The Salem News
— BRAINTREE — With a double-digit deficit at halftime and starting running back Ross Murphy sidelined with a concussion, the North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie football team could have packed it in against Blue Hills in last night’s Small School Vocational Bowl Championship.
Instead, the Bulldogs switched some things up offensively and fought tooth-and-nail with the Warriors, ultimately coming up on the short end of the 23-22 final score.
“We’ve got some talented kids, so we tried to get them in space. We had to; Murphy was out and they took the run away,” said North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie head coach Paul Worth, whose team saw its season end at 7-4.
“It was a great football game — and we had a great season. It’s too bad we didn’t win.”
David Neil rushed in a pair of 1-yard touchdowns in the opening half and Blue Hills (8-4) converted both of its 2-point conversions to go up 16-0 late in the second quarter. The Warriors’ Wing-T offense didn’t catch the locals off guard, though; the Bulldogs simply took some time catching up to the speed and physicality of the game after a long layoff period.
“The three-week layoff hurt us,” explained Worth, whose team hadn’t played a game since Nov. 16. “I was hoping it wouldn’t. But we didn’t catch up to game speed fast enough.”
The Bulldogs were able to find some life when Ian LaFavour hit Yordany Sanchez for a 65-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the first half, but they couldn’t convert on the two-point conversion.
Murphy, who took a big hit in the opening quarter, couldn’t come back out for the third quarter. So North Shore Tech/Essex Aggie scrapped the heavy, three-back set it was using offensively for a single back with receivers spread out on both sides. The Bulldogs also switched in Sanchez at quarterback so he could run the read option.
LaFavour and Sanchez were both fantastic playing quarterback. LaFavour hit Danny Ramirez for a 36-yard pass, setting up a 2-yard touchdown run by the senior signal caller. Sanchez, meanwhile broke a huge, 54-yard touchdown on a keeper up the middle that made it a one-point game late in the fourth quarter.
“We had to make adjustments (in the second half),” said Warriors head coach Ed Catabia. “We had to worry about the speed sweep, the fullback and the quarterback draw. We had to take a little it of a gamble. A few times we caught them, and a few times they were able to get away for some big plays.”
With Murphy sidelined the rushing duties fell to senior captain Danny Bailey, who also anchored the Bulldogs’ defense at middle linebacker. Bailey looked to have been shaken up while delivering a big hit in the second quarter, but he shook off whatever ailed him within a few plays and was a major factor the rest of the way. He came up with two big plays on third down in the first half: once forcing opposing quarterback Keith Reissfelder into an errant throw, then making a stop in the backfield on a reverse. Both plays forced the Warriors to punt.
“He’s a player-and-a-half,” Worth said of Bailey. “With Murph out, Bailey was our savior. He’s probably the best player we’ve ever had.”
The Bulldogs had a costly fumble in the third quarter in Warrior territory as NST/EA moved the ball at will to begin the second half and had an opportunity to take it in for a game-leading score. Instead, Bailey and Sanchez fumbled the handoff exchange and Blue Hills countered with the eventual game-winning scoring drive, capped by a 4-yard touchdown run by Orane Gordon.
But the Bulldogs dug deep and rallied behind Sanchez’ scamper. Then, after a failed onsides kick attempt, their stood tall and gave the offense a chance with only just under three minutes left. NST/EA also converted a pair of fourth downs on the drive before ultimately turning it over on downs with just 16 seconds left on the clock.
“The one thing I love about this program and the kids is there’s no quit in them. Ever,” said Worth. “I don’t know a lot of teams that could come back like that. They just don’t ever give in.”