Published in the November 30, 2016 edition
By TOM CONDARDO
LYNNFIELD — The “foot” in football was never more important than it was on Thanksgiving morning at a brisk Pioneer Stadium. Big plays in the kicking game on both sides of the ball were key factors as the Hornets scored 18 points in the second half to hold off the Pioneers 21-20 in the 58th meeting between the schools.
Lynnfield (6-4) led 14-3 until the middle of the third quarter, but a rare Hornet passing touchdown, a blocked punt and a 40-yard field goal vaulted North Reading (9-2) to a 21-14 lead.
The Pioneers roared back to score with just over two minutes to play, but the point after touchdown (PAT) try from freshman Liam Fabbri drifted just right to leave the home team one point shy of tying it up.
“You can never say one play cost you the game,” said Pioneers head coach Neal Weidman. “There are a ton of plays that decide a game. It was a great game. I thought we played quite well. That’s a good team and we were right there.”
On the bright side, captain Louis Ellis’ two touchdown catches gave him 14 for his career and tied the Lynnfield High School career mark set by Jon Knee in 2013-14. Quarterback Matt Mortellite fired two more touchdown passes giving him 21 on the season, tying the record set by Danny Sullivan in 2014.
Two high powered offenses were expected to light up the scoreboard. Although both offenses moved the ball for 621 combined yards, both rivals struggled to get into the end zone. Both teams had scores nullified by penalties in the first quarter. Holding calls erased a 25-yard field goal by Fabbri for Lynnfield and an 81-yard TD run by Hornet superback Matt McCarthy.
The Pioneers broke the scoring ice early in the second when Anthony Murphy bulled his way in from the one. Fabbri, who hit 80 percent of his PAT tries on the season, drilled it through to give Lynnfield a 7-0 lead. Mortellite set up the score with a pretty 34-yard scamper.
The Hornets nearly matched the score on their next possession when McCarthy broke loose and appeared headed for pay dirt. Captain Alex Boustris tripped him up at the 5-yard line, preventing the score. North Reading got to the one but couldn’t get in and had to settle for a 24-yard Bob O’Donnell field goal to make it 7-3.
“That was a big play by Boustris there,” said Weidman. “It saved us four points.”
The Pioneers stretched their lead to 14-3 on their first possession of the second half when Mortellite and Ellis hooked up for a 60-yard touchdown. After penalties to both teams, Fabbri knocked through a 25-yard PAT.
Hornets roar back
The Hornets appeared to be in trouble when they lost McCarthy to an apparent ankle injury on the first play of the second half. However, captain John Merullo stepped into the breach to lead the North Reading comeback. He carried 14 times for 104 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
“He’s a good player,” Weidman said of Merullo. “He ran the ball really hard and made a bunch of people miss. We were in position most of the game but he’s just a good athlete.”
Behind Merullo’s running, the Hornets got the ball to the Lynnfield 21-yard line. On fourth and 10, quarterback Kyle Bythrow, who had thrown only three TD passes all season, scrambled to avoid a sack and somehow found Jake Bedell in the end zone for the score.
The Hornets lined up for the PAT with most of the team lined up on the left and only the center, a blocker and kicker O’Donnell in the middle of the field. The direct snap went to O’Donnell who powered into the right side of the end zone for the two-point conversion to make it 14-11.
The Pioneers shot themselves in the foot on their next possession. They got a first down at their own 30 but were flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for some chatter with the refs and the Pioneers couldn’t dig out of the first and 25 hole. They were forced to punt on the first play of the fourth quarter and Hornet Robert Donahue shot through a hole in the Pioneer protection to block captain Mike Stellato’s punt.
Bedell picked it up and ran it to the Lynnfield 7-yard line. Three plays later, Merullo scored from the 3 and O’Donnell banged through the PAT giving the Hornets their first lead of the game at 18-14.
The Pioneers pinned the Hornets at their own 4 on a great punt by Stellato, but Merullo broke free on a pair of long runs and Bythrow connected with Mike Mikula on a 26-yarder to get to the Lynnfield 30. The Pioneers held but O’Donnell nailed a 40-yard field goal to put the Hornets up 21-14.
With time running out, the Pioneers mounted a 67-yard scoring drive with Mortellite tossing to Ellis, who made a tremendous catch in the end zone to make it 21-20. That was as close as the home team would get.
“I thought about going for two there,” said Weidman. “And I would have if there was less time. I just figured we’d have another chance to score. We were hoping to pin them deep and get a three and out.”
The Pioneers did get the ball back at their own 28 with 1:47 left but three incomplete passes and a fourth down interception ended Lynnfield’s day.
The Pioneers came into the year with a virtually new squad and finished with a 6-4 mark and a fifth straight CAL championship.
“We had a good year,” said Weidman following the tough loss. “After those first two games we kind of put it together. Obviously 7-3 and winning on Thanksgiving would have been nicer but being within a point was pretty good. I just think we improved a lot throughout the year.”
The Pioneers will be returning more than a dozen starters and should be in position to make some noise next season.
“The plan is to build on this for next year,” Weidman concluded. “We’re bringing back a lot of guys but it’s still going to depend on what they do in the offseason. They still have to get better. You expect a year-over-year improvement but it’s not guaranteed. That’s up to them. If they improve then we’ll be better. If they don’t then we won’t. That’s just the way it is.”