THE HORNETS stuck together to beat Pentucket in a closely-contested state semifinal matchup on Friday night at Manning Field in Lynn to earn the program’s first trip to the Super Bowl since 1979. (Adele Vittozzi Photo)
Gridmen are on to Gillette after semifinal win over Pentucket
By DAN ZIMMERMAN
LYNN — Paul “Bear” Bryant, remembered as one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, once said, “It’s not the will to win that matters – everyone has that. It’s the will to prepare to win that matters.”
Preparation and practice has been the mantra of North Reading football throughout the season and week after week, has invariably yielded dividends. But never was it more evident than last Friday night, when the Hornets overcame a sluggish first half and went on to eliminate Pentucket, 31-14.
By virtue of this compelling semifinal win over their Cape Ann League foe, top-seed North Reading will soon board a bus bound for Gillette Stadium and a MIAA Division 5 Super Bowl clash with No. 2 Swampscott. The game is set for Wednesday, Dec. 1 with kickoff at 8 p.m.
In many games this season, it was often the emergence of an individual offensive or special teams player who would lead the Hornets over beleaguered opponents, efforts often resulting in 40 or more points scored. But facing Pentucket, which fell 20-0 to the Hornets in their first meeting, several starters made substantial contributions to the cause.
Ryan McCullough came up with an 83-yard punt return for a TD early in the second half and later added a 44-yard return to hand his teammates a short field. Quarterback Alex Carucci rushed for a score and threw another while Will Batten punched one in to make it a two-score lead with minutes left.
“We’re so fortunate,” said North Reading head coach Ed Blum, who improved to 10-1 overall with the playoff semifinal win. “We have a lot of good athletes in our arsenal and they’ve been making plays all year. When their number is called, we can count on them to make the play. It’s nice to be able to rely on more than just one guy. They did a great job tonight and I’m happy for them.”
Pentucket served notice early, claiming the ball on a fumble recovery via an onside kick at the start. The stingy North Reading defense held its ground, however, and negated the turnover. Through the first quarter, there was limited forward progress. But as the second got underway, prolific tailback Will Batten made strides on 10 consecutive carries, eventually gaining the Pentucket 2-yard-line. Carucci pulled down a high snap, faked a handoff, and rolled untouched for the go-ahead score. Under a stiff crosswind, Matt Guidebeck’s PAT dinged off the upright.
Pentucket answered without delay, capping a 65-yard drive on seven plays with a 1-yard keeper from QB Chase Dwight. Placekicker Henry Hartford put his team in front, 7-6, at the break.
Throughout the season, North Reading was typically lights-out in the first half, racking up comfortable leads. Reshaping the game plan was often unnecessary. But the Hornets were uncharacteristically flat against Pentucket and Blum agreed something had to be done.
“We knew we were going to face adversity at some point and we knew we were going to get Pentucket’s best,” said the coach. “We talked about it in the locker room and made a number of adjustments. I’m so proud of the way the guys came out after halftime.”
“Coach Blum talks about facing adversity,” said linebacker Sam Morelli. “We came out of that locker room with our backs against the wall, knowing we would have to play our best half of football all year. We executed and everyone was flying around.”
On a single play, McCullough entirely changed the complexion of the game. After the defense forced a three-and-out, McCullough collected the ensuing punt and raced 83-yards to daylight. Carucci put the Hornets in front, 14-7, finding Craig Rubino for a 2-point conversion.
“That’s what we strive for in North Reading – take it to the house,” said McCullough. “I think when we go into that locker room, we flip a switch. Whatever happened in the first half no longer matters.”
Ryan McGuire ended a threat with a pickoff of Dwight. Guidebeck eventually converted the takeaway, adding insurance with a 26-yard field goal late in the third. But a stubborn Pentucket squad reeled the Hornets back with yet another 1-yard TD from Dwight to make it 17-14 with 10:21 left in the game.
Minutes later, McCullough once again thrilled the North Reading faithful, huddled in the cold at Lynn’s Manning Field, with a 44-yard punt return to the Pentucket 4. Carucci later found Guidebeck, lacing a pinpoint throw after escaping a tenacious pursuit.
“I ran to my left and then all the way back to my right,” said the junior QB, who now has 25 TD throws on the season. “Our receivers just find a way to get open.”
North Reading wrapped up the win with points off a Rubino pick in the waning minutes. Batten eventually converted with a 13-yard TD rush to cap the scoring.
“I’ve been dreaming about this forever,” said Morelli. “This is the payoff for all of the hard work we put in during the off-season and in practice each week.”
“We’ve been dreaming about this for a long time,” echoed McCullough. “It’s such an amazing feeling to finally be making the trip to Foxboro.”
“We have one more step to take,” Carucci summed up. “To claim that Super Bowl ring!”