Published October 3, 2019


NEWBURYPORT — In previous weeks, the story was usually about a North Reading football team that won games behind a potent offense, both through the air and over the ground. But in Friday night’s bout in Newburyport, the Hornet defense stole the headlines.

The North Reading clutch secondary picked off Newburyport QB Charles Cahalane on three occasions, twice cutting short potential scoring threats.

The Hornets remain undefeated on the season, improving to 4-0 while host Newburyport fell to 2-2.

Unlike the first three games of the season, where the outcome was more or less determined by halftime, the Clippers proved formidable, on both sides of the ball, and the scored was deadlocked 14 apiece at the break. In fact, the decisive play didn’t take place until there were less than three minutes remaining in the game.

Trailing 21-14, Newburyport was effectively driving toward another potential tie score, with Cahalane repeatedly connecting with favorite receiver Trevor Ward to move into North Reading territory.

AIDAN CARUCCI makes a tackle with Cam Randazzo (8) ready to help. The Hornets beat Newburyport to improve to 4-0 on the season. (Bob Currier Photo)

Cahalane targeted the elusive Ward on a 3rd-and-10 play. It was noted that had Ward hauled in the throw, there was nothing between him and the end zone except six points. But Hornet defensive back Brayden Scribner picked off the throw and returned it 53-yards to the Clipper 22, setting up an eventual insurance score.

“Newburyport had a great game plan and just came out and played us tough,” said North Reading coach Ed Blum. “But we have guys on defense who can make plays. Some of them stepped up and got better as the game went on and started to take care of their responsibilities. Thankfully, that effort helped us win this game.”

North Reading lost the services of QB Brian Heffernan, who sustained a shoulder injury in the home-opening win over Hamilton-Wenham the week before.

Sophomore Ryan McCullough got the start and did not disappoint. While he didn’t throw as frequently as his predecessor, he was accurate. On the third play from scrimmage, McCullough dumped a short pass over the top to Jack Keller who did the rest, racing 73-yards for a go-ahead score. Robert Tammaro’s PAT made it 7-0 for the visitors, just 45-seconds into the game.

The Clippers answered without delay, however, capping a 60-yard, eight-play series with a 1-yard plunge by Walker Bartkiewicz to draw even.

Not to be outdone, North Reading recaptured the lead, 14-7, on a McCullough 58-yard keeper.

JACK KELLER scored three touchdowns (two rushing, one receiving) to lead the Hornets to a win over Newburyport on Friday. (John Friberg File Photo)

“Heffernan got hurt in the last game,” said Blum, who was pleased with the effort of his backup QB. “We had to find another way to win offensively. Both our offensive line and McCullough stepped up and executed across the board.”

Following three scores in as many possessions to start the game, the respective defenses forced a brief offensive hiatus. But midway through the second quarter, QB Cahalane found his legs, rushing for 35-yards on four carries to reach the Hornet 25-yard line. From there, he rifled a pinpoint pass to Bartkiewicz who side-stepped would-be tacklers for the game-tying score.

“We knew coming in that we had to execute,” said Blum. “At times, we didn’t and Newburyport took advantage of it.”

When play resumed for the second half, the Hornets’ defense forced a three-and-out but then handed the ball back to Newburyport on a muffed punt. Backed up on their own 23, the Hornets dug in and came up with a defensive play that marked a turning point in the game. As Cahalane released, his pass was deflected into the hands of Jack Donahue. Not only did the Hornets take the ball back, they converted the turnover into points, marching 77-yards on 13 grueling plays, capped with a 22-yard TD rush from Keller.

Keller accounted for the go-ahead score with 3:16 left in the third quarter and added insurance with a 12-yard scamper several plays after teammate Scribner picked off Cahalane.

“There is a nice internal competition going on amongst the kids,” said Blum, who next hosts a 2-1 Masconomet club on Friday night. “They push each other during the week and push each other for the full 48 minutes of each game.”