By Mike Hardman
Hornets edge Knights in Hock thriller
The game had been over for less than 10 minutes, but it already moved to the top of the head coach's personal best list. When asked where last Friday's 8-7 win over Stoughton ranked, Mansfield High head football coach Mike Redding didn't hesitate.
"'This is definitely the most exciting," he said. "It was exciting to win this with everything that was on the line at the end."
Before this year's Stoughton game, tops on the list was the 1996 14-13 win over at North Attleboro as the Hornets marched to a 12-0 season and the Div. 3B Super Bowl. The author of that win, quarterback Matt McLaughlin, MHS Class of 1997, was watching Friday night's game from the scoreboard end zone at Stoughton High.
It was the drama of Friday night's game that pushed it to the top of the list. Stoughton went into the game with a 7-0 record and the Black Knights were in the driver's seat after Mansfield fell to 6-1 with a 24-20 loss to North Attleboro. Then you throw in the fact that over the years, the Stoughton High field has been a personal chamber of horrors for the Hornets, who have struggled there in the past.
Of course, then, you have to look at how the game ended for the Hornets. That might have been the reason why Redding was so quick to move the game to the top of the list.
After a scoreless first half, the Black Knights got on the scoreboard at the start of the third quarter. Stoughton's Kevin McCarthy finished off a drive that started on the Black Knight 23 -yard line with a 14-yard touchdown run at 5:04 mark. Brent Jones added the extra-point for a 7-0 lead.
Mansfield came right back on the right arm of junior quarterback Bill Antonucci, who threw third down passes to Bruce Burley, 21-yards, 20-yards to John Connell and nine-yards to Chris Kiley to move the Hornets all the way to Stoughton one-yard line.
On a first down and one, the Hornets fumbled the pitch and Stoughton's Jim McCormack recovered the fumble. It looked as if the problems that the Hornets had faced in previous meeting at Stoughton High were going to reappear. After forcing the Black Knights to punt, the Hornets got the ball on the Stoughton 27-yard line as Mansfield's Buddy Steams ripped off an 18-yard gain on the return with 8: 14 left in the game. Behind the running of Connell and Burley, Mansfield got all the way down to the nine. As a fourth down pass fell incomplete, it looked as Stoughton was going to be able to hold on for the win, but the Black Knights were called for holding in the end zone, giving Mansfield the ball on the four-yard line. On the first play, Connell took a pitch around the left side for the touchdown to cut the lead to 7-6 with 5: 18 left to go.
Mansfield had the option of sending kicker Jason Noonan on to the field for the extra-point to tie the score at seven, but that wouldn't have help them to possibly get a tie for the Hockomock League title and stay in the running for the Super Bowl.
"Once we got into the fourth quarter," said Redding," we were going to go for it." Mansfield faked the sweep to the left side, the short side of the field, and Connell sneaked in-between the Stoughton defenders.
"I knew he would run under it," said Antonucci.
Connell didn't have much time to adjust the ball when it was airborne.
"I knew that was the game if I caught it," he said. "I had to go up, get the ball and keep my feet in bounds." He did just that, out-leaping the Black Knight defender and getting one foot in bounds for the winning margin. "It seemed like the ball was in the air for 45 minutes," said Connell. "It was like it was in slow motion." As soon as the conversion attempt was signaled good, the celebration started for Mansfield.
"It was an unbelievable catch," said Antonucci. "I just put it there."
While the Hornets were elated, the Black Knights were deflated.
"We had the flat covered because we knew they would do something," said Stoughton High coach Greg Burke. "It was a jump ball and he out-jumped our guy. It was a one-on-one situation."
After the dramatic touchdown and conversion attempt, the Black Knights still had time to rally. The Hornets defense wasn't about to allow that to happen. First, Mansfield's David Diamond sacked Stoughton quarterback Luke Lysak for a nine-yard loss on first down. The Black Knight's were forced to punt.
After Mansfield killed some time off the clock, Stoughton got the ball with a 1:35 left with the ball on their own 25-yard line. On second down, Lysak threw a five-yard a pass to Barbosa, setting up a third down and five from the 30.
Mansfield defensive coordinator Steve Traister called for a blitz and the Black Knights fumbled the snap. Defensive back Pat O'Connor was already in the backfield and he came up with the recovery.
"I saw the ball on, the ground and I knew I had to get it," said O'Connor.
They ran out the clock and moved to a three-way tie with Stoughton, North Attleboro for the top spot in the Hockomock League.
"They (Stoughton) gave us a run for our money," said Connell. "It was back and forth: (Against North Attleboro) we slipped, but (against Stoughton) we got it right back."
Even when they got down by 7-0 and had the fumble on the one yard line, the Hornets never gave up hope. "We knew that we could come back and win," said Antonucci. ,"Stoughton is a great team and it was just great." Redding felt his team responded when they were down.
"This team was in an adverse situation on the road in front of a huge crowd and they played a great game," said Redding. "We talked about it taking offense, defense and special teams and we had to play with pride. Right now this is the biggest win because of what is at stake."
The Hornets would finish the regular season with a 21-6 win over Foxboro on Thanksgiving.
Ed note: Mansfield would go on to win the balance of their regular season games. But would loose a heartbreaker to Norwood in the Division III Playoff (Norwood 9 Mansfield 7)
Stoughton - McCarthy 21 run (Brent Jones kick), 5:04.
Mans - John Connell 4 run (Connell pass from Bill Antonucci), 5:18. Individual statistics
RUSHING: Mansfield - Connell 13-39, B. Kiley 3-8, Burley 10-24, Antonucci 4-3, C. Kiley 2-2.
PASSING: Mansfield - Antonucci 7-19-0=95
RECEIVING: Mansfield Stearns 3-31, Burley 2-35, Connell 1-20, C. Kiley 1-9
MISSED FIELD GOALS: Stoughton - Jones 36 (WL).