STRATFORD—On nights like Thursday, a town’s sports ghosts are awakened by the sound of celebration.
From Lordship to the The Green, from the Trumbull town line to the Devon border, in coffee shops and convenience stores, it’s a story that will grow over time.
Whether you are a present-day Red Devil or a lost-to-history North Parader, the scoreboard high above Needham Gymnasium gave everybody attached to Stratford High School’s athletic history a reason to celebrate.
Stratford 49, Newtown 47.
As in the previously undefeated Nighthawks; as in the team sitting in the No. 2 spot in the CIAC Division III standings; as in the state’s ninth-ranked boys basketball team, according to GameTimeCT’s media poll.
Jack Ryan’s two free throws with 3.4 seconds left in overtime preceded Joe August’s interception of Newtown’s ensuing pass, giving the Red Devils a stunning and thrilling victory.
“I think it was a great team effort,” Stratford coach Tim Swaller said. “They’re obviously a very good team. We knew we had to play fairly well, and I thought from start to finish we did that.”
The game was tied at 45-45 at the end of regulation, after both teams missed their final three shots over the final 2:45 of regulation to force the overtime.
Stratford struck first in the extra period when Mike August swished a 15-footer from the elbow.
“I just saw an open area,” August said. “It wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, but I reacted to what the defense was giving us. When I caught it, I was almost too open and thought I might be able to get to the rim, but I just trusted my shot and knocked it down.”
The Red Devils had a chance to open up the lead a little more as Newtown missed back-to-back shots, setting up a pair of Stratford one-and-ones.
The Red Devils couldn’t hit the front ends, however, giving the Nighthawks life.
Finally, with 1:01 to play, Newtown’s Todd Peterson sank a pair of foul shots to tie the game at 47-47.
Stratford worked the clock down to 12 seconds before calling a timeout, allowing Swaller to set up a last-second shot.
Ryan drove to the hoop and was fouled, allowing him to go to the line for two foul shots with 3.4 seconds left.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Ryan admitted. “But we shoot free throws every day. It’s just natural. I knew I was going to make them. We just had to play defense after that.”
Newtown called timeout, allowing Swaller to set up his team’s defense.
“My thought process was just don’t let them get it and go,” Swaller said. “Let us get set. We said we had fouls to give, so anything in front we were just going to get a foul on the ball. We put Joey (August) in center field and it paid off.”
August’s interception of a long pass to midcourt clinched the victory and set off a big celebration in front of the Stratford bench and student body.
Ryan’s 14 points led the Red Devils, who improved to 8-5 and clinched a berth in the Division III state tournament.
Zack Fedak added seven points while both August brothers, John Bike and Preston Williams had six points each.
“It’s up there,” Swaller said, when asked where the win ranked in his three-year Stratford career. “We’ve had some good wins, but this was definitely up there. Playing a ranked team, on our home floor, the crowd got into it and I thought throughout we did things very well.”
Things didn’t start that way, however.
Newtown came out on fire, jumping out to a quick 12-4 lead.
Stratford’s balance, however, tied the game with an 8-0 run in which four different players—Ryan, Jayquan Kirkland, Fedak and Joe August—all scored.
“Listen, we have a veteran group,” Swaller said. “They’ve been through the highs and lows. They’ve dealt with adversity. The game was early. We knew we had the ability to score. It was just a question of settling down, rebounding and making some plays.”
Plays by Kirkland and a 3-pointer from Fedak gave Stratford its first lead at 17-15 and the confidence to stay with Newtown the rest of the way.
Stratford’s biggest lead was six (24-18) while Newtown’s biggest advantage was four (42-38).
The Nighthawks only made one field goal in the final five minutes of regulation and the four-minute overtime period.
“We had to play defense to win this game and that’s what we did,” Ryan said.
Peterson led the 11-1 Nighthawks with 15 points while Tucker Garrity and Jack Peterson had 11 points each. Riley Ward added 10 more.
Newtown coach Tim Tallcouch took the loss in stride.
“We came here and gave it our best shot, but give (Stratford) credit,” said Tallcouch, who confirmed Newtown was missing three of its top seven rotation players. “They made the plays at the end. Play was at (Stratford’s) pace, which was beneficial to them. We like to run, but give Stratford all the credit in the world. They slowed us down.”
And in doing so, the Red Devils woke up the town’s sports ghosts just in time to celebrate a pretty big SWC victory.