Friday night’s game between Johnston and Toll Gate marked the return of former Panther assistant coach Matt Mancuso as the Titans head coach for the first time at the Ralph aRusso Complex in Johnston. The Panther coaches, players and fans gave the well-liked Mancuso – who is in his third season at the helm of the Titans – a warm welcome but when the whistle blew and the game started the Panthers were all business as they rolled to a 36-6 victory. Toll Gate dropped to 0-3, while Johnston remained in a four-way tie for second place in Division II-A with a 2-1 mark.
In the last two games, Johnston has outscored its opponents 79-12 after being shut out by Woonsocket in its first league game three weeks ago.
“I wish the Woonsocket game never happened but I think it was a blessing in disguise,” said Johnston head coach Joe Acciardo. “We can always play better but right now we are playing well and making good steps and strides and I am proud of these guys.”
After driving the ball well in the first minute of the game , the Titans would fumble at their own 45-yard line, where Daniel Goldberger recovered. Johnston would not waste any time in cashing in on the Titans’ mistake as Mark Breton ‘s option pass to Curtis Mathieu from 30 yards out at the 9:34 mark of the opening quarter gave JHS the first score of the game.
The Titans ran the ball well again on their second possession but on fourth-and-8, were stopped at the Panther 40-yard line. Breton then hit a wide open Alex Tenerella for a 28-yard gain to the visitor’s 12-yard line.
“Both our quarterbacks have their strengths but Mark Breton can really chuck it,” Acciardo said.
Marc Conte scored the first of his three touchdowns a few plays later with a 15-yard run and Mathieu tacked on the two-point conversion for a 14-0 JHS lead with 3:44 left in the first quarter.
The Titans’ Chris Durand converted on a fourth-and-2 as Toll Gate tried to come back early in the second quarter but Goldberger and Conte made big defensive stops to force another Titan turnover on downs. Johnston took over at midfield and went right to work with co-captain Joe Peters running hard. Breton hit Peters for a good gain and Conte carried a pile of Titan defenders at least 15 yards to give JHS first and goal at the 10. Conte, who ran for 60 yards in the game, hit pay dirt for the second time in the game a few plays later with a 10-yard rush.
“Conte is definitely a work horse for us and Mathieu also runs the ball well,” Acciardo said.
Peters was perfect on the extra point and JHS had itself a 21-0 halftime lead.
Toll Gate was left thinking about what might have been.
“It could have been 14-0 our way at the beginning of the game but mistakes cost us,” Mancuso said. “We are making the same mistakes and when a team gets physical with us we cannot handle it. Who knows, if we had not fumbled on the opening drive things might have been a little different for us.”
Johnston recovered a Toll Gate onside kick to open the second half and set up its offense at the 50. Mathieu stiff-armed a Toll Gate defender and picked up big yardage. Durand would sack Panther quarterback Mike Caparco to JHS in a third-and-19 situation, but Johnston was unfazed. On the next play, Caparco set up a screen pass to Conte, who traveled 33 yards for his third touchdown of the game thanks to excellent blocking from his offensive line. Peters nailed an extra long PAT for a 28-0 home team advantage. After a Toll Gate punt, the Panthers’ ground game went back to work with Mathieu and Peters leading the way. Peters capped the drive with a 4-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. Caparco fumbled the snap on the PAT but alertly found Peters for the two-point conversion and a 36-0 lead.
The Titans got on the board early in the fourth quarter with Durand and Josh Thibeault grinding out some tough yards. Durand capped the 65 yard drive with a 4-yard touchdown run.
“It is a work in progress and we will go back to the drawing board,” Mancuso said. “Most of the guys played hard tonight like Durand and Thibeault, it’s just getting everyone to play hard for 48 minutes is the problem. We have a good staff in place and we have a good freshman team right now and we just have to keep building. It is a little frustrating but we are trying to set rules and get guys to play in our system.”
The Titans will try to get into the win column on Saturday at 10 a.m., as they face Westerly. Johnston will have a big home game Friday night with the Coventry Oakers at 7 p.m. The Oakers lost to Warwick Vets last week, leaving Woonsocket as the only undefeated team in Division II-A. Mt. Hope, Coventry, Warwick and Johnston all sport 2-1 records.
“We are young but we did not look ahead to anybody tonight,” Acciardo said. “Tonight was the first time we mentioned Coventry and we have to keep everyone focused. We need to practice a little better because Coventry will be a big test for us. They are a big, strong and fast team that gave us some trouble last year.”