THE HORNET sideline celebrates Ryan McCullough’s punt return TD
NORTH READING — In stark contrast to the first two weeks of the football season, which featured the North Reading Hornets steamrolling a pair of struggling non-league opponents, Cape Ann League foe Pentucket paid a visit Friday night and as advertised, proved to be a worthy adversary.
Where North Reading required only 16 offensive plays to defeat Greater Lawrence in Week two, Pentucket did an admirable job keeping the Hornets at bay, at least until senior Ryan McCullough returned a punt 43-yards for a go-ahead TD. That tally, which is fast becoming the senior wide receiver’s trademark, would be all the Hornets would need to eventually lock up a 20-0 win and improve to 3-0 (CAL, 1-0)
North Reading’s offense added a pair of second half scores, one off a takeaway, while the punishing Hornet defense held Pentucket to 53-yards rushing, handing them their first loss (2-1).
“Cape Ann teams are well-coached and they’re tough,” said North Reading head coach Ed Blum. “And Pentucket is exactly that. They had some good drives but our defense battled.”
Battling was Hornet junior Anthony Pino, who is an imposing figure in the middle of the defensive line. Lacking a prolific tailback, Pentucket executed a game plan that featured QB Chase Dwight running, time and again, into the strength of the defense. Equal in size with the burly Pino, Dwight was nonetheless frequently stopped in his tracks.
“Anthony Pino has been a beast for us,” said Blum. “He has been working hard ever since the summer. He made the commitment and you see in the way he plays that he is getting more and more confident. He is a dominant force on the defensive line.”
Pino was asked to explain the secret of his success. A man of few words, he said, “I just have to stay low, keep working and keep driving forward.”
North Reading won the opening possession and began their first offensive series from the 17. Eleven plays and 74-yards later, they relinquished the ball on downs, unable to complete a 4th-and-5 pass inside the red zone.
Pentucket, quickly three-and-out, set up to punt and hand the Hornets what would likely be a short field. Instead, it was McCullough taking it for a ride and a 7-0 lead.
Pentucket, which is still in search of a team mascot after recently retiring the Sachems moniker, nearly answered as the first half wound down. Mired on their own 7 to start, Dwight found favorite receiver Johnny Igoe in North Reading territory with a 41-yarder. After several rushes, Dwight exploited the secondary for three straight completions, including a 14-yarder to Che Condon, marking the first Pentucket trip to the red zone. The Hornets shored up the coverage, as well as the pass rush, forcing inaccurate throws. A 4th-and-10 Dwight toss had potential but was foiled when McCullough and Matt Guidebeck combined to break up the play.
Pentucket started the second half by marching from their own 20 to the North Reading 32 on eight plays. Dwight was again throwing well but his one wayward pass of the night proved costly as Hornet senior Aidan Smith came down with the ball in a crowd and returned it to the 1. On the next play, sophomore tailback Will Batten polished off the gift to add insurance, 14-0.
“Aidan is one of our best practice players,” said Blum, when asked about Smith’s pickoff which changed the complexion of the game. “Plays like that, we practice all the time and you’re just hoping that come game day, they make the play. Aidan did exactly that. It represented such a big momentum shift after Pentucket drove it to the red zone.”
Early in the final frame, QB Alex Carucci leaned in from the 1-yard-line to wrap up the scoring, 20-0. McCullough contributed with a 32-yarder on the ground, coupled with junior Craig Rubino, who had key rushes along with a 10-yard reception to add to his five catches on the night.
The North Reading defense would have the final say, dismantling a Pentucket red zone threat in the waning minutes. Linebacker Sam Morelli wrapped up Dwight on a last ditch attempt to snap the shutout.
“We’re going on the road now for three straight and to face three tough teams – Ipswich, Amesbury and Triton,” outlined Blum. “Sometimes when you face adversity at home, you have the crowd to get your energy going. But with away games, you don’t have that benefit and we may have to overcome adversity from within.”
North Reading travels to face Ipswich Friday evening at 6:30 p.m.