By DAN ZIMMERMAN
AMESBURY — In last weekend’s two-part football season-opener, the determined North Reading Hornets fought through a grueling battle of attrition only to suffer a narrow 40-38 defeat to the Amesbury Red Hawks.
In a turnover-free bout that featured nine lead changes and was contested over two days due to a lightning storm interruption on Friday night, it was finally decided during an overtime sequence late on Saturday afternoon.
Under MIAA rules, a tie score is resolved via alternating offensive tries, each starting from the 10-yard-line. In this instance, North Reading won the toss and went first. In a perfectly executed deception play, QB Jason Berry tossed a slant to Brandon Eng who carried against the grain, drawing the defense with him. Eng then pitched back to Ryan Labb, who raced in for the go-ahead score, untouched. Unfortunately, the Hornets’ 2-point try fell short. Amesbury’s Mike Sanchez soon knotted the contest with a 1-yarder and then put it away, successfully converting a 2-point rush.
“The guys played with their hearts on every single snap and I can’t be more proud of this group,” said coach Ed Blum, who suffered his first defeat in an opener since taking over the program six years ago. “They’ll feel this for a while but I hope that everything they feel, it’s because of their hard work and their fight and their determination.”
Under threatening skies at Landry Stadium, the Red Hawks claimed a lead on their first play from scrimmage, as Mike Sanchez sprinted 58-yards for the score. His twin brother Max added the 2-point conversion to make it 8-0.
North Reading soon answered, as Berry barreled in from the 5, capping off a brief possession. The key play was a Berry-Eng linkup for 40-yards to gain the red zone. Again, the Hornets were unable to convert and trailed 8-6.
The Hornet defense earned it stripes on the next series, as Amesbury came up empty after an exacting 16-play drive. Contributing key tackles were linebackers Anthony Corvino with a pair and James Fodera, with a trio of solo takedowns.
“That’s what Amesbury does – they grind the ball,” said Blum. “As a defense, you have to be ready to answer the call and you can’t get discouraged because they’re continually moving the ball. Our defense showed a lot of heart.”
North Reading captured a 12-8 lead with 8:12 left in the half on one of those plays that had the fans buzzing. On the Red Hawks 47 and facing a 3rd-and-long, Berry lofted a throw intended for Will Batten, who deflected the ball higher and downfield. Armed with unmatched vision and speed, Batten managed to collect the wayward pass, shake off a would-be tackler, and score.
In the see-saw battle, Amesbury was back on top late in the half but Berry and Batten answered with 43-seconds left, on a 26-yard TD connection. Brady Gavin righted the earlier conversion wrongs, hauling in a Berry 2-point toss to make it 20-16 in favor of the Hornets. Unfortunately, the visitors were unable to extend their momentum as lightning forced the officials to evacuate the stadium and suspend the game.
North Reading, weary and “banged-up,” as Blum described his players, made the return trip Saturday afternoon. Mild, breezy conditions from the night before were replaced with a scorching 90 degrees.
At the outset, Amesbury taxed the Hornet defense, mounting a 14-play, 71-yard drive, crowned with a five yarder from DJ DiCarlo. North Reading, not to be denied, pounded the ball with steady doses of Batten, who polished off a 10-play 62-yard series with a 1-yard plunge for a 26-24 lead.
“We’ve always known what he was capable of and the rest of the league will, as well,” said Blum of Batten, who rushed for 111-yards on 11 carries. “But you have to give credit to the offensive line. They were doing a great job of blocking some of the bigger guys on the Amesbury defensive line. Our guys really battled.”
Playing for the last possession, the Red Hawks surged ahead, 32-26, with 50 seconds left. But the Hornets, as they’ve proved in the past, are often clutch in these situations.
Inexplicably, Amesbury booted an onsides gift that landed the Hornets on the 47. Berry, who was 10 of 17 for 174-yards, went to work, finding Eng, who fed a lateral to Brady for 9-yards. Eng was sensational again, with a toe-drag sideline catch for 19. Brady hauled in an 11-yarder to reach the 13. The Red Hawks committed a penalty, halving the distance to the 7. Berry, incomplete on his first attempt, was true on the next, flaring a game-tying pass to Brady with no time left on the clock.
Early in the contest, the Hornets were using CJ Villarroel for the kicking assignments and the junior exceled. But he was sidelined late in the game so Blum and his staff turned to Logan Lamont for what would have been the game-winning PAT. Bobbled by the holder, Lamont missed low, sending the game into overtime.
“There has been a lot of doubt surrounding this team,” said Blum, who will next host Pentucket on Friday evening. “But they worked hard in the off-season and in the preseason and have proven very coachable. I’m very proud of them and look forward to the journey we’re about to take.”