DANVERS — Opponents don’t typically come into Dr. Deering Stadium and dictate terms to the Danvers High football team.
But even after falling behind, Winchester’s spread offense and gutsy quarterback Tommy Degnan had the confidence to essentially let the Falcons know that this Division 3 North semifinal would play out the way the visiting Sachems wanted it to.
Winchester got touchdowns just before and just after halftime and the Falcons were unable to corral Degnan on a late fourth down try, which added up to a surprising 42-27 upset win for the Sachems on a bitterly cold Friday night at Morse Field.
The victory sends the Sachems (8-1) to next week’s Division 3 North championship game while knocking top-seeded Danvers (8-1) to the consolation round and ending the Falcons best unbeaten start to a season in 14 years.
The 42 points Winchester rolled up were the most the Falcons have allowed at home since opening night of the 2013 season.
Still, Danvers nearly forced overtime thanks to a tremendous ground effort by senior captain Rich Canova. Rushing for 174 yards on 23 carries, Canova scored twice and fellow senior and QB Ezra Lombardi made it a one possession game after scoring his second TD with 3:12 to play. Winchester picked up a first down on 4th-and-3 with 2:11 to go, though, before Degnan added a cosmetic 38-yard score after Danvers ran out of timeouts.
“Rich was incredible. He ran through a lot of tackles, got a lot of yards that weren’t there,” said Danvers head coach Ryan Nolan.
“Winchester did a great job. They came to play and they put us in some really tough situations.”
Degnan did the bulk of the damage by bowling over Danvers tacklers, running for 132 yards and three touchdowns. His backfield mate, Jimmy Gibbons, had 79 yards and two scores.
The Sachems were happy to limit possessions in the second half, with both teams going on long drives that favored the team with the lead — in this case Winchester, because Degnan had led a scoring drive just before halftime by hooking up with Henry Kraft for a 5-yard score.
“It was unbelievable to get those points before the half,” said Winchester head coach Wally Dembowski, himself a star at Danvers High in his playing days. “Our QB is a beast. He’s a 220-pound monster and he threw the ball as well as he has all year tonight.”
It was a dream start for Danvers, with Canova going 34 yards for a touchdown on the second play. Even after Winchester answered, Canova broke free for a 42-yard gain that set up Lombardi’s first score. The senior bell cow back, who went over 1,000-yards for the season, had 105 yards in the first six minutes of the game.
“Everything we saw on film, Canova would get hit and still gain four yards. He’s dominant,” said Dembowski. “We tried to work on it all week, tried to contain him, but the dude is good.”
With Russ Canova making a dozen total tackles and helping get a stop on Winchester’s second drive, Danvers had a chance to break the game open. Kraft came up with a game-changing interception, though, setting the stage for Winchester to tie it at 14-14.
From there, the Sachems never slowed down offensively, scoring on each of their final four possessions of the game. Degnan, who threw for 148 yards, went 5-for-7 on an impressive 79-yard drive that took only 65 seconds and give the Sachems the lead for good.
“(Winchester) did a lot of things well and unfortunately defense just before halftime has been an issue for us,” Nolan said. “They were very aware of all our stunts. They blocked us up and they quarterback was a big concern coming in. He’s capable of dragging people for first downs and he did it to us a couple of times.”
A 29-yard strike from Lombardi to sophomore James Carmilia on fourth down kept Danvers’ hopes alive with just about four minutes to play. That set up Lombardi’s second score, but the Falcons didn’t recover the onside kick and Degnan broke a tackle once they’d forced fourth down to make sure Danvers didn’t get possession with a chance to tie.