THE WARRIORS punched their ticket to the Div. 3 state semifinals with their 24-14 win over Plymouth South on Thursday night. No. 6 Wakefield will meet No. 2 North Attleboro this Friday night, 6:30 p.m. at Canton High School. (Brian Cusack Photo)
Travel to Canton Friday night to meet North Attleboro
By DAN PAWLOWSKI
PLYMOUTH — In one of just two state quarterfinal matchups of undefeated teams, the Wakefield Warriors emerged with their perfect record in tact, moving to 10-0 with a gutsy, entertaining, 24-14 win over previously 9-0 Plymouth South on the Panthers’ home field on Thursday night.
The win moves No. 6 Wakefield on to the Div. 3 state semifinals where they will meet No. 2 North Attleboro (7-2) on Friday night, 6:30 p.m. at Canton High School, a “neutral” site as determined by the MIAA who published the details last night after changing it from a previous location posted in the afternoon.
Of course, murky details of the next round were far from the minds of the Warriors on Thursday with the game tied at 14-14 in the 4th quarter after South officially erased a 14-0 Wakefield halftime lead on a 6-yard TD run by Heath McGillvray.
Wakefield responded with a quick strike from senior captain to senior captain as Javin Willis (148 passing yards, 59 rushing yards, 1 TD) hit Ian Dixon with a perfect back-shoulder throw for 35 yards on 2nd down to bring the rock to the 10 yard line. After losing yardage on 3rd-and-goal, the Warriors trotted out Mark Letchford for their very first field attempt of the season and the junior calmly knocked it through from 32 yards out, providing a lead Wakefield wouldn’t relinquish.
After that, it was the defense who stepped up again, forcing a swift, three-and-out thanks to big stops on 1st and 2nd down on attempted runs by Panther star back Casious Johnson (172 yards, 22 carries) on tackles from Dixon and senior Max Cusack.
With all the momentum, the Warriors looked to senior captain Nathan Delgado (20 carries, 136 yards, 2 TD’s) starting at their own 45 with under four minutes to play. Four runs and 55 yards later, Delgado was in from the 11-yard line for his 2nd TD of the game to give the visitors a 24-14 lead and a huge win that will go down in team history as the ’22 Warriors became the first Wakefield squad to ever reach 10-0.
“We just told them, ‘Good job, it certainly feels good to win,’” said head coach John Rafferty. “What we’ve been trying to hold on to is to stay focused and take it one game at a time. Just stick to our assignments and try to move on. We want to take every situation at face value and never look ahead. We were able to accomplish that and now it’s on to the next endeavor.”
Of course, Thursday night’s endeavor, after a long bus ride through rush hour to the South Shore, might have felt daunting for most teams as they ran onto the field in front of a rocking Plymouth South student section and fan base that like Wakefield’s had only known victory in 2022.
But the Warriors proved again that despite all their success, against the odds is where they’re most comfortable. The defense forced the Panthers into a three-and-out on the first possession and the offense took about three minutes to drive 62 yards on six plays, the final one being a 9-yard touchdown run by Nathan Delgado.
The drive had two major highlights – shocking to Panther fans but frankly business as usual for Warrior ones.
The first came on 3rd-and-14 from their own 34. Willis scrambled, tiptoed the sideline, ducked one tackle and broke another for a wild, 15 yard first down scamper.
After Willis connected with senior captain Christian Delgado to get the ball into South territory, Nathan Delgado got loose for 34 yards up the gut to set up the Warriors at the 9-yard line. He was into the paint on the next play.
Plymouth South went for it on 4th-and-6 from the Warrior 39 on their next drive. Junior Joe LaMonica got a hand on the pass attempt but it was still completed. Nathan Delgado was quick to respond on the initial stop and junior Steven Woish (4 catches, 60 yards) cleaned it up to force a turnover-on-downs.
After a long drive closed up shop on the first quarter, the Warriors came up short at the Plymouth South 6-yard line.
Johnson got his team going with a 34-yard run but Wakefield stepped up with the ball at midfield, first on a great read by Dixon who tackled the QB on an option attempt for a 5-yard loss. Johnson was met by Letchford in the backfield on the next play setting up a 3rd-and-15 from the 47. Quarterback Cole Brunstrom chucked one into coverage where Wakefield’s interception leader Christian Delgado tracked it, got into perfect position and pulled down a pick while getting dragged to the turf by the facemask.
With the ball on their own 43, Wakefield went to work again, calmly beating the defense and the clock as they executed a 57-yard touchdown drive on 10 plays. Senior Bobby DeFeo rushed for 30 of his 48 yards on the possession, a 17-yard gain on 3rd down getting the Wakefield fans going. Later, on 2nd-and-13 from the 21, Willis hit Woish on a screen for 15 yards in which the single season TD reception record holder (8) made a nasty cut to break free. Willis later took care of business with a 1-yard QB keeper on 3rd-and-goal and Letchford hit his second of three PAT’s on the night for a 14-0 halftime lead.
The Warriors nearly took a commanding three-touchdown lead in the 3rd when they had it 1st-and-goal from the 5 but the Panthers stepped up on a goal-line stand. That sequence sparked the South offense who would put together touchdown drives on their next two possessions. Their first TD was a 3-yard pass from Brunstrom to Nick McNulty.
“We had some issues defensively in the second half – (Johnson) certainly got his, but collectively, we kept them at bay overall,” said Rafferty.
While its true that Johnson racked up plenty of yards, the Warriors kept him out of the end zone, a feat no Panther opponent had accomplished yet this season. Johnson had 16 touchdowns coming into the game and had multiple touchdown games in six of his nine contests.
New feats might have just been a theme on this night, none perhaps more important than Letchford’s first field goal attempt of the season. The lineman/linebacker has been terrific on point-after’s all year, so the idea to kick on 4th-and-goal from the 15 was never debated. As always, this Warrior team rolls with the punches and just executes, regardless of how the momentum has shifted.
“With this group, it’s just move on and whatever comes up, comes up,” said Rafferty. “We haven’t kicked a field goal all year? Ok, let’s try it. Mark Letchford steps up and it would have been good from 45. They just say, ‘Hey, this is what we have to do. Let’s go do it.’ It’s one game, one rep, one play at a time.”
Even still, the Panthers had plenty of time to take the lead with a touchdown but it was the Warrior defense who bounced back with big plays by Dixon and Cusack. The Warriors had a balanced tackling effort. Nathan Delgado led the way with six. Dixon, Cusack and Woish each had four. Letchford had five. Christian Delgado, junior Declan O’Callahan and senior David Amyouny each had two.
From there, it was Delgado and the Wakefield run game who finished it.
“Nathan again, has proven his value in every facet of the game,” said Rafferty.
On a 28-yard, backbreaking gain on the final drive, Delgado followed Cusack up the middle while Dixon, Amyouny, senior Kaiden Johnson, Letchford and LaMonica met their assignments with force.
Wakefield’s line up and go mentality will be tested once again in the state semifinals against a powerhouse of a program in North Attleboro who just dismantled previously undefeated Billerica 34-6 last week.
“We stepped up in competition last week,” said Rafferty. “It will be another step up against North Attleboro. They’re big, strong, powerful – a really good team.”
Working against the Warriors will be the MIAA’s decision to pick Canton High as the neutral site. Located 20 miles and about 25 minutes north of North Attleboro High, its expected to feel more like a home game for the Red Rocketeers than the Warriors who will have to travel about 40 miles depending on the route and likely over an hour in traffic on Friday night.
If the 10-0 road underdogs can shock the powers-at-be once again, they’ll find themselves in a December state championship, competing on a field in a place they’ve always dreamed of playing: Gillette Stadium.