WINCHESTER — Thus far, the season has been a ladder climb for the Winchester High football team, with each passing week a test a little more difficult than the previous one.
The Sach-ems improved to 4-0 for the first time since 1990 with a 19-7 triumph over Belmont, Friday night at Knowlton Stadium.
The Marauders provided the toughest defense Winchester had faced, and an offense that at one point appeared to have the Sachems solved.
Right when it appeared Belmont might rally to take the lead in the fourth quarter, senior co-captain Tommy Degnan came up with a huge interception, returning it 28 yards to the Marauder 37. Running back Jimmy Gibbons scored on a 37-yard run on the next play for what turned out to be the clinching touchdown.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Winchester coach Wally Dembowski. “I told the kids all week this was going to be the hardest game they played to this point. Belmont is one of the toughest bunch of kids going. They are a good ball team, they are going to win some ballgames.”
The Sachems forced one other turnover in the game, and they also converted it into a touchdown, accounting for 13 of the 19 points.
Belmont was not quite done, even after falling behind, 19-7, with 6:59 left in the game. The Marauders mounted one last drive which took them down to the Winchester goal line, with less than three minutes to play.
On fourth and goal from the one, Belmont quarterback Avery Arno took the snap from under center and tried to squeeze into the end zone over right guard, only to be denied by a Sachem wall, led by Degnan and defensive tackle Aria Manfred.
“Defensively, we played great, outside of maybe a couple plays,” said Dembowski.
The Marauders got the ball initially at their 36, and on the first play from scrimmage, Arno threw a wide receiver screen to Preston Jackson-Stevens on the left side. As Jackson-Stevens began to cut upfield, cornerback Jakob Flores stripped the ball from him and recovered the fumble at the 45.
That led to a seven-play drive which gave Winchester an early, 7-0 lead. Degnan, at quarterback, connected with Henry Kraft for a 12-yard gain on the first play for a first down at the 33. Gibbons then had runs of high and six yards for another first down inside the 20.
After an incomplete pass, Degnan got his first carry, which went for 10 yards and a first-and-goal at the 9. Gibbons took care of the rest, punching it in from the one after picking up eight yards on first down. Mario Caloiero connected on his only extra point for the 7-0 lead.
What looked like the beginning of a big offensive night for the Sachems, slowed down after the initial drive. The teams began trading punts, with Belmont winning the battle for field position.
That eventually led to a field goal opportunity for the best field goal kicker in the Middlesex League. Hampton Trout had plenty of leg on his 32-yard attempt, but he pulled it wide left to keep the Winchester shutout intact.
The teams continued the defensive struggle into the second quarter, but this time the Sachems were winning the field position battle. That was until Jackson-Stevens made the catch of the game, a full dive forward where he caught the ball with his outstretched hands, just before it hit the ground. The 28-yard completion on 3rd-and-6 from the 21, took the Marauders close to midfield.
Two tackles by Manfred behind the line of scrimmage, one of them a sack, led to the Belmont drive fizzling out soon after.
Winchester was hoping to turn its offensive fortunes around in its first drive of the second half, but it did not look promising after the drive, which started at the 23, only picked up nine yards on the first three plays.
The Sachems faced a fourth-and-one at their own 32, in a one-score game, when they decided to go for it. Instead of a Degnan sneak, Degnan handed off to Gibbons who went around right tackle for eight yards and a first down at the 40.
Later in the drive, Winchester had a first-and-14, on the 50, when sophomore running back Derek Gianci got free in the secondary for a key 48-yard run down to the Belmont 2. Degnan powered his way into the end zone on the next play for a 13-0 lead with 7:58 left in the third.
The Sachems were driving again on their next drive when a fumble gave the ball back to the Marauders at their 35.
That began a 65-yard, 13-pllay drive that got Belmont on the scoreboard, early in the fourth quarter. The drive included five Arno completions to Jackson-Stevens, the last of which gave the Marauders a first-and-goal at the five.
On the next play, Arno found Zach Hubbard for a 5-yard touchdown pass. Trout made the extra point and Belmont was back in the game with 10:29 left.
Winchester went three-and-out and punted for the fifth time in the contest. The Marauders began their next drive at their 48. Two short completions led to a third-and-four. Arno was looking for a receiver down the field on the left side when Degnan reached up and snared the pass attempt at the Sachem 35. He took the ball to the right and made it 28 yards to the 37.
On first down, a huge hole opened up for Gibbons (19-105) on the left side of the line. He burst through it and outraced the Belmont secondary for a 37-yard touchdown. The fake extra-point try turned into a pass attempt that didn’t connect, leaving it a 19-7, which was the final score.
“They (Marauders) have been holding people down, they held Reading to 19 points,” said Dembowski. “We came out and made a bunch of mistakes. I told the kids to enjoy it, because at 9:30 (Saturday) morning we are going to be back here trying to correct them.”
Even if Belmont had scored on its final drive, the Marauders would have had a hard time scoring for a second time against a Winchester defense, that continues to come up with big plays and defensive stands.
“Take away the mistakes on offense and we are feeling pretty good,” said Dembowski.
The task will get a little more difficult again, this Friday night (7 p.m.) when the Sachems travel to Wakefield (2-2) to take on the Warriors at Landrigan Field.