By Matt Williams
---- — PEABODY — Cody Wlasuk has been coming to Peabody vs. Salem football games since the time he learned to walk.
Last night as a senior captain, he left his mark on this 120-year old gridiron rivalry.
Wlasuk rushed for 208 yards and four touchdowns as the Tanners held off a furious Salem rally and won, 49-36, on a chilly night at Coley Lee Field. It was the highest scoring of the 98 meetings between the two squads in a series that began in 1892.
Peabody (3-4) honored their seniors before the game, and it was upperclassmen on its offensive line that made the difference. Joe Molica, Matt Crawford, Chirs Sierra and Brandon Rapoza teamed with underclassmen Ethan Mercedes and Mike Heafey to open holes to the tune of 346 yards rushing.
Wlasuk and junior Ryan Collins (11 carries, 137 yards, 2 TDs) were more than happy to read those blocks and run to daylight.
“We talked about this being our last time against Salem and one of our last times on this field. We wanted to leave it all out there,” said Wlasuk, who watched his father Scott coach a dozen games for Peabody against Salem and his older brother play against them a few years ago.
“Stepping out on that field in a big game and making big plays is what I’ve always dreamed about. Coach talks about dreams and believing it in. This was all I thought about all day.”
Wlasuk ran for 133 yards and three scores in the first half and the Tanners built a 35-14 lead early in the third quarter. But Salem (1-6) and their dynamic tailback, Aaron Palmer, were not going down quietly.
Palmer, who ran for a 58-yard score to give Salem a short-lived 6-0 lead, had touchdown runs of 20 and 14 yards in the second half. He also caught a 72-yard screen pass from senior quarterback Austin Connolly as the Witches fought to get back in the game.
His third score came after Salem captain Josh McCrae made an interception and returned it 50 yards deep into Peabody territory. Salem trailed 35-30 with 9:18 to play.
“Josh is a ball magnet and that’s why he’s one of the leaders of our defense,” said Salem coach Scott Connolly. “Our kids didn’t quit. They love playing football.”
Peabody responded with Collins’ 38-yard score on a fourth down play with 6:49 to go. Undaunted, Austin Connolly, who hit sophomore Tigan Wigfall with a 55-yard TD pass earlier, threw a screen that Palmer took 72 yards to the house to make it 43-36 with 5:20 left.
The Tanners took control with an 11-play drive that included two fourth down conversions. Wlasuk scored from 13 yards away with 1:19 to go. The 49 points were Peabody’s most in a game since 2003 (also against Salem, a 53-6 win).
“We expected a great game and there were a lot of points on the board. Obviously, we can be better defensively,” said Scott Connolly. “We had a chance to make stops and they made plays on third and fourth downs.”
Palmer had 191 all-purpose yards for Salem to go with four TDs. Victor Claudio and Jael Pena also played well for Salem.
For Peabody, Billy Teehan had two sacks, another tackle-for-loss and was an excellent lead blocker. Mercedes also recovered a fumble and had a tackle-for-loss.
The Tanners were without lead running back Doug Santos, and Wlasuk carried the load by running it 31 times. It was Collins’ counters that kept Salem off-balance and allowed Peabody to move the chains for 14 first downs.
“These are relentless, resilient kids,” said Peabody coach Mark Bettencourt, whose team bounced back from a loss against winless Revere last week. “They didn’t lack energy. Our line accepted the challenge and played great in the trenches — and Cody was a monster.”
The Tanners built their lead in the first half thanks in part to Andrew McLaughlin’s 30-yard TD pass from Michael Raymond late in the half. Raymond also hit Tanner Moquin for third or fourth down conversions on three occasions.