Valley Regional / Old Lyme football makes most of second chance, Class SS playoff berth

EAST LYME – The evening is dreary and East Lyme High School’s artificial turf is slick from a steady drizzle, but the Valley Regional/Old Lyme football players’ spirits are up. After all, it’s December and the team is still together, preparing for another game.

“We’re a grass team,” coach Hill Gbunblee said before proceeding to thank East Lyme officials for granting access to the turf for a pair of two two-hour practices. “We want as much time on turf so our players get a comfort level.”

The Warriors took a roundabout route to the midweek practice in East Lyme, 13 miles from The Hill in Deep River: Old Lyme players bussed to Deep River for a film session at Valley; the entire team bussed to East Lyme; and then a drop-off in Old Lyme before a final stop in Deep River.

Really, it was no big deal. Because on Saturday, the Warriors’ trip through the 2022 season will arrive at its end point, on the turf at CCSU’s Arute Field, where they will meet Joel Barlow for the CIAC Class SS championship. Only one other VROL team has played for a state title, the 2014 Warriors, who beat Ansonia 21-20 in the final seconds in the Class S-Large division.

“One more game as a family,” said two-way star playmaker Di’Angelo Jean-Pierre, whose uncle Chris scored the winning TD in that 2014 final. “We hope to finish strong.”

“We want to get better with every practice,” said senior running back/linebacker Jacob Rand, “even if it’s just a walkthrough or film day. We just want to get better every time we step on the field. We’re definitely excited about being (in the final).”

The Warriors’ journey to the Class SS final was as circuitous as the bus ride to East Lyme. Sixth-seeded VROL started the season with five straight wins allowing just 25 points in all.

The following week, in a road game against then-unbeaten Cromwell/Portland, the Warriors went for the win instead of the tie with 68 seconds left and were denied in a 28-27 loss. From there, they ripped off four more wins to finish the regular season with a 9-1 record.

But 9-1 on its face wasn’t enough to qualify for the playoffs at that time.

Four days before VROL beat Haddam-Killingworth for its ninth win, Rocky Hill was awarded an unexpected forfeit from Hartford Public. It knocked the Warriors to ninth in the Class SS rankings and out of the playoff field before Cromwell/Portland’s win over Rocky Hill the night before Thanksgiving thrusted the Warriors back among the qualifiers.

“I’d be lying if I said that we weren’t a little upset at being in that position in the first place, but I’m appreciative of the fact that I’m even the head coach here,” said Gbunblee, in his second season running the team. “The opportunity to be in a position like this, where any other team in the state would kill for it, is huge.

“For me mostly, the thing that stands out to me is that I get to be with these seniors a little bit longer. I just want to do right by them and go out on the highest note possible. And it doesn’t get any higher than the title game.”

In the quarterfinals, the Warriors took out third-seeded Foran 26-13 with their signature balanced attack, and got to host their semifinal-round game when No. 7 Gilbert/Northwestern/Housatonic crushed No. 2 Windham. At Blythe Field, Valley’s defense shut down GNH’s Freddy Camp, one of the state’s top rushers, in a 26-14 win.

Barlow presents a formidable challenge Saturday. Its triple-option attack revolving around senior quarterback Danny Shaban (1,873 all-purpose yards, 30 touchdowns) already has devoured two Pequot Conference teams in Granby/Canton and Cromwell/Portland. The latter couldn’t contain junior Cole Peterson, who rushed for 212 yards in a 40-35 semifinal win.

“Their quarterback is very, very good and their fullback is a hard runner,” Rand said. “(Shaban) is a running back who plays quarterback. He can throw, but he’s a big dude and he’s shifty. We have a lot to do on defense, but if everyone does their job, it should be fun.”

At one player shy of 40, the Warriors bring the smallest roster of any of the five other championship qualifiers into the weekend. But they consider it a badge of honor.

“We’re a small team but we’ve got big hearts,” sophomore defensive end Max Novak said.

“What we do have is motivated kids and really good coaches that pour everything into the kids,” Gbunblee said. “Where we don’t have depth, we teach toughness. Where we don’t have depth we teach quality. That’s all we can do. The camps we went to this summer, the passing leagues ... almost every single game we played this year we were the smallest team. Foran comes out with 60. But, we know what we have. I’ll take my dogs against your dogs any day of the week.”

The Warriors also will look into the stands at Arute Field on Saturday and see people from multiple communities pulling for them. It’s been that way at home games at The Hill and on the road this season. The players want to win badly for their fan base.

“Being in this spot means the world,” Senior lineman Sam Bourez said. “We’re five towns – Chester, Deep River, Essex, Old Lyme and Lyme. Five towns rallying behind one team. Friday nights, we see every single flavor come out to The Hill. Everyone comes out of the woodwork to watch us.

“That sense of community that binds behind us, where we have not just one (town) but this whole area of Connecticut coming out to support us, it’s a whole different feeling. I can go down to Old Lyme and go shopping and if I’m wearing a Warriors sweatshirt, I get smiles from all over the place and ‘hey, good job guys, we can’t wait to see you play Saturday.”