime with a 21-14 lead, using a little trickery. O’Brien completed a short pass to Haight, who flipped the ball to senior Nick Peltekian, who broke loose for a touchdown – completing a 55-yard hook-and-ladder play with 18.9 seconds left in the second quarter.
“We tried to run that against Choate and it got covered up and then we got some off coverage at that point in time,” Barbato said of the hook-and-ladder touchdown. Bruins senior defensive back Wells Faulstich halted on Deerfield Academy drive in the first half with an interception.
The Bruins fell behind, 28-14, when O’Brien snuck into the end zone on a 1-yard run with 4:47 to go in the third quarter. Brunswick made it a one-score game again though, relying on the dynamic Eason, whose had a knack for rallying the team in the fourth quarter this season. Following several strong runs, Eason caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Lauter, who rolled to his right on the play, brining Brunswick to within 28-21 with 8:57 left in the fourth quarter.
“The fourth quarter, that’s your last chance to do something,” said Eason, who rallied the Bruins to a victory against Avon Old Farms with his fourth-quarter heroics. “Anytime I get the ball, I try to make something happen, but when that fourth quarter hits, I know it’s go time.”
On the ensuing drive, Deerfield Academy regained its 14-point lead on a 13-yard run by Peltekian, making it 35-21 with 7:33 remaining in the final quarter. On the drive, O’Brien completed a long pass to Jamiel.
“That was huge,” Barbato said of his team’s long pass plays. “The things those guys did, putting the ball in tight spaces are things that separates.”
Showing the comeback ability they’ve displayed all season, the Bruins again closed to within seven points. Junior wideout Tomas Delgado caught several key Lauter passes, before Eason reached the end zone on an 11-yard run with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
Holding a seven-point lead, Deerfield was able to take valuable time of the clock by handing the ball to senior running back Matthew Hickey. Called “Moose” by his teammates, Hickey gained two key first downs, bringing the clock to less than one-minute left to play by the time the Bruins took possession again.
Brunswick got the ball with only 13.7 seconds left in the final quarter and Deerfield held on for the championship win.
“I do feel like if we did have more time, we would have scored,” Eason said. “It’s unfortunate. Little mistakes came back to bite us and we have to deal with the loss.”
Said Hannigan: “A one-score game, that’s what you want out of your bowl games. These guys have played together, they play for each other and play the game the right way.”
Hannigan was impressed with his team’s performance on both sides of the ball Saturday and throughout the season.
“I thought when we came out and lined up at the beginning of the game, our run game looked great and that’s always going to be part of our game plan,” he said. “With Danny Lauter’s arm, you can’t just run the ball. We have playmakers out there in space too. It’s really hard to be a first-year starter and I thought he (Lauter) did an excellent job.”
“It was great, all the hard work that everyone put in, that I put in, showed throughout the season,” Lauter said. “Our line did really well, they’re the ones that helped us with everything. Deerfield played a great game, we played a good and it was an all-around great football game.”
Eason reflected on his first season on the Bruins’ squad.
“With this being my first season, I didn’t know what to expect,” Eason said. “But it become a brotherhood, these guys became my brothers within a week or two. I knew this was going to be something big, because we all had each other’s backs from Day 1. Win or lose, we were always there for each other.”
The game marked the final time the 25 seniors wore a Brunswick uniform, including captains Charlie Johnson (defensive back), George Villis (linebacker), Winegardner and Michael Burton (offensive lineman).
“It was a great season,” Villis said. “A lot of people doubted us, but we proved that we were able to compete in this league. It was great to be out there, this was the first bowl game we hosted since 1998, so it was a great feeling. It was great to have my last game at Cosby (Field) too. I think we exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Playing in the NEPSAC bowl game, after not having a season last fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, was indeed, a special occasion for the Bruins.
“As coach Hannigan told us, those are the type of games you want to play in,” Johnson said. “Deerfield is a rival of ours, but they’re also an incredible football team and they run similar offenses and defenses to us and they have athletes from all different sports – those are the football games you want to play in.”
Johnson certainly won’t forget his final football game for the Bruins.
“Brunswick football in my four years here has had a lot of success, but moving up to a new league, no one thought we would be here,” Johnson said. “Even though this last one didn’t end up the way we wanted to in a hard, close-fought game, I couldn’t be prouder of this team and the way they fought through adversity all year.”
“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Johnson continued. “I’m standing here after losing a bowl game on my home field and I still couldn’t ask for anything more. I’m never going to put on football pads again, but I can sleep easy knowing that my last football season was truly one of a kind with really special players and incredible coaches that backed us every step of the way.”