Keller racks up four TD’s

Published November 14, 2019


BURLINGTON — There are those in the Massachusetts high school football community who would argue that, since the inception of the revised MIAA playoff format, the games that follow a postseason defeat are nothing more than meaningless filler. Perhaps, but the hardy souls who braved sub-thirty degree conditions to support North Reading and Burlington in Friday night’s consolation game would likely disagree.

This contest saw a half-dozen lead changes, dramatic play on both sides of the ball and was not decided until the final moments.

North Reading prevailed, snapping a two-game skid with a 34-26 win over the Red Devils. Burlington, meanwhile, dropped its fifth straight after opening the season with three wins.

In last week’s playoff letdown to Marblehead, North Reading yielded points off costly turnovers. But facing Burlington, the tables were turned with a pair of timely pickoffs. The clutch takeaways, by Gerry Callagy and Will Taylor, led to the undoing of a Red Devils rally try.

JACK KELLER, who has made plenty of highlight reel catches this season, switched to the ground game on Friday in Burlington, rushing for four touchdowns as the Hornets beat the Red Devils 34-26. (John Friberg File Photo)

“There is nothing bigger than making two pickoffs in the fourth quarter to seal the win,” said North Reading Coach Ed Blum, who improved to 7-2 overall. “This was about the defense recognizing certain plays that were previously run against us successfully. They keyed on certain players and made the plays they had to.”

At the outset, positive yardage was at a premium as the respective defenses made statements. The first three series were mired between the forties. But midway through the first quarter, Burlington QB Khyle Pena capitalized on a blown coverage, finding Griffin Carter for 69-yards. Cam Randazzo came up with a touchdown saving tackle at the 1-yard-line but it was a foregone conclusion. On the next play, Pena leaned in for the go-ahead score.

The Hornets enjoyed a short field on the next possession, starting from the Burlington 39. Quarterback Brian Heffernan fired a pinpoint pass to Matt Luciano for 8 followed by a nice, 13-yard Will O’Leary rush into the red zone. Jack Keller finished it but his 18-yard TD was negated on a block-in-the-back infraction. On the next snap, however, Greg Demetri followed his blocks through the line and then burst through a seam for an 18-yard score. A low throw on a 2-point try left the Hornets in arrears, 7-6, with 5:46 remaining in the quarter.

For the most part, the Burlington offensive scheme was one-dimensional. If Pena wasn’t throwing slants to favorite receiver Shawn Pinkham, he was running the ball himself and he was tough to stop, compiling 97 yards on 24 carries. But in recent games, the North Reading defense has stonewalled a number of scoring threats. At the tail end of the first quarter, with the Red Devils working from the 22-yard-line, Randazzo knocked down a throw earmarked for points in the end zone. And on the next play, Nick Tormey flushed Pena from the pocket, forcing an errant toss to end the series.

With 9:51 left in the half, North Reading claimed a 12-7 advantage on a Keller 4-yard TD rush. The money play on the series was a 62-yard catch and run by Luciano. He also added a 14-yard reception from Heffernan before Keller polished it off.

“Guys stepped up and certainly, when you’re able to run the ball, it opens up the passing game,” Blum said. “The offensive line and the receivers did a great job opening holes for our running backs tonight.”

The lead was exchanged once again, 13-12, after Burlington wrapped up a marathon 17-play, 82-yard possession to close out the first half.

The Hornets’ running game has been quiet, to say the least, in recent weeks. But with an axe to grind, Demetri and O’Leary carved out great rushes, particularly on the go-ahead scoring series with 4:35 remaining in the third which was capped with Keller’s second of the night. North Reading made it 20-13 with a Heffernan to Luciano throw for two points.

The Red Devils refused to go away quietly, however. Pena knotted it at 20-20 with a 1-yarder on the opening play of the fourth quarter but North Reading answered with a hat trick from Keller, from the 3 to surge ahead, 27-20. The Hornets were making good on second half adjustments, staying one step ahead of their opponent on a busy scoreboard.

“You go in at halftime and you learn from the film a little bit and from the kids as far as what they’re seeing out there,” Blum explained. “In the second half, we just try to execute any adjustments that we need and we were fortunate to be able to do it tonight.”

With 6:22 remaining, Pena found Pinkham for a 53-yard TD to draw to within a point. But a missed PAT put the Hornets in the driver’s seat down the stretch. The Red Devils employed an onside kick and came up with the ball on the Hornet 47. Trouble loomed until Callagy got under a deflected Pena throw for an interception.

Keller, with three scores to his credit, made it four with an electrifying 60-yard TD run with 3:16 left to quickly convert the takeaway.

Burlington, trailing 34-26, had ample clock to work with but Taylor handed that clock back to the Hornets with yet another interception.

“The defense played awesome, the offense played awesome – it was just a good overall game played by all,” said Blum, who will welcome in 5-4 Wakefield on Friday night at 5 p.m. before hosting Lynnfield in the traditional holiday game. “A shot of cold weather like this isn’t so bad when you come out with a win.”