MARBLEHEAD — Magical, mystical, miraculous.
They all apply to what transpired on the Piper Field gridiron last night as Salem and Marblehead staged an instant classic in a contest that shook up the North Shore football landscape.
The host Magicians, having rallied from a 20-point deficit in the second half, scored what they thought would be the decisive touchdown with just 2:32 to play. But a resilient Salem team, showing incredible resolve and will, drove downfield and scored again with 52.9 seconds remaining, then went for two points and connected as Christian Dunston hit Ben Kapnis in the right corner of the end zone for a remarkable 35-34 upset win.
Marblehead (7-1), which was knocked from the ranks of the unbeaten, almost pulled out a miracle of its own. Moving downfield quickly with smart, quick passes from captain Ian Magg, the Magicians called time out with the ball on the Salem 14-yard line and six seconds to play. But the ensuing 31-yard field goal attempt sailed just barely wide left, and the Salem players burst off their sideline in jubilation.
“We had lost three close games in a row coming into this game that we shouldn’t have. So when we fell behind (28-27, then 34-27) in the fourth quarter, I just said, ‘Not tonight. It’s not happening again tonight’,” said the 17-year-old Kapnis.
“We’ve been great friends and playing together since the second grade,” added Dunston, his fellow Salem captain, “and when I threw that (2-point pass), I thought maybe I messed up. But my brother was right there to make the catch. It’s the greatest feeling to win the way we did.”
On a night where there were more ups and downs for both teams than a schooner in a seastorm, Salem (4-4) shot out to a 21-7 halftime lead and expanded it to 27-7 in the third quarter before the host Magicians came roaring back, scoring four unanswered touchdowns, including three in the final quarter. The last of those four scores, a terrific 38-yard run up the gut by Maag (124 yards on 15 carries) on a zone read, gave Marblehead a seven-point cushion (34-27) with just 2:32 to go.
But the Witches would not die. Behind the mecurial Dunston (“it’s impossible to defend a kid who runs a 4.4 40 and throws the football 70 yards on the run” said Marblehead coach Jim Rudloff), Salem gamely worked its way upfield and was helped by a disputed 15-yard facemask call that put the ball on the Magicians’ 25-yard line with under 45 seconds to play.
Then, on a broken play, Dunston scrambled out of the pocket to his right, avoided a would-be tackle and threw across his body to find Greg Speliotis all alone. Speliotis (who earlier had an 80-yard TD run) caught it at the 5, deked and dove into the end zone to get his team within a point (34-33).
“There was no doubt we were going for two points there,” said Salem head coach Scott Connolly of the decision whether or not to go for the tie or the win after the touchdown. “We already had the play ready when (Speliotis) scored.”
“We figured they’d go for two; they’ve gotten it every time this year,” added Rudloff. “They like using that tight I-formation and we called time out, so they came back out in a spread and made a good pass.”
On the decisive play, Dunston again rolled right and this time spotted Kapnis alone in the right corner. He rifled a pass that was low, but one that Kapnis was able to cradle in his stomach as bedlam ensued on the Salem sidelines.
“I tried to sit on it to make sure no one took it from me,” said Kapnis.
“Christian’s such a difference maker. He was on a different level tonight,” added Connolly. “And what a catch by Kapnis.”
It was a difficult loss for Marblehead to swallow, not only because the best start in school history went by the wayside, but because they had played so well in rallying over the final two quarters after a lackluster first half.
Statistically, the hosts dominated as sophomore running back Brooks Tyrrell bulled his way for 169 yards and two touchdowns on the ground; Maag ran for two scores and threw (13 for 21, 130 yards) for another to Dylan Cressy (a 42-yard strike) and the line dominated play over the final 22 minutes.
But it all went for naught as Salem hurt the Magicians in the first half, picking off two passes that led directly to scores: a 53-yard INT return by Josh McRae in the first quarter, and a Dunston pick that he took back to the Marblehead 5-yard line before Aaron Palmer ran it into the end zone from there.
“We didn’t lose this game on the missed field goal; we lost it in the first half,” said Rudloff. “It’s disappointing, especially since the kids did such a great job coming back. But Salem made us pay for all of our mistakes.
“But when you have a minute left in the game and the ball over the 50-yard line with Christian Dunston, you can do anything. Kudos to Salem.”