Brilliant goal line stand protects 20-19 victory; sends Melrose to D3NW Final
By JENNIFER GENTILE
MELROSE — The outcome of the Div. 3 Northwest Semifinal game relied on two, distinct fourth and one scenarios that would decide the fate of the Melrose Red Raider and Woburn Tanner football teams last Friday, Nov. 7 at Woburn High School.
Picture this: Moments after stopping a surging Tanner offense with a goal line stand on the 1 yard line, Melrose received the ball on downs at their own 1, crawled to the 10 and with just 1:30 left in the game was forced to either punt or go for it on fourth and one. If they make it, they allow 1:30 to expire on the clock and take the upset victory against an undefeated #11th ranked Woburn team. If they fail, the Tanners take the ball over on the Melrose 10 and likely the win.
If you are Melrose head coach Tim Morris, what do you do?
“You play the fourth quarter,” Morris said after the game, when asked what was going through his mind. “We talk all the time about the fourth quarter being ours. Trust me, I didn’t want to punt back to them. It was kind of a gamble but what the heck? The kicking game was terrible for both teams tonight so I didn’t want to do it.”
Despite having arguably the best punter in the Middlesex League in Colby Andrews, a tough wind cutting through the bone chilling night likely would have given the Tanners the ball somewhere on the 50 or even the Melrose 40 with 1:30 to play with. It was a gamble that paid off for the Red Raiders, who advance to the Div. 3 Northwest finals this Friday night in Concord Carlisle, where they hope to retain their title. Thanks to Melrose quarterback Jake Karelas, who took a keeper up the middle for two yards, the Raiders clung to the 20-19 victory over a favored 8-0 Woburn team.
While it was a gripping end to the game, perhaps a more pivotal series was a heroic one yard goal line stand by Melrose defense, including Mike Doucette, Cam Hickey, Jessie Gauvain and Alex Slabacheski who denied what could have been the winning touchdown with just over two minutes left on the clock. It was a play reminiscent of Melrose’s nail-biting goal line stand in last year’s Thanksgiving game when the Raiders held Wakefield at fourth and goal on the 1 yard line for the win. Given the stakes of the game on Friday, the effort amounts to the most exciting football game for the Raiders in years. Indeed, each drive, possession and defensive stand seemed to have enormous consequences during all four quarters between two strong teams who went back and forth all night, leaving the impression whomever held the ball last would win. That slot went to Melrose, who punched their ticket to the D3 Northwest finals despite being considered the underdog against the Middlesex Freedom League champs. It was another defensive gem for a Melrose unit who served up three straight shutouts in October. The stingy bunch was selfish with their inches and as a result gave Melrose (7-2) the win.
“I thought our lineman played very well up front,” Morris said. “They were kind of overmatched in size but our guys just played hard. It was great. They were a good team and our kids just kept slugging away. So you’ve got to like that. It was a typical Woburn-Melrose game. They’re tough kids, they have great speed. It was tough for us to run the ball very consistently.”
Woburn was first on the scoreboard just minutes into the game when Tanner senior captain Marvin Jean charged 20 yards for a touchdown giving Woburn a 6-0 lead. After connecting with Will Caffey, Melrose quarterback Jake Karelas led the Raiders closer to the end zone and then handed off to Melrose senior Zack Mercer who scored a two yard TD and Mike Cusolito’s kick gave Melrose a decisive 7-6 edge. Mercer had an incredibly strong game for Melrose, including picking off a third quarter pass that set up Melrose’s game winning touchdown.
Melrose kept their 7-6 advantage nearly into halftime but Woburn had one play left on the clock and took advantage of every second as Tanner QB Chris Morgan darted right and rushed 30 yards along the sideline untouched into the Melrose end zone giving Woburn a 12-7 lead into halftime. The score could have deflated Melrose’s spirit but instead prompted them to revaluate at halftime.
“I got on them for that,” Morris said. “Everybody’s backs were turned in the secondary and we were in the zone. I talked about Morgan running and how dangerous he is all week long. This kid was rolling up the field. I kind of got on them about that play but I also said we were a second half team.”
Woburn had first possession of the football after halftime but thanks to some solid tackles by Brian McLaughlin and Chris Devir, forced the throw on third down on the 48. That was when Raider Zack Mercer picked off Morgan’s pass. From there Brian McLaughlin ran for nearly 20 yards and a face mask penalty by Woburn brought Melrose to the Tanner 17. Karelas handed the ball to Hickey for a touchdown and a good Cusolito kick gave Melrose a 14-12 lead. However, Woburn’s Tyler Joseph wasn’t going away easy. On their next possession he helped rush the Tanners down field before darting into the end zone for a 15 yard touchdown that gave Woburn a 19-14 lead in the waning seconds of the third quarter.
Red Raider standout Mike Pedrini, sophomore, caught a 30 yard touchdown pass from Karelas with 9:33 left in the game in an impressive leap while fighting off Tanner defenders. That touchdown would prove to be the winning one and from there Melrose relied on their defense to seal the victory. Woburn killed minutes off the clock in a series of carries that brought them from the 50 yard line to the 1. Melrose first flexed their defensive muscle on the 4 yard line when Mike Doucette and Alex Slabacheski denied a run by Tyler Joseph with 3:40 left. On fourth and one with 2:55 left, Woburn opted to go for a touchdown rather than field goal and a pile of Melrose defenders held the fort, effectively ending the game and giving Melrose possession on their own 1.
It was a daunting yardage to take over on but Karelas and Jack Hickey edged to the 10 yard line in a series of carries before Morris made the fateful call on fourth and one that preserved the win.
“We talk about the fourth quarter all the time,” Morris said. “I say ‘this is it, this is the game right here. Let’s get this.’ And they got it.”