By DAN ZIMMERMAN
NORTH READING — As the North Reading Hornets try to come to grips with the discouraging start to their football season, it isn’t so much the back-to-back losses that trouble the players but rather, the means by which those defeats transpired.
Over the past two weeks, North Reading has suffered overtime losses in each outing, first to Amesbury, 40-38, in the season-opener and then last Friday, in the home-opener to Pentucket, 24-16.
Facing Pentucket, a program that finished 1-11 last year but is currently 2-0 after defeating Hamilton-Wenham in their opener, the Hornets were unable to punch it in during the overtime sequence, despite a pair of tries from inside the 1-yard-line.
“No, they haven’t gone in our favor,” said North Reading Coach Ed Blum, when asked about his team’s recent overtime woes. “From a coaching perspective, we have to continue to do a better job getting these kids prepared to play a varsity football game.”
Of course, losing key weapons at this early stage will certainly make for an uphill climb. The Hornets are decimated with walking wounded, having lost promising place-kicker CJ Villarroel in Amesbury. And Will Batten, the Hornet’s premier tailback, and defensive stalwart Anthony Corvino were both sidelined. Batten, whose injury is undisclosed, was dressed but did not play. And Corvino, who was last seen wearing a sling, represents a huge loss if his recovery is drawn out.
“Having two seniors go down is not ideal,” said Blum. “Every team deals with injuries but we’re not a deep team to begin with. It’s tough to replace a Batten or a Corvino.”
Under cool, overcast conditions, North Reading took to their new turf for the first time in a game situation and made quick work of the opening possession, as sophomore running back Otto Indelicato cashed in with a 1-yard plunge. Sophomore QB Jason Berry was impressive during the 9-play, 69-yard series, completing five-for-five, including three to Brandon Eng. The Hornets Achilles Heel in the early stages has been the 2-point conversion but Berry was able to find Brady Gavin to make it 8-0, midway through the first quarter.
The Hornet’s first turnover of the season proved costly. Early in the second frame, after Berry had driven the team into the red zone, he was picked off. Pentucket QB Caleb Meisner converted the takeaway, slinging the ball for plays of 35 and 44-yards to top receiver Luke Zavaski, and then 5 to Manny Gasca for the score. He also completed the 2-pointer to knot it.
With seconds left in the half, North Reading recaptured the lead, 16-8, when Berry took it in from the 1. Berry was throwing well again, finding Tanner DuPriest for 24 and later, Gavin, who hauled in a 34-yarder to set up the go-ahead score. Berry also linked up with Eng for the all-important 2-point conversion.
Armed with the first possession of the second half, Pentucket matched their host, scoring the equalizer on a 7-yard TD throw from Meisner to Steven Harper followed by a 2-point rush.
The fourth quarter, to put it bluntly, was ugly. In a dizzying sequence, Berry was picked off twice, and Panthers tailback Gasca coughed it up twice. None of the four turnovers resulted in points but the fifth was an interception of Meisner by junior linebacker Antonio Ricca, putting his team on the Panther 36. With a full compliment of timeouts and an ample 1:46 remaining in regulation, the Hornets were in the driver’s seat.
Berry, who was 23-of-36 for 230-yards on the night, completed to Eng and DuPriest sandwiched around a pair of rushes to reach the red zone. But then the Hornets became mired in place, and from the 2-yard-line, Berry was unable to find a receiver on four straight throws. Pentucket claimed the ball on downs and took a knee to send it to overtime.
Winning the toss, North Reading relinquished first possession to the Panthers. Gasca was soon in from the 4 and Meisner capped it with a 2-point throw.
North Reading stayed on the ground, with Indelicato moving the ball to the 3. Berry reached the 1 on his first try but was inches short on fourth-and-goal, ending the game.
“The opposition has us circled on their calendars,” said Blum, who has a bye this weekend, giving some of his injured players additional recovery time. “I told our guys that we’re going to have to be better prepared because every team brings their best to us.”