Published April 29, 2021


NORTH READING — The season was shortened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the playoffs were ruled-out by MIAA officials and at times, troublesome safety restrictions made life difficult for the coaches, players and spectators alike. But none of these factors, among others, took anything away from the North Reading Hornets and yet another sensational football campaign which wrapped up Friday evening with a dramatic 12-6 win over archrival Lynnfield.

It was fitting that a pair of seniors would lead the Hornets to triumph on what marked the final game of their respective careers. Tailback Will O’Leary, who overcame an injury-plagued season to shine in his last appearance, snapped a scoring stalemate with a rushing TD late in the first half; and receiver Ryan McCullough chose the finale to make his mark, punching in what proved to be the game-winner in the final minutes.

THE HORNETS celebrate their fifth consecutive victory over Lynnfield in the Fall 2 season finale on Friday. (Courtesy Photo)

This season, North Reading was defeated in both Amesbury and Ipswich but was perfect at home with wins over Hamilton-Wenham, Triton, Manchester-Essex, and Lynnfield to close out with a respectable 4-2 record. A trip to Newburyport did not materialize due to virus complications.

“Before this season was approved, the guys were talking about the Thanksgiving game they played a year-and-a-half ago and hoped that wouldn’t be their last football memory,” said North Reading head coach Ed Blum. “Certainly, there were some ups-and-down along the way but they achieved great things. I’m so happy these guys had the opportunity to play football and they played it well.”

While scoring was limited, ball possession and clock management was definitely in North Reading’s favor, particularly in the first half. The Hornet’s first series, for instance, consumed the entire opening quarter plus four minutes of the second. While the Hornets failed to finish the 17-play marathon, they kept Lynnfield’s potent offense on the sideline. Noteworthy in the sequence was Robbie Tammaro’s successful faked punt which kept the drive alive and the loss of Jack Donohue, who sustained a game-ending leg injury.

When the Lynnfield offense finally had a chance to get on the field, the Hornets made certain the visit was brief, forcing a three-and-out. Key defensive plays included a sack of QB Austin Sutera, who lost the foot race to pursuing linebacker Savino Morelli. And later, Tammaro knocked down a pass that was on target to extend the drive.

THE DEFENSE shut down an explosive Pioneer offense on Friday. Pictured, Zach Sampson (77) and Savino Morelli (52) track down Lynnfield running back Joey LaFerla. (Courtesy Photo)

Late in the half, a prevailing wind from the west had an impact. As Pioneer punter Jack Ford sent the ball on its way from his 21, the high kick was pushed back by a sudden gust to the 12. North Reading quickly converted the short field, with McCullough rushing for 10 and O’Leary capping it with a 2-yard plunge. The PAT was unsuccessful but the Hornets were finally in front, 6-0, with 59 seconds left in the half.

“Lynnfield definitely has a dynamic offense and needless to say, we had to keep the ball out of their hands,” said Blum. “We had guys stepping up and converting. The underclassmen gave something extra for the seniors. What you saw was 11 guys digging deep and pulling for each other. They put their hearts into it and left it all on the field.” 

Lynnfield emerged from the break with renewed vigor and knotted the score on an efficient series that began on their 44. QB Sutera, limited to a pair of first half completions, found his range with receiver James Considine, who hauled in a trio of throws to gain the red zone. Sutera finished the drive through the air, rifling an 8-yard TD strike to Sam Gazit. The PAT was wide right, leaving the clubs knotted at 6.

Aside from the sole scoring drive, the North Reading defense pinned their opponent in their own end throughout. The Pioneers crossed the midfield stripe just once. Leading that effort, along with Morelli, was Ryan Long and Tammaro. The pair sacked Sutera, back-to-back, to force a key fourth quarter punt. Tammaro, in his special team’s role, returned that kick 21 yards to the Lynnfield 28. From there, McCullough proved impressive, hauling in a 16-yard pass from QB Brian Heffernan to prolong the drive and later, capitalizing on a gaping hole in the line for a go-ahead 4-yard TD rush. Another missed kick made it 12-6 with five minutes remaining.

WILL O’LEARY fights for yardage against a group of Pioneers. O’Leary’s TD run got the Hornets on the board in his final game in green and gold. (Courtesy Photo)

“I can’t really stress the importance of this game, especially in this weird year” said McCullough. “We’re so fortunate to live in this town and have a program like this. This is the last year with many of these boys and it just shows how important it is to enjoy every single minute. I’ve grown up with these guys, and I can’t thank them enough. They’re my family.”

“Hats off to Lynnfield,” said O’Leary. “We’ve been battling with them since I was four feet tall. But we all know each other, we’re all friends, and it’s just a different game. Coming out on top today is special but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about being able to play this game with my brothers, my family.”

In a late possession, North Reading worked the clock to perfection. A first down pass from Heffernan to William Taylor forced the Pioneers to burn their remaining timeouts. When the Hornets turned the ball over on downs, there was one second left. Lynnfield resorted to a desperation hook and ladder play, with six players getting a hand on the ball. It was exciting for the spectators but to no avail.

“It was a similar script with Lynnfield – they just hung around today,” said Blum. “Thankfully, we were able to finish one last drive at the end. Going into this game, we had an absolutely incredible week of practice. There was so much energy. They were focused but having fun at the same time. The way things turned out today, I couldn’t be happier for them, especially the seniors.

Departing North Reading seniors include Kyle Baker, William O’Leary, Brayden Scribner, Jack Donohue, Robert Tammaro, Brian Heffernan, William Taylor, Ryan Good, and Zachary Sampson.