Published November 22. 2013 4:00AM
New London - And still, they kick the ball to Jose Garcia, the senior at New London High School, maybe the fastest player in the Eastern Connecticut Conference.
"I really don't expect it," he was saying Thursday night after what must have been two pleasant surprises.
Garcia eclipsed 600 return yards this season with a pair of touchdowns — one on a punt, one on a kickoff — leading the Whalers to a 44-24 win over East Lyme at Cannamela Field.
Garcia returned a punt 64 yards and a kickoff for 99. He also caught a pair of touchdown passes and had 132 receiving yards.
"I don't know if it's intentional or by mistake," New London coach Duane Maranda said, "but I'm happy when they kick it to him. I'd kick it 15 yards out of bounds."
Garcia should be target No. 1 to stop next week when the Whalers renew the oldest high school football rivalry in the country with Norwich Free Academy.
New London, which would win the ECC Large Division with a victory, would also qualify for the Class L playoffs. The Whalers (7-2, 2-0) have won seven straight. New London also has an opportunity to earn a home game in the state quarterfinals.
NFA, meanwhile, would also win the Large Division with a victory and earn a home game in the state quarterfinals.
"It's a great opportunity just to be part of that game," Garcia said. "We cherish that."
Not that the Whalers were perfect. Far from it. East Lyme's Eric Stirtan ran for three scores and 226 yards while Ben Watts ran for 101 more.
Next week they get Norwich Free Academy's Khaleed Exum-Strong and Marcus Outlow.
"It's a concern," Maranda said. "We've struggled with consistent defensive series. We're young up front. It's a lot of work with constant reinforcements and adjustments. But what I liked is that at halftime we challenged our defense's toughness and heart and they responded."
New London quarterback Danny Maranda completed 19 of 27 passes for 218 yards. He also threw a touchdown pass to Troy Gray.
Orrin Parke, who had a 16-yard scoring run, led the Whalers with 102 rushing yards.
East Lyme (5-5, 1-2) still has a chance to earn a winning season with a victory over Waterford on Thanksgiving Day.