READING — Trailing by a point at halftime, an undefeated Middlesex League Liberty season no longer seemed like a sure thing for the Reading High football team.
But championships are not won in the first quarter, or the first half, of football games.
The Rockets stormed out of the locker room with 21 unanswered second-half points to turn a 16-15 deficit into a 36-16 win over visiting Winchester, Friday night at John Hollingsworth Field. With the win Reading wrapped up its regular season at 6-1, including a perfect 5-0 in ML Liberty play as it wrapped up its first league since 2015.
The Rockets enter the Div. 2 North playoffs as the No. 3 seed and will open up with a home game vs. No. 6 Peabody (3-4), Friday at 7 p.m.
“We talked about fitting things better on defense, lining up right,” said Reading head coach John Fiore, of his team’s remarkable second-half turnaround. “Offensively we kind of got a few things squared away of what they were doing, and what we were doing. We had some great senior leadership in the second half. That’s what it’s all about. You’ve got to play 44 minutes. It’s a cliché machine alert but that’s what it comes down to.”
Winchester fell to 4-3 with the loss, 1-3 ML Liberty. The Sachems, seeded No. 4 in Div. 3 North, will host No. 5 Beverly Friday night (7 p.m.) in the first round of the playoffs.
The second half of Friday’s game was a mystery in the eyes of Winchester head coach Wally Dembowksi, whose team went from world-beaters to beaten down in a span of 22 minutes. The Sachems were running the football with effectiveness in the first half behind some great play by its offensive line and running backs Jimmy Gibbons and Brendan Curran.
But after the break the Rockets held Winchester without a first down until four minutes remained in the game, and racked up three sacks and two interceptions.
“That half of football in the second half, was nothing we’ve done all year long on defense,” said Dembowski. “We didn’t execute anything, we didn’t tackle worth our souls, so to speak. We couldn’t get aligned, and they weren’t doing anything we haven’t seen. It was like a fire drill, and something happened. And I just told those guys we need to get in in the morning and sit down and take a look to see where things went wrong. We lost something in translation from the locker room to the field.”
The contrast of first and second halves could not have been any more striking.
Winchester scored on two short fields — the first the result of a 51-yard kickoff return by Ricky Welch to the Reading 37, the second a Reading fumble recovered by Jakob Flores at the Reading 33—to take a 9-7 lead to start the second quarter. Winchester quarterback Tony Fiorentio threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Matt Romagna after Welches’ long return to trim Reading’s lead to 7-6, then capitalized on the Rockets’ fumble by kicking a 25-yard field goal.
The Rockets answered Winchester’s go-ahead score with a 54-yard, seven play scoring drive, capped by a 28-yard touchdown run by Pat Conroy. Conroy received a Matt Sannella pitch and ran around right end, putting an ankle-breaking move on a Winchester defender that left him sprawling and put Conroy in the end zone. Sannella, who opened the scoring with a 48-yard touchdown run, ran in the two-point conversion to put the Rockets back in front, 15-9.
But Winchester answered with an impressive 13-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to reclaim the lead (16-15) with 28 seconds remaining in the half. This one was largely on the ground — alternating runs by Jimmy Gibbons and Brendan Curran totaling 50 yards, including a critical two-yard run by Curran to convert a fourth and one at the Reading 17. Fiorentino capped the drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Ross on fourth and six, with great protection allowing Ross to make his way across the defense and into open space.
Fiorentino’s PAT gave Winchester the lead (16-15), and seemingly, all the momentum heading into the locker room. But that proved short-lived.
Reading opened the second half with a nine-play, 68-yard touchdown drive, capped by a one-yard Sannella QB sneak for the score. Sannella had a 35-yard run to the Winchester 33, then dug out of a third and 13 with a critical 17-yard pass to Javon Notelus to the Winchester 19.
Sannella then found Eric D’Agostino for a 17-yard pass to the Winchester one before running in the score. John DiMare’s two point run around end put the Rockets back in front to stay, 23-16 with 6:38 left in the second quarter.
In addition to its second half defensive woes Winchester also saw its offense completely fall apart. The Sachems’ first four possessions resulted in two interceptions by Reading defensive backs Jeremy Rosh and Eric D’Agostino, two three and outs, and zero first downs.
Reading capitalized with a 42-yard touchdown run by tailback Dom Masucci off the block of right tackle Dan Bekkenhuis to open up a 30-16 lead. After Winchester’s second straight three-and-out, the Rockets’ offensive line continued to pound away and open up holes for Conroy (31 yard carry) and Masucci (11 yard carry), driving Reading inside the 20. On third and seven at the Winchester 14, Masucci pulled up on an apparent run around right end and threw a touchdown pass to Conroy in the end zone to close out the scoring (36-16).
“For us this year it’s very uncharacteristic of where we’ve been. We’ve given up a play here or there to Lexington that hurt us, we gave up one screen play to Belmont. That’s our two losses,” Dembowski said. “Reading is a heck of a football team, they’re a big strong group, and we didn’t tackle them, we just didn’t do the things we needed to do. It’s a little frustrating. We’ve got to come in (today) with a little bit of focus. A new season starts (today).”
With Winchester forced to throw the remainder of the game the Rockets racked up a pair of sacks by Vito Laurenza and Andreas Paglia to help preserve the second-half shutout.
“I’m just real proud of the kids,” Fiore added. “A year ago we were getting pounded by everyone (Reading finished 3-8 in 2017), injuries were mounting up. Now we’re Middlesex League (Liberty) champions. I couldn’t be prouder of our staff and our kids. They’ve done awesome. I salute them. Winchester is a good football team, they’re 4-2 for a reason. Season 2 begins in a couple of hours.”