Mansfield 20, North Attleboro 14NORTH ATTLEBORO - In a game of this magnitude, with a huge crowd screaming at the top of its collective lungs and every play carrying magnified meaning, Mansfield High's Mike Redding felt the weight of the world upon his shoulders with 1:33 left in the third quarter Saturday at Community Field.
"I wanted to shoot myself," the veteran coach said of the fake punt he called on a fourth-and-10 play at the North Attleboro 40.
It wasn't so much that the play failed when punter Matt Alksninis threw an incompletion to a wide-open David Westhaver, turning the ball over to North Attleboro's Red Rocketeers. It was the fact that North's Anthony Sherman broke an off-tackle slant to the left side for a 60-yard touchdown run on the very next play, tying the game between the Hockomock League's elite at 14-14 with 1:22 left in the quarter that struck deep fear into the hearts of the unbeaten Hornets and their fans.
But to their credit, the Hornets did not collapse under the weight of that temporary disappointment. Their defense held firm on the next Rocketeer possession, then their offense returned to the field to drive 60 yards to the winning score, a 1-yard plunge by senior Eric DiPietrantonio with three minutes left, resulting in a 20-14 Mansfield triumph and the inside track to the Hockomock title.
"We're a good football team, and so are they," North Attleboro coach Kurt Kummer said, knowing that his 6-2 Rocketeers had given every ounce of effort toward the goal of derailing the Hornets' unbeaten season. "We thought it was going to be evenly matched and that it would come down to turnovers, and we'd try to make them earn things. It was like a heavyweight fight ... we kept throwing punches back and forth and they came out on top."
North fell behind midway through the second quarter, but battled back to tie the game at 7-7 with just 23 seconds left in the half, on a 38-yard pass from Greg Dusel to Kevin McCarthy to finish a drive that covered 72 yards in just five plays and a minute of playing time.
Mansfield went ahead again, but North showed its mettle and re-tied the score on Sherman's long run.
"It was very important," Kummer said of his team's ability to rally from adversity. "This is a big game between two great high school football teams, and you've got to show up ready to go. I'm disappointed in the outcome, but I liked the way we responded. It said a lot about our kids' character, our coaches' character and our parents' character."
Redding, a former Rocketeer himself, couldn't have agreed more.
"They're a classy program," he said. "Kurt's doing a great job. Donny Johnson, their defensive coordinator, gives us fits. He knows our offense inside and out. I don't think you're going to see a better game in Massachusetts than what you saw today ... just two great teams."
There were few hints from the start how this one would end, but one might have been the fact that the Rocketeers had the ball in their possession for 19 plays, covering 71 yards in 7:45 spanning the first and second quarters, and did not score.
Eighteen of those plays were runs, 12 by Sherman (19 carries, 126 yards) for 47 yards, but North faced fourth-and-4 at the 10 when Dusel's pass to Sherman was batted away by DiPietrantonio.
Mansfield quickly moved downfield, with a 20-yard run by DiPietrantonio and a 32-yard pass from Mark Gilson to Patrick Powers bringing the Hornets to the North 15.
A measure of controversy arose when Powers was flaggedfor being set up in an illegal passing formation, seemingly after he asked the sideline official if he had been positioned correctly at the line of scrimmage. But the Hornets shed their anger on the next play when Gilson found DiPietrantonio with a screen pass on the left side of the field, and he followed the block of Mike McPherson into the end zone with 5:11 left.
Alksninis, who booted the extra point, later uncorked a 43-yard punt to drop North back to its own 28 with 1:23 left in the half. But Dusel found Elijah Harris for 22 yards to the Mansfield 38, and then tossed a post-pattern score to a leaping McCarthy with 23 seconds left. Brett Badger's kick sent the stunned Hornets into the lockers staring at a 7-7 tie.
"Greg's a good player, a good kid who works hard, and we're proud of him," said Kummer of his quarterback, who had struggled in the Rocketeers' 12-8 loss to Stoughton a week earlier, but stepped up his play on the bigger stage.
The first big second-half break for Mansfield came on the first play from scrimmage, when Harris was stripped of the ball and Jeff Cataloni recovered to give the Hornets possession at the North 33.
"When they give you the ball in their end, you've got to score points," Redding said. "We felt coming in that they had left the ball on the ground a little bit, and our kids did a pretty good job of stripping it."
Big runs by Powers, DiPietrantonio and Mike Morrill covered the ground quickly, setting up DiPietrantonio's 1-yard plunge for a 14-7 lead with 7:45 left in the third quarter.
North also fumbled on its third possession, Art Conlon recovering for the Hornets at the Rocketeer 40, but that possession went for naught and Redding opted for the fake punt hoping to give his offense a boost.
"Basically, we practice it all year, and we felt we could get it against them," he said. "We felt that if we got it there, we'd score there and we'd win the football game. If you punt from the 40 and it goes into the end zone, it's just a 20-yard punt."
But when the powerful Sherman broke into the clear to tie the game, it was time for the Hornets to prove if they indeed had what it takes to be of championship caliber.
Their first post-Sherman possession faltered, but when North got the ball back at its 33 with 9:41 left to play, the big tailback was stuffed twice, including a 2-yard loss under the smothering tackle of defensive end Corey Eason, and DiPietrantonio again denied Dusel's attempt to find McCarthy for a first down to force a punt.
Taking over at their own 39, the Hornets relied upon the unique chemistry of the Gilson brothers, quarterback Mark (8-13, 123 yards) and receiver Tom (six catches, 72 yards), who hooked up twice for 32 yards to get into the Rocketeer red zone. Then, a personal foul against North tacked on another 8 yards atop a 4-yard run by Powers, creating first-and-goal at the North 8.
From there, it was DiPietrantonio's show - four straight carries before finally blasting over left tackle from the 1 with exactly three minutes left.
The snap for the kick was low, prompting Mark Gilson to run desperately for the right-side pylon - but his knee found the white chalk of the sideline before he got in, leaving some hope for the Rocketeers.
The home team got to its own 36, Powers making a huge stop on Dan Rayburg on third-and-9, but Dusel's last pass for Sherman sailed out of bounds with 1:38 left.
"There are so many things that went on in this game, so much ebb and flow, I'll have to get a look at the film to keep track of things," Redding said. "But we weren't going to leave anything behind on our game plan. You don't want to leave the field saying we should have done this or we should have done that in this situation."
With this obstacle out of the way, the Hornets still have to take care of business Saturday morning (10 a.m.) at Sharon and on Thanksgiving at home against Foxboro to claim the Hockomock title and the MIAA Division 2 playoff berth. Much of the Foxboro squad was present Saturday along with nearly 5,000 other football fans, and Mansfield's victory rewarded them with a renewed chance to tie for the league title.
"They were our biggest fans today because they're back in it," Redding said, "and now they're back to being their biggest arch-rivals on Thanksgiving."
Mans - Eric DiPietrantonio 29 pass from Mark Gilson (Matt Alksninis kick), 5:11.
North - Brian McCarthy 38 pass from Greg Dusel (Brett Badger kick), 0:23.
Mans - E. DiPietrantonio 1 run (Alksninis kick), 7:45.
North - Anthony Sherman 60 run (Badger kick), 1:22.
Mans - E. DiPietrantonio 1 run (rush failed), 3:00.
RUSHING: Powers 12-38, E. DiPietrantonio 15-67, Morrill 5-15, M. Gilson 2-minus 4, Lincoln 2-4.
PASSING: M. Gilson 8-13-0-123, Alksninis 0-1-0-0.
RECEIVING: T. Gilson 6-72, Powers 1-32, E. DiPietrantonio 2-19.
MISSED FIELD GOALS: None.