By Phil Stacey
---- — WINTHROP — It was, as head Sean Rogers said after the contest, a means for his Danvers High football team to escape after one of the most difficult weeks of their young lives.
Once the opening whistle was blown Saturday night and the focus centered around what happened between the lines, Rogers’ Falcons were, as they have been for the last month-and-a-half, all business.
Playing for the first time since Danvers High math teacher Colleen Ritzer was murdered at the school five days earlier, the Falcons — playing in her memory — completed their regular season with a 39-27 victory over host Winthrop High.
The Falcons wore blue stickers with white lettering on their football helmets adorned with Ritzer’s initials and ‘In Loving Memory’ written on them. The American flag at Miller Field was flown at half-mast, and pink balloons were released into the night sky as a moment of silence was held pre-game for Ritzer, who was just 24 years old.
“I give a lot of credit to that resilient group with all that’s been going on at their place,” Winthrop’s classy head coach, Sean Driscoll, said of the Falcons. “They had a lot on their minds, they’d already clinched the (Northeastern Conference South) title and knew they were going to the playoffs next week, but they still came out and played hard. They didn’t let up at all.”
It was the sixth straight victory for Danvers (6-1 overall, 5-0 NEC South), which will play just the second-ever playoff game in program history Friday night at home when it hosts Masconomet (4-3) at Deering Stadium. The Falcons will be the No. 3 seed and Masco the 6-seed in the Division 3 North playoff quarterfinals.
“This was about getting momentum heading into the playoffs. We wanted to have at least one home game,” said Rogers.
Down by a point at halftime, the Falcons rallied by scoring two touchdowns in both the third and fourth quarters and wearing down the game-but-undermanned Vikings (4-3).
Senior captain Alex Valles (a game-high 133 yards on 14 carries) gave the Falcons the lead for good at 19-14 by scoring from 45 yards out on a sweep right.
“Every year Winthrop is one of the toughest teams we play, and this was no different,” said Alex Valles, who has 947 yards rushing and a dozen touchdowns on the ground this season.
After a Winthrop punt, Danvers scored again when junior quarterback Nick Andreas (3-for-4, 79 yards) fired a missile down the left sideline that tight end Lucas Lentine caught in stride for a 42-yard score. Captain Anthony Cordoba’s 2-point conversion rush gave the visitors a 27-14 lead after three quarters.
“Lucas was the second option on that play,” said Rogers. “Nick Andreas did a phenomenal job checking down on that wing pop play; (Winthrop) sat on the wing, so Lucas went up the sideline and Nick hit him in perfect stride.”
Winthrop workhorse Jordan Corbett-Franks (131 yards on 31 hard-earned carries) scored his third touchdown of the night on a 1-yard plunge with 6:32 to play, cutting the hosts’ deficit to 27-20. But junior Chris Behen took the ensuing kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown (his second of the night), killing any momentum Winthrop had gained.
The Vikings again made it a one-score game when QB Dylan Driscoll found Vinnie Sparacino with a 31-yard TD pass with 1:35 to go, but Danvers ran out the clock and Cordoba (102 yards) actually scored on the game’s final play, a 50-yard burst down the left sideline as time ran out.
“This means the world to me,” junior wideout Cris Valles, who caught a 13-yard slant pass (off another checkdown) from Andreas on Danvers’ first offensive play. “It’s great to see the town come together around the football team.”
Rogers was honest when he said he couldn’t have foreseen his squad in this position after its 44-0 Week 1 loss to Marblehead, at that point, it was simply about “fixing all the leaks in the dam and getting better for the next week.” Now, they’re readying themselves for a postseason home game in hopes that they can keep the good times experienced over the last half-dozen games rolling.
“It’s the leaders on this team who have gotten us here,” said Rogers, meaning not only captains Mike Favreau, Cordoba and Alex Valles, but other seniors and even some juniors. “(Three-year starting left tackle) Tom Quinn doesn’t have a ‘C’ next to his name in the program book, but he’s a leader; guys on the line look up to him. Same with Cris Valles; he’s a great leader who takes his role as as leader seriously.”