SENIOR WR Ryan McCullough (7) scored three touchdowns for the Hornets on Saturday. North Reading’s home opener is against Greater Lawrence this Friday night at 6 p.m. (Adele Vittozzi Photo)
By DAN ZIMMERMAN
WAKEFIELD — There is a proverb that first appeared in the 16th century that says ‘the early bird gets the worm” which means that starting something early can often maximize the results.
This proved true for the North Reading Hornets on Saturday morning as they handily defeated their season-opening host Northeast Regional, 49-20. By the end of the first quarter, the Hornets had opened up a 20-6 lead which ultimately led to a decisive win, mostly as a result of phenomenal special teams play. Senior Ryan McCullough, for instance, scored a pair in his special teams role, along with a conventional TD as a wide receiver.
“That’s what excites us about Ryan,” said fourth-year head coach Ed Blum. “He has great speed; you can’t teach that kind of speed. He’s one of several top-notch playmakers we have. But part of the credit on both those returns certainly goes to the guys who stayed with their blocks and opened holes for Ryan.”
The first of McCullough’s special teams TDs took place midway through the second quarter after Northeast had rallied back to close the deficit to 20-14. On the ensuing kickoff, McCullough collected the ball on one bounce and was off to the races, reaching paydirt from 78-yards. Soon after, Northeast was forced to punt from deep in their own zone and McCullough took it back from the 35.
“That’s the one thing we emphasize at every single practice,” said McCullough, who added an 8-yard TD reception on a slant from QB Alex Carucci. “The importance of special teams. There are three parts – offense, defense, and special teams and we focus equally on each in practice.”
Often times, in a high scoring win, the defense tends to takes a back seat. But North Reading junior linebacker Sam Morelli made certain the Golden Knights took notice. Quick to the ball carrier, Morelli’s tackle count reached well into double figures. Except for one breakaway TD run, Northeast was typically held to 1 or 2-yards of forward progress.
“Morelli was an all-league player last spring as a sophomore,” said Blum. “He worked his tail off all summer and made the next leap. From a defensive perspective, this is what we needed from the middle linebacker position. He’s kind of a pseudo-leader of the defense, especially that front seven. Sideline to sideline, he makes his reads and flies around.”
“We were flying around today,” agreed Morelli. “Our defensive line was making the blocks and everyone was doing their job, especially Anthony Pino. We also have to give credit to the scout team – they gave us a great look all week.”
North Reading claimed the ball first and opened the season with a Carucci to McCullough 8-yard pass play to cross midfield. The Hornets then shifted to the run, alternating tries between Carucci and Will Batten, who rumbled for 25-yards to reach the 5. Carucci finished with a sharp cut to daylight and a 7-0 Hornet advantage after Matt Guidebeck’s PAT.
Northeast fumbled on the kickoff return, handing the ball back on their 38. The Hornets made quick work of the takeaway, wrapping up a brief series with a Carucci 8-yard slant to McCullough. A missed PAT made it 13-0 for the visitors.
Knight’s senior tailback Steve Donnelly, denied yardage to this point, finally broke one for a 55-yarder to slice the deficit to 13-6. But on the final play of the first quarter, Carucci took advantage of blown coverage and restored the two-score lead, finding Craig Rubino wide open for a 50-yard TD.
Down but certainly not out, Northeast answered with a 9-play, 59-yard scoring series, capped with QB CJ Moriconi’s 8-yard keeper. But in the blink of an eye, the Hornets suddenly stretched their lead to 35-14 on McCullough’s back-to-back special teams outburst.
“Northeast is a big, tough, well-coached team,” said Blum. “We’re fortunate to have players like McCullough, Carucci, Guidebeck and Aidan Smith. We effectively used our strengths to beat them today.”
Contributing but left out the scoring in the first half, Batten made noise in the third quarter with a 56-yard TD sprint to put his team in front, 42-14. The combatants traded scores in the final frame to wrap up the morning. The Knights’ Moriconi punched in a 5-yarder and on the next possession, Batten added a 16-yarder on a Carucci pitch for the 49-20 final.
“You definitely want to see the season off to a good start,” said Blum. “We saw what kind of experience these kids gained in the spring and how hard they worked over the summer and in preseason. They’re buying in and this is the payoff. This is a well-deserved victory.”
“It does feel pretty good to win by such a favorable score,” said McCullough. “But we don’t want to get complacent or celebrate too much. It’s better to stay humble and focus on the next opponent.”
North Reading will next host Greater Lawrence on Friday at 6 p.m.