By Matt Williams
---- — PEABODY — Alex Valles saw a flash of leather. The rest of the stadium saw a flash of white running the other way.
Danvers’ senior captain took the ball away from Peabody’s Doug Santos, came out of the pile and ran 85 yards the other way to send the Falcons to a thrilling 20-14 win at Coley Lee Field.
Moments earlier, Danvers (2-1) had turned it over at their own 20 when their punter was ruled down. The Tanners (1-2) had tied the game, 14-14, with 1:53 left after Cody Wlasuk capped a 19-play, 90-yard drive and Mike Raymond rushed for the two-point conversion.
The Falcons, specifically Valles, were undaunted. As Santos fought for yardage to set up a game-winning field goal, he saw an opening and he jumped on it.
“I saw the ball and I went for it. I stripped it away and just started running,” said Valles. “We have that mentality where we came come back from anything. We have confidence in ourselves and our teammates.”
It was a stinging swing of momentum for Peabody, which trailed 14-0 after giving up the second of two 70-plus-yard touchdown runs to speedy Danvers junior Chris Behen early in the third quarter. The Tanners got scores, and stops, they needed to tie the game, but Valles’ fumble return took away a chance at the win or overtime.
“It’s a difficult locker room to walk into after that, no question about it,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt. “We have some resilient, tough kids. That was as good a second half as I’ve seen a Peabody team play in a while.”
Behen did the bulk of the damage for the Falcons, running for a game-high 153 yards on six carries. The first was a perfectly sealed toss that went 79-yards to the house on Danvers’ first possession in the first quarter. Then on the opening drive of the third, he cut up the middle and raced 70 yards to the end zone.
“Chris is the hardest working kid on the team. He’s in the weight room at 5 a.m., he runs sprints as hard as anybody,” said Valles. “It’s awesome to see him get the credit and get those long runs.”
Even more incredible was the fact that both touchdowns came when Danvers was facing third-and-20 due to untimely holding penalties. Making plays in those situations is a sign of maturity for a team that may now be in the driver’s seat in the NEC South.
“I think we’re getting mature,” said Danvers coach Sean Rogers. “A game like this, where every play matters and we were able to withstand it, is a character builder.”
Strengthened by the return of linebackers Wlasuk and Billy Teehan, Peabody had Danvers’ running game bottled up outside of the two home runs by Behen. The Tanners held the ball of 28:39 of the game’s 44-minutes and wound up running 54 offensive plays compared to 28 for Danvers.
Peabody was hurt by its inability to finish drives in the first half, as they turned it over on downs in Falcon territory twice. The play of Danvers’ Marco Lagambina and Michael Favreau contributed to that, as they held Santos to 61 yards on 16 carries. Anthony Cordoba was also strong in run support.
“It was a bend but don’t break sort of game and our team responded,” said Rogers, who lauded junior Drew Salvo’s play on both sides of the ball as well.
Trailing by two scores, the Tanners opened up the offense. Raymond threw for 128 yards, moving the chains with completions to Andrew McLaughlin and Evan Thompson. Santos scored from two yards out in the third and the point-after was blocked to make it 14-6.
The Tanner defense forced Danvers to turn it over on downs at the Peabody 10-yard line with 57 seconds left in the third. The Tanners then marched 90 yards for the tying points, converting twice on fourth down and once on third along the way. Wlasuk’s first carry of the game went for a touchdown and Raymond raced around the end for the conversion.
“That’s Cody. He’s the leader of our defense, but when you need a few yards, you turn to him,” said Bettencourt.