It has been far from a perfect year for the Warwick Vets football team, but that couldn’t have mattered any less once the final whistle blew on Thanksgiving Day.
After winning just one game during the regular season, Vets overcame a two-point fourth-quarter deficit and snapped a two-game Thanksgiving losing streak to Pilgrim with a 21-14 victory on Thursday in a Super Bowl-like environment on the road.
The ’Canes’ defense forced five turnovers and T.J. Boyajian paced the offense with 170 yards on the ground – including 92 on a game-clinching touchdown run with 27 seconds left – to lead the charge.
As easily the program’s biggest win since 2008 – and only its second overall in the past three seasons – the players and coaches had no reason to suppress just how much the victory meant to them.
“This is almost beyond words,” Vets assistant coach Brian Nappa said. “These kids have been really working hard for this. They earned it. There’s not much you can say. The seniors get to leave the field with a victory.”
“You have to be mentally tough,” Boyajian said. “This year we stressed that. A lot of games we didn’t have mental toughness. We’d go down two scores and just quit. Today, we kept it together. When you’re playing Pilgrim and you go to Vets, you don’t want to lose. You don’t want to lose at all.”
With the game on the line, that toughness shone through.
Holding a 14-8 fourth-quarter lead and facing third-and-9 from Pilgrim’s 36-yard line, Vets’ quarterback Jessie Sedoma was intercepted over the middle by Andrew Leddy, who returned it 68 yards for a touchdown. The return was brought back because of a controversial block in the back penalty, though, giving Pilgrim the ball at its own 39-yard line.
From there, the Pats moved steadily down the field behind 10 consecutive carries from Leddy and his brother, Alex. But on third-and-goal, quarterback Lee Verrier was stood up at the 5-yard line, setting up a fourth-and-goal with 1:02 remaining.
Pilgrim handed the ball off to Alex Leddy, but he was stopped short of the goal line by defensive tackle Joe Chadwick after a three-yard gain, giving the ball back to Vets after the game-saving defensive stand.
Pilgrim head coach Tom O’Connor was feeding the hot hand, but it simply didn’t work out.
“You give it to the horse that brought you there,” O’Connor said. “All our plays went through the two Leddy boys. They were alternating on that drive and they were successful.”
The Pats still had a chance, as Vets was backed up to its own 2-yard line and Pilgrim had all three timeouts remaining.
After Boyajian ran for no gain and six yards on first and second down respectively, the ’Canes faced third-and-4. Boyajian took the carry and shot off-tackle left, picking up a heavy block from Sean Banno to spring him 92 yards to the end zone for the final nail in the coffin.
“The line made a huge hole, and Sean Banno came back and cracked this kid,” Boyajian said. “I just cut and he was there. That was one of the best blocks I’ve ever seen. He got me the run. It was his touchdown.”
Pilgrim managed to score on the ensuing drive as time was expiring when quarterback Lee Verrier hit Carl Sjogren for a 15-yard touchdown pass, but it was nothing more than a few extra points on the scoreboard.
“When you talk about Thanksgiving Day rivalries and tough football games, that was it,” Nappa said. “Both sides of the ball, both teams. They all played their hearts out. There was a lot of big hits, there was a lot of tough plays. These kids, for both sides, really brought it the whole way through. That’s what Thanksgiving football should be about.”
After a relatively uneventful first 29 minutes that featured a combined four turnovers, Pilgrim scored the first points of the game when Verrier found Mike Mallozzi on a 10-yard touchdown pass with just 51 seconds left in the second quarter. Alex Leddy ran home the two-point conversion for an 8-0 Pats lead at the half.
At the beginning of the second half, Vets got the break it needed to get back in the game.
On the opening kickoff of the third quarter, Vets’ Jessie Sedoma lofted the ball to the 25-yard line. Pilgrim’s Jon DeVito let it land, but it bounced away from him, giving Vets enough time to get down the field and pounce on it. Anthony Lonczak came away with the recovery, giving the ’Canes possession at Pilgrim’s 27.
Five plays later, quarterback Diego Martinez powered in to the end zone from two yards out on fourth-and-goal. Boyajian was stopped on the conversion attempt, keeping Pilgrim in front 8-6.
“We didn’t play error-free,” O’Connor said. “This game, with emotions running so high, it makes it difficult for them to control themselves.”
The Pats punted, fumbled the ball away and threw an interception on their next three possessions, and Vets eventually struck again.
With just under 10 minutes to play, on the heels of three straight pass attempts, Sedoma ran a quarterback draw from Pilgrim’s 40-yard line and caught everybody off guard. He went untouched up the right side for the go-ahead score.
Sedoma, who had replaced Martinez at quarterback, was a seldom-used runner during the season, making the play call all the more surprising.
“That was something we were kind of hiding in our back pocket,” Nappa said. “We had Diego out there, and everyone thinks Jessie’s our throwing quarterback. We set it up a little bit – throw, throw, throw – it opened up a little bit, so we said let’s take it. Jessie did a great job taking it in for a score.”
The Pats were rattled, and on their next possession they took a holding call to put them at their own 3-yard line. On the next play, Verrier threw a swing pass to Vinny DeVito on the right side, but he was met by Fred Pierce, who took him down in the front of the end zone for a safety.
That gave Vets a 14-8 advantage with 8:12 to play, and it never gave up the lead the rest of the way.
“I think this is the first time all year where we actually took advantage of every opportunity,” Nappa said. “They defense did a hell of a job. They really gave the offense the opportunities to take advantage of.”
The loss was discouraging for Pilgrim, which came into the game as the favorites after winning three league games and narrowly missing out on the playoffs.
Still, as tough to take as it was, it didn’t put a damper on what the team had accomplished.
“I’m proud of them,” O’Connor said. “The coaching staff is proud of them. We’re proud of the way they handled adversity. Things don’t always go your way, no matter how much you put in. I’m very proud of our boys.”
And for the ’Canes, it was simply validation for the hard work they continually put in, even through some difficult times.
“If we won in the trenches we could win the game,” Boyajian said. “Our offensive line played the best game of their lives. Our seven seniors came out and got the win that they deserved. It was a total team effort.”