Trailing Chariho by a point at halftime on Friday, the Warwick Vets football team was in danger of suffering a loss it simply couldn’t afford.
But with one half standing between the ’Canes and the likely end of their playoff hopes, they found a way to get right back in the race.
Thanks to two second-half interceptions from safety Andrew Sjodahl and a balanced offensive attack, Vets rallied from a 7-6 deficit to earn a 22-13 victory over the Chargers.
Now sitting at 2-2 in the crowded Division II-A postseason hunt, Vets is one of four teams at .500. Chariho, on the other hand, suffered its third straight loss and fell to 1-3.
Johnston leads the division at 4-0, while Westerly is alone in second at 3-1. The top four teams in the division make the playoffs.
“This was definitely a must-win, for both teams,” Vets coach Bryan Nappa said. “We knew they were going to come out strong, and we saw it in the first half. Both teams were playing real hard. We made some adjustments at halftime. Our guys in the box saw some things we could manipulate, and [running back T.J. Boyajian] took advantage. Our defense picked it up, played great. When we play a fundamental game like that, we’re hard to beat.”
After a season-opening victory against Toll Gate, Vets had lost two straight entering Friday’s game, and both losses had been lopsided. First it was Woonsocket, which beat the ’Canes 35-6. The following week, Coventry took down Vets 40-8.
Because of that, there was very little margin for error against Chariho.
“We felt pretty good,” Sjodahl said. “We just had to let those losses go and concentrate on the next week.”
The ’Canes got a boost defensively, as starting inside linebackers Dennis Scalzo and David MacDonald both returned from injuries that sidelined them each of the last two games.
That helped rally a unit that had struggled recently, as Vets held the rush-happy Chargers to just 105 yards on the ground, while forcing three turnovers. Chariho’s leading rusher, tailback Austin McQuaide, picked up only 83 yards on 18 carries, 45 of which came on two rushes.
“It’s a huge lift,” Nappa said of the return of Scalzo and MacDonald. “Seeing them in pads just in practice, it picks the practice tempo up. They’re great kids. Just the energy they bring to the team, it’s next level. Seeing them on the field, you can see the difference in our defense.”
The offense did its part, too. Vets racked up 390 total yards, including 178 on the ground from senior T.J. Boyajian. Boyajian, quarterback Jessie Sedoma and fullback Jamie Buteau each scored a rushing touchdown.
Through the air, Sedoma completed seven passes to five different receivers for 168 yards. Carter Thomas and Sjodahl each had two catches of over 20 yards apiece.
“We just saw things opening up,” Sedoma said. “We started passing.”
Most of the passing took place in the first half. After a scoreless first quarter in which Vets punted twice, Chariho fumbled the ball away on its second possession of the game.
Taking over at the ’Canes’ 20-yard-line, Sedoma moved Vets down the field, picking up 26 yards on a pass to Thomas and 32 more on a completion to Sjodahl.
Later in the drive, he picked up 12 yards on a crucial third-and-7 scramble, and he ran it in two plays later from 2 yards out to put Vets on the board. After Sedoma’s extra point attempt was wide, the ’Canes led 6-0.
“We scout a lot and we watch a lot of film,” Nappa said. “We saw a lot of stuff that we could use to our advantage in the passing game. We used Jessie’s legs – that’s one of his strong suits – and he can throw well on the run. We got him out of the pocket and utilized our strengths all around. That’s what our focus was.”
Chariho came right back, though, scoring on a four-play drive that began on the 50 in which McQuaide was the ball-carrier on every play. He scored from 2 yards away with 6:05 to play, and Salvatore Desantis’ extra point put Chariho in front 7-6.
Vets moved the ball towards the tail end of the half, getting all the way down to Chariho’s 15-yard-line, but the drive halted there, and the ’Canes went into the locker room trailing.
Then, in the middle of the third quarter, Vets’ situation got worse as Tony Lonczak muffed a Chariho punt, and the Chargers took over at Vets 48-yard-line.
But Vets held strong, forcing a three-and-out. And when it got the ball back, its offense came alive.
In just four plays, the ’Canes moved 79 yards, capped by a 31-yard touchdown run from Boyajian. Sedoma then ran in the two-point conversion, and Vets led 14-7 with 3:53 to play in the third.
On the very next drive, Chariho answered, getting a touchdown pass from Tyler Richmond to Michael Pagliarini with 11:40 to play, climbing within a point. Instead of trying to tie the score with the extra point, the Chargers elected to go for two, but they fumbled an option attempt. Vets was able to maintain a 14-13 lead.
The ’Canes started the next drive from their own 25, and on the first play Boyajian broke a 62-yard run. Three plays later, Buteau pounded it in from two yards out.
Nappa elected to keep the offense on the field to go for a two-point conversion, and Sedoma hit Thomas in the end zone to make it a two-possession game at 22-13.
“If we get it, we’re up by nine and it’s a two-score ball game now,” Nappa said. “It puts them in a tougher spot. If we don’t make it, we’re not in a terrible position because our defense was playing so well.”
And that defense finished the job. Sjodahl intercepted a deep pass on Chariho’s next possession. After a Vets punt, Sjodahl intercepted a second pass with five minutes to play, putting the game on ice.
“That’s huge. Any time your defense can force turnovers, that’s a big demoralizing factor for the other team,” Nappa said. “It really lifts you up. Those are game-changing plays.”
The ’Canes will now get a break from league play, as they play at Division II-B West Warwick on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in a non-league contest. West Warwick is 3-1 in II-B.
The following week, however, the ’Canes will be facing another big test, as they host Westerly and will need a win to keep pace in the division.