By Phil Stacey
---- — DANVERS — Did even the most optimistic of Danvers High football fans have their favorite team winning a league championship this fall?
You probably could have put those odds in the same category as the Red Sox making it to the World Series before the 2013 baseball season began.
But with the Olde Towne Team on the verge of improbably advancing to the Fall Classic, so too have the Danvers Falcons done what few thought was possible less than two months ago.
Behind two touchdowns each from captains Alex Valles (179 yards rushing) and Anthony Cordoba and the best line play they’ve displayed all season, the Falcons won the Northeastern Conference South crown with a 26-7 victory over Salem last night.
“This is a testament to our seniors, especially the captains,” said Danvers (5-1) head coach Sean Rogers, alluding to Mike Favreau, Cordoba and Valles. “They never allowed their teammates to get too high after wins or feel too bad about themselves during the tough times. They’re always pushing the guys to do a little bit more and work a little bit harder ... and it’s hard to say no when they’re the ones leading that charge.”
Conditioning really paid off for Danvers in the second half, particularly in the third quarter when they swung the tide in their favor for good. With many of the Falcons playing on just one side of the ball, they were able to stay fresh, eat up the clock and punch in two more scores to salt the contest away.
The Falcons piled up 376 yards of offense (all on the ground), with 272 of those coming after intermission. In addition to another big night from Valles (he now has 814 rushing yards and 10 TDs in 6 games), backfield mates Chris Behen (78 yards on 7 carries) and Cordoba (70 yards on 9 carries) helped keep the sticks moving all night. They also unselfishly blocked for one another (“you block and you get the rock,” said Rogers).
So did the Falcons’ offensive line — senior left tackle Tom Quinn (a 3-year starter), senior left guard Brian Daly, senior center Adam Tibbetts, junior right guard Dan Cote, junior right tackle Kevin Smith, senior tight end Lucas Lentine and junior split end Cris Valles — who held their blocks, opened holes and wore down the Witches in the trenches.
“Best push they’ve had all season,” said Rogers, whose team has won five straight.
Valles went over right tackle from 3 yards out to tie the game at 7-7 in the first quarter. Danvers sophomore defensive end Marco LaGambina then recovered a Salem fumble with four minutes until the half ended, and the hosts took advantage by scoring quickly as Cordoba went in from 3 yards out. The Falcons led, 13-7, at halftime.
“We came out strong and were able to run a lot of plays offensively, so to get only seven points out of that is frustrating,” said Connolly. “We left points on the board tonight, and when you play a team with a back like Valles, you can’t leave any points on the board.”
Salem (now 1-5) got another strong outing out of the backfield from senior Aaron Palmer, who rushed for 104 yards and his team’s only score, a 2-yard jaunt on the game’s opening drive. The Witches also opened up the playbook a bit and utilized the pass, with quarterback Austin Connolly completing 7-of-11 throws for 86 yards and Shakir White hitting on a halfback option pass for for 38. Together, Chris Dunlop and White caught a half-dozen passes for 110 yards between them.
But Salem was stopped on 4th-and-goal at the Danvers 2 when it was still a 7-7 game early in the second quarter, then was thwarted again early in the fourth after failing to convert on 4-and-2 from the Falcons’ 11.
“Drives stalled and we didn’t take advantage of our opportunities,” said Connolly.
Junior quarterback Nick Andreas missed the second half after sustaining an injury late in the first half, but the Danvers offense kept on rolling behind backup QB Ryan Chasse. Cordoba’s second TD of the night late in the third quarter made it 20-7, and when Valles found a seam and took it to the house from 41 yards out, the lead swelled to 26-7 with 4:47 to play.
When word filtered down shortly after Danvers’ win that Winthrop had lost to Lynn Classical, 38-12, it officially gave the title to the Blue-and-White.
Rogers also praised the play of linebackers Joe O’Donnell, Andy Curtin, Chasse and Vitale for making the necessary adjustments and slowing down the Witches’ ground game in the second half.