WINCHESTER — Despite coming in as the undefeated team, the Winchester High football team knew it was going up against a bigger and stronger opponent, so the Sachems felt they had to be the more aggressive team.

The problem was the execution was not only there, and that left it open for the Reading to take an eight-point lead in the third quarter and then hold on to it the rest of the way, in a 22-14 triumph, Friday night at Knowlton Stadium.

The Rockets (5-1, 4-0 ML) took the lead in the Middlesex League Liberty Division title chase, and can wrap it up this week with a victory over 2-4 Lexington.

The Sachems (5-1, 2-1) gave it all they had to try and remain undefeated, but it was not enough. They have Arlington this week and are still in pretty good shape to host a home playoff game the following week in Div. 3 North.

“A lot of credit goes to Winchester, they were awesome,” said a gracious Reading coach, John Fiore. “I can’t say enough about our kids. We just played so hard and so physical, and Winchester did as well. It was a great high school football game and we were happy to come out on top.”

It was a tough loss to take for Winchester coach Wally Dembowski, who liked his team’s effort, but not the mistakes it made in all three phases of the game.

“If we had done anything on special teams and if we had executed on offense, and attacked a little on defense, we had a chance against those guys,” he said. “We didn’t do enough to beat a good Reading football team, plain and simple.”

It was an interesting game in that Winchester had the ball the entire first quarter, yet Reading came away with a 6-0 lead. There were a series of big plays that kept the momentum going back and forth, throughout the contest, and the Rockets prevented them from happening to the Sachems when they needed it most.

Winchester got the ball first and picked up a couple first downs against Reading’s big and physical defense, with both coming on third down runs by Sachems’ quarterback Tommy Degnan.

A procedure penalty helped lead to a third-and-10 situation, and when Degnan tried to throw for the first down along the left sideline, Reading safety Patrick Harrigan stepped in front of the target and returned the interception 62 yards for a touchdown. The extra point was blocked, leaving it at 6-0 with 6:43 to play in the quarter.

A penalty on the ensuing kickoff left Winchester starting out on its 11. Right away the Sachems faced a fourth-and-one at their 20, and Dembowski decided to go for it. Degnan kept the ball and picked up three yards for the first down.

On the next play, Degnan went to the air again and connected with wide receiver Jakob Flores on a long pass that turned into a 68-yard completion down to the Reading 9, where safety Jeremy Rosh made the tackle.

The Sachems got the ball to the five on three carries by running back Jimmy Gibbons, and then a delay of game penalty put the ball back on the nine for fourth down. Degnan dropped back to pass, stepped up between two defensive linemen and started to head in the direction of the end zone. With that, the Reading secondary abandoned their assignments to head off Degnan near the goal line. This left three Sachem receivers wide open on the right side at various depths. Degnan threw towards the closest one and the pass went over his head for an incompletion.

That was the last play of the first quarter. On second down, Reading quarterback James Murphy had the ball stripped from him by a Winchester pass rusher at the goal line. The freshman just managed to pounce on it at the one for a third-and-18. The next play saw Dan DiMare get the ball on a draw and he went through a huge hole for 34 yards to the 35.

On the next play, Murphy through a wide receiver screen to Dante Barboza, who twisted and sped his way down the left sideline for 53 yards to the Sachem 12. A facemask penalty set the Rockets up with a first and goal at the 6. Eventually, Reading faced a third and goal at the 15, and another draw to DiMare produced a 15-yard touchdown run. Trevor Thornton rushed for the two-point conversion and a 14-0 lead with 8:37 to play in the half.

A 27-yard return for Henry Kraft set up Winchester with good field position at the Reading 48. Degnan started the drive with an 18-yard completion to Flores for a first down at the 30. The Rockets made them work for it, including a six-yard reception to Kraft on fourth and five, before the Sachems finally got on the board with a Degnan fourth down plunge from the 1. The first of two Mario Caloiero kicks made it 14-7 at the half.

On Winchester’s first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, Degnan started to his right and then cut back across the grain and then into the secondary towards the left side. Degnan did not speed away from his pursuers as much as engage them in hand-to-hand combat all the way down the field. He was finally rapped up inside the five but managed to stretch out over the goal-line in an amazing 77-yard touchdown run, tying the game at 14-14.

“The kid is such a tough kid to tackle,” said Fiore, of Degnan’s long touchdown run. “Truthfully we were there on it and he broke two tackles, and they were good players. He’s great player, that kid. It was just an impressive physical effort on his part.”

Reading had an answer, however, and the Rockets would be back in front two possessions later.

The drive started at the Reading 48, and Murphy completions to Colin DuRoss and Hannigan, for 13 and 31 yards, gave the Rockets a first down at the Winchester 8. On third and goal from the 9, Murphy found DiMare with a pass inside the 10 and DiMare took it the rest of the way for a touchdown.

“Danny was awesome tonight,” said Fiore. “We are real happy about it. He was awesome on both sides of the ball.”

Reading went for two and Murphy threw to Barboza in the right corner of the end zone to give the Rockets a 22-14 lead with five minutes left in the third.

Reading’s defense was superb the rest of the half, after Degnan’s touchdown, including four straight three-and-outs for the Sachems.

Winchester started its last drive at its 17, and the first two plays got them one yard. On third down, Degnan went deep down the left sideline and found Flores again, in stride, at midfield. Flores kept motoring until Trevor Conroy hauled him down at the Reading 23.

An eight-yard pass to Patrick Ross set up a 4th and 1 at the 14, but everyone in Knowlton Stadium knew who was getting the ball next, and Degnan tried the right side where he was swarmed under for a three-yard loss by a group of tacklers, led by Dom DeCrescenzo.

“It’s frustrating as all get up because I know we are just as good as that team,” said Dembowski. “We couldn’t execute our offense, we couldn’t block certain things, so that’s a problem. You can’t be one dimensional.”

“We had a real physical week of practice,” said Fiore. “We had some ups and downs, but we really hit each other all week. We knew it was going to be a physical type of game with that quarterback.”

Reading is at Harry Crumb Field for a matinee on Saturday (2 p.m.) against the Minutemen. The Sachems will have their Senior Night, Friday night (7:15 p.m.), when they host the Spy Ponders back at Knowlton Stadium.

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