TEWKSBURY — Statistically, the Winchester High football team outplayed Tewksbury in their MIAA Div. 3 North final, but when the chips were down, the Redmen showed time and again why they are now three-time champions with a 29-28 triumph, Saturday afternoon at Doucette Stadium.
The fourth-seeded Sachems (8-2) did well on both sides of the ball, but a couple of turnovers, a fumbled snap on a punt, and miscues on defensive coverage cost them dearly in the end.
Even with all that, Winchester scored the potential tying touchdown on Tommy Degnan’s third scoring run of the game with 47 seconds left in regulation. The Sachems took a timeout to discuss their options.
Winchester coach Wally Dembowski decided to go for it, and Degnan took the ball around right end, only to be knocked out of bounds a half-yard short by a group of Redmen tacklers, led by Nolan Timmons and Danny Fleming.
“We haven’t had traction all day, the field was in tough condition,” said Dembowski, on the uncertainty of kicking the extra point and other reasons to go for two. “We had trouble defending some of the stuff they were doing, this environment, we had missed an extra point earlier, everything. We were gonna go down with our top guns. They played their (butts) off and I’m proud of them.”
“The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender,” said Tewksbury coach Brian Aylward. “We talk a lot about that. If you invest in something and you really want it, even when it looks tough, you're not going to let someone take that away from you and that's what they showed on that play.”
The game was played on a grass field and the skill players from both teams had trouble finding their footing, especially on cuts. One would think it was a home field advantage for the Redmen, but they struggled just as much.
“The field was in tough shape, that was a concern,” said Dembowski. “Tommy couldn’t get his feet underneath him running the ball there, for awhile, and both teams were slip-sliding. It wasn’t just us, both teams were slipping. It kind of changes the dynamic of things.”
Winchester moved the ball through the air on its initial drive, with a 23-yard completion to wide receiver Brandon Lavey providing the initial spark. A pass interference penalty kept the drive going before the Sachems turned the ball over on downs at the Redmen 30.
Tewksbury scored on its first drive, covering the 70 yards in eight plays. The Redmen showed off their variety of looks and plays, beginning with a 23-yard run around right end by tight end Danny Fleming on the first play.
The other big play was a 23-yard completion from quarterback Ryne Rametta to running back Ryan Keough, with set up Tewksbury at the Winchester 27. Runs of seven yards and eight yards by top running back Kyle Darrigo, plus a Sachem penalty, put the Redmen at the Winchester 6, which was the distance of the first of two touchdown runs by Darrigo. Keough added the extra point for a 7-0 lead with 3:44 left in the first quarter.
The Sachems bounced back to score two touchdowns in the second quarter to take a 13-7 lead. Degnan got the drive started with a six-yard screen pass to Derek Gianci, before a 10-yard loss on a Steve Arsenault sack set Winchester back, momentarily. Degnan found his stride in the ground attack, after the sack, picking up 27 yards on his next two carries.
After another completion to Lavey notched another first down, Degnan showed the fans why he is so highly regarded, taking the ball around right end, bursting through a couple would-be tacklers, and then sprinting the rest of the 27 yards into the end zone for the tying touchdown. Mario Caloiero aded the extra point.
After a Tewksbury punt, Winchester took a 13-7 lead on a six-play drive that covered 74 yards. The big play was a 41-yard catch-and-run by Jakob Flores, who ran down the left sideline before cutting in and getting brought down at the Tewksbury 32 by Fleming.
Running back Derek Gianci picked up 17 yards on the next play to the 15 before Degnan scored two plays later on an eight-yard run. The extra point try was off target, with 3:23 left in the half.
“I thought he threw the ball well, I thought he ran the ball well and he ran hard,” said Aylward, of Degnan. “There's only a few kids like that, but we seem to have faced those kinds of players so it's not like we haven't had practice with it.”
The Redmen managed to rally to take the lead, 14-13, with a touchdown in the final minute. A short kickoff and a 10-yard return set up Tewksbury near midfield, and a nine-yard run by Keough and a 15-yard run by Fleming gave Tewksbury a first down at the Sachem 30.
The Redmen eventually faced a fourth-and-nine at the 14 when Keough made a great catch in the right side of the end zone for the touchdown with 39 seconds left. Keough’s extra point gave his team a 14-13 lead at the half.
A bizarre third quarter featured two turnovers for each team, the Sachems coming on consecutive snaps. Winchester was the beneficiary of the first one as the ball popped into the hands of Flores as he was sitting on the ground, on the second Tewksbury play from scrimmage.
Jimmy Gibbons had to leave the game with a shoulder injury at the half, but Gianci showed he was ready for the challenge with a 32-yard pickup on his second carry on the drive. On the next play, Degnan went for the home run ball from the 30 and was intercepted by Keough.
Tewksbury had the ball on the 10 when there was a fumble on the exchange in the backfield. A Redmen player recovered it in the end zone for a safety and a 15-14 lead for Winchester.
The Sachems were supposed to benefit from a free kick from the Tewksbury 20 but the kick went over the head of the main return man, and Winchester ended up starting the drive at the 14. Degnan fumbled on the first play, and suddenly it was the Redmen knocking on the door.
Five plays later, on fourth and five from the 9, Rametta scrambled around all over the backfield before finding an open Keough for another touchdown pass with 7:32 left in the quarter. Rametta threw to Owen Gilligan for the two-point conversion and it was now 22-15.
““That was a weird back-and-forth,” said Aylward. “(For Tewksbury) that's a sign of maturity. You have a sudden change like that. Coaches all over the country talk about change and sudden changes in practice or in games and our kids had to do it a couple of times and did it well, getting the ball back like they did.”
Winchester was forced to punt on its next possession, and with Gibbons out of the game, Degnan gave it a try and hooked one out of bounds at the Sachem 44 for 22 yards.
The Sachem defense came through soon after, with Henry Kraft coming up with an interception and returning it 23 yards to the Tewksbury 42,
That led to a five-play scoring drive with an unusual ending. A 29-yard Degnan run set up a first and goal, and Degnan was almost in three plays later when the ball came loose at the goal line. Michael Sirignano fell on it for Winchester for a touchdown and a 22-22 tie with 1:25 left in the quarter.
Each team was forced to punt on its next possession, and when it was the Sachems’ turn to punt, kicker Caloiero gave it a try but couldn’t hold on to the snap. He was tackled at the Winchester 36. That led to a Darrigo one-yard plunge that gave the Redmen a 29-22 lead with 3:04 to play.
“We just made too many mistakes, today,” said Dembowski. “We muffed the punt snap, missed the extra point, we fumbled twice, we had a pick. We didn’t make enough plays on the opposite side, and they (Redmen) are a good football team.”
The Sachems showed they were not done yet, as Degnan threw a 45-yard bomb to Flores on the first play of their next drive to put the ball at the Tewksbury 20. Two runs for 18 yards by Gianci paved the way for Degnan’s third touchdown run.
“We battled our tails off for 47 minutes,” said Dembowski. “It’s hard, at this point in time, for these guys who put a lot into it, there are not many words that can cheer them up at this point. At the end of the day that was one of the best football games I’ve been a part of. We didn’t win it but it was still a heck of a football game.”