MERIDEN — For the Connecticut Panthers, it was the classic letdown performance.
A week after toppling the Western Massachusetts Warriors, reigning champs not merely in the New England Football League, but in all of Triple-A semi-pro football nationwide, the Meriden-based team stumbled against Western Connecticut Militia 47-41.
A hole punched through their perfection, but not enough to deflate their overall hopes of winning a league championship, the Panthers rebounded with a 24-6 win this past Saturday night at Falcon Field over the New Jersey Spartans. Now they set their sights on a Sunday evening showdown.
The opponent: The 5-0 Bridgeport Gators.
The place: Kennedy Stadium on the campus of Bridgeport Central High School.
Go time: 6 p.m.
The Gators, coming off a 56-6 win over the Connecticut Gamblers, have risen to No. 1 in the NEFL’s power rankings. They have the highest-scoring offense in the league and rank No. 3 in defense.
The Panthers, at 4-1, are hovering at No. 5 in the rankings. On Sunday, they have a chance to record another signature win and get their bid for the NEFL’s Triple-A crown back on track.
“I think going into that (Western Connecticut) game my guys had this sense of we just show up and roll people. Hopefully, it ends up being a blessing in disguise,” said Panthers coach Derek Bortz. “It has refocused us. We realize what our goal was. It kind of stinks to lose a game, but when your goal is to ultimately win a championship, it doesn’t change the goal, it just changes the path.”
The Panthers are also looking to get back to full health. They were able to rest some players with nagging injuries last week against a winless New Jersey Spartans club.
The key injury has been to quarterback Richie Snowdon. He’s week to week with a groin injury suffered against Western Connecticut.
Snowdon did not play last Saturday and might not be ready for Sunday. If not, the Panthers know they can once again turn to Jamie Bryant, the signal-caller who led them in each of the past two seasons. A product of Hartford Public and Springfield College, Bryant can make things happen in space.
“He’s electric,” said Bortz. “The kid can score anytime from anywhere when he has the ball in his hands. He returns punts for touchdowns; he returns kickoffs for touchdowns. He throws from touchdowns.”
Definitely expected back Sunday is Andrew Pratt, who missed last week’s game due to a wedding. The former Lyman Hall and SCSU standout has been tolling the bells on defense this season. He’s used primarily at outside linebacker, but has also lined up at defensive end, cornerback and safety.
“He’s solid,” Bortz said. “He’s quietly having another good season. The silent assassin: He doesn’t say much; he just makes plays. He’s a coach’s dream.”
Also starring on the Panther defense are Shante Wynne, Antoine Carr and Sir Snowdon.
Wynne, an offensive threat who scored a touchdown once every three times he touched the ball last year, has been put in the secondary out of need. He still gets his number called on offense, including on a fourth-and-9 gadget play against the Militia in which he took a short pass 30 yards for a score.
Wynne is joined at cornerback by Carr, the one-time Middletown High star who leads the Panthers in interceptions. Sir Snowdon, brother of the quarterback, plays safety. He formerly played in the CFL.
The Panthers will likely be going all-in against the Gators. After Sunday, all teams get a bye week for Labor Day weekend. After that, the Panthers will face the winless CT Gamblers in Plainfield on Sept. 7, then return to Falcon Field to host the Hartford Whalers (no, not those Whalers) on Sept. 14.