The first half was disastrous. The second half was almost miraculous. In the end, they added up to a tough night for the Warwick Vets football team.
Hosting Mt. Hope with a playoff berth on the line Friday night, the Hurricanes got knocked down hard in the first half and went to the break trailing by four touchdowns. They rallied in the second half and looked poised to deliver a storybook comeback before the magic ran out in the fourth quarter. Mt. Hope scored two late touchdowns to pull away and clinched a playoff berth with a 39-14 victory.
“At halftime, we told them they had to come out harder and they did,” said Vets head coach Bryan Nappa. “They started doing the things we needed to do to win and they started making opportunities for themselves. They tried to make it happen. It just didn’t fall our way in the first half and that really put us in a big hole.”
The ’Canes were in the playoff mix for the first time since 2008. With a win Friday, they would have tied Mt. Hope in the standings and would have held every tiebreaker. A big Homecoming crowd and live television coverage created an atmosphere that matched the game’s implications.
But it was the Huskies who stole the show in the first half.
Vets moved the ball 30 yards on its first drive but ended up turning it over on downs. The Huskies took over at their own 40 and quickly set the tone. Running behind an unbalanced line, Jesse Raiola burst through the middle on four straight plays and ate up 33 yards. Nick Murgo busted another run up the middle for 22 yards, and one play later, quarterback Kyle Valenzuela scored on a quarterback sneak. Jacob Silva’s extra point made it 7-0.
“We just came out a little bit flat,” Nappa said. “I think they under-estimated their opponent tonight and that’s one thing you can never do. We weren’t getting off the ball. They were just playing faster and harder than us.”
The trend continued, and soon, the game was spiraling out of control. A fumble on Vets’ next drive set the Huskies up at the Vets’ 40-yard line. Five plays later, Raiola was in the end zone on an 11-yard run. The extra point made it 14-0 with 1:40 left in the first quarter.
After a Vets punt, the Huskies needed just three plays to score again as Raiola rambled 40 yards for a touchdown with 10:11 left in the first half. Later in the half, after Vets had finally come up with a defensive stop, the ’Canes had a bad snap on a punt, and the Huskies took over at the 10-yard line. On the second play of the drive, Valenzuela hit Joshua Hunt on a quick slant for a touchdown and a 27-0 lead.
“We had watched some films on them,” said Mt. Hope head coach Brian Cote. “We went to some unbalanced formations because we saw that they didn’t adjust to it very well, particularly in the Coventry game. We used a little bit of that to our advantage in the first half and then we tried to mix it up on the following drives once they started adjusting. We started to go with our spread and our I-formation and mixed up the formations and I think we caught them off guard a little bit.”
Despite the deficit, the ’Canes didn’t pack it in, and they forced three-and-outs on Mt. Hope’s first two drives of the second half. After the second one, quarterback Jessie Sedoma got loose on a quarterback draw and scampered 70 yards for a touchdown. His extra point made it 27-7, and the ’Canes had some life.
They got another jolt when Kyle Morrissette recovered John McNally’s onside kick at the Mt. Hope 43. Vets followed with a steady drive, and Sedoma capped it with a 1-yard touchdown thanks to a second-effort plunge on a fourth-down quarterback sneak. Sedoma made the extra point, putting Vets within two scores at 27-14.
And then it looked like Vets might really find some magic. McNally bounced another onside kick off a Mt. Hope player and David MacDonald pounced on it, giving Vets the ball again.
But that’s when the comeback started to lose steam.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Tevin Jones came on a safety blitz and sacked Sedoma for an 11-yard loss. That was the final play of the third quarter and it gave Mt. Hope a boost. Though Sedoma scrambled for 16 yards on second down, the Huskies came with another blitz on third down and Raiola made a shoestring tackle of Sedoma for another sack and a 15-yard loss.
Vets was forced to punt.
“They were bringing the safety blitz from the weak side and that always halts you a little bit,” Nappa said. “Any time you blitz, you live by the blitz or you die by the blitz. Those plays, they lived by it and they did well.”
That series wasn’t the end of the line, but Vets never again got into gear. After forcing another Mt. Hope punt, the ’Canes took over at the Huskies’ 35 and picked up two yards on a run by T.J. Boyajian. A second-down pass fell incomplete and on third down, a deflected pass ended up in the arms of Jamie Buteau but he was dropped for an 11-yard loss. Sedoma scrambled for 4 yards on fourth down, and the ’Canes turned it over on downs.
The Vets defense continued to shine, forcing Mt. Hope into another three-and-out – its fourth in four second-half possessions – but the ’Canes couldn’t take advantage. The next drive started with just 5:01 left, and the ’Canes felt they had to go to the air. Four straight Sedoma passes fell incomplete, including a deep ball that was just out of the reach of Tony Lonczak.
One more time, the Vets defense came up with a stop, forcing a Raiola fumble at the end of a 17-yard run. But Jones intercepted a deep pass by Sedoma on the first play of Vets’ possession, and he returned it 29 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
“The good thing is we faced that adversity and we were able to fight through it,” Cote said. “That’s what you look for in your football team – when you get your backs against the wall like we did in the second half, can you fight through it?”
The Huskies got another interception on the first play of Vets’ next drive, and Raiola put the finishing touches on the win with a 55-yard touchdown run.
“We were pushing it,” Nappa said. “We were putting it to the metal and trying to see what we could come out with. But it’s a big deficit to come back from.”
Before the late touchdown, the Vets defense allowed just 36 yards of offense in the second half. But the Huskies had already done their damage in the first half. Raiola finished with 212 yards and three touchdowns on 25 carries, and the Huskies racked up 291 yards on the ground.
Vets had 224 yards rushing. Boyajian carried 24 times for 124 yards but was limited to one carry in the fourth quarter when the clock forced Vets to the air. Sedoma had 95 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Carter Thomas caught two passes for 26 yards.
The Huskies will be Division II-A’s No. 2 seed in the playoffs, which begin this weekend. They’ll host II-B No. 3 seed West Warwick on Saturday at 6 p.m.
The ’Canes will try to regroup for a non-league crossover game this week before turning their attention to the Thanksgiving Day game with Pilgrim.
“We’re focused on the next game,” Nappa said. “We want to finish the season with an over .500 record, which is something that hasn’t been done since 2008. Our goal is to finish better than average because I think we’re a much better than average team. I think we’re a pretty good team. We want our record to reflect what we’ve done this year.”