It was Homecoming in more ways than one for the Johnston High School football team on Saturday afternoon. Not only was it the Panthers’ first home game in over a month, it was also their 45th annual Homecoming, and they celebrated in style with a 42-6 victory over Warwick Vets.
The Hurricanes fell to 3-3 in Division II-A. Coming off a big win over Westerly the week before, the ’Canes had hopes of springing an upset. But the unbeaten Panthers were having none of it, and they clinched the division title while improving to 6-0.
Vets still has a shot at grabbing a playoff berth if it can beat Mt. Hope in Friday’s season finale.
“We need help from two other teams and we definitely need to win against Mt. Hope to make the playoffs," said Vets coach Bryan Nappa. “To be in the playoff race this late in the season speaks a lot about how hard this team has worked this year. Injuries have ham-strung us this year but we are still working hard and are still in the race. Hopefully the cards will fall into place and we will be in the playoffs where we belong.”
The Hurricanes opened the game with a good drive that started at their own 5-yard line. T.J. Boyajian, who rushed for 223 yards and 2 touchdowns last week, ripped off runs of 25 and 27 yards to get his team into Panther territory, but the drive ended when Konstantinos Kirios sacked Warwick quarterback Jessie Sedoma, the first of six Panther sacks on the day, to force a Sedoma punt.
The punt was dropped by Johnston 's Phil Ndifon and recovered by Vets at the JHS 4-yard line, setting up first-and-goal. The turnover was the first of the season for the Panthers in six games played so far.
Boyajian scored on the first play of the series but it was called back because of a holding penalty. If the play had stood it would have been the first time Johnston had trailed in a game this year. Ndifon came up big on defense with a sack of Sedoma for a 10-yard loss and he would atone for his earlier miscue and recover a Sedoma fumble on a bad snap. He then ran it back to mid-field.
“Coach [Joe] Acciardo does a good job of rallying his guys,” Nappa said. “They do a very good job swarming to the ball and putting on pressure. We came out fired up in the beginning and that penalty kept us out of the end zone. We wanted to get up first but it did not go that way.”
The Panther offense took the field for the first time and senior co-captains Brenden Pappas and Victor Halton pounded out tough yards and got their team to the Vets’ 7-yard line. Joe Santilli looked as if he was going to score the game's first points but he fumbled at the Vets 1-yard line. However, the Panthers’ Evan Hopson alertly fell on the ball in the end zone to give Johnston the lead with 4:30 left in the first quarter.
The ’Canes went back to work, getting a 20-yard run by Boyajian on their next possession. A pass interference call on the Panthers negated an interception by Justin Caparco, and once again Vets entered Johnston real estate. Halton temporarily knocked Boyajian out of the game with a big hit.
“T.J. is 155 pounds and all heart – he is an inspirational leader and a lot of the guys feed off him and his energy,” Nappa said. “He took a good lick but he is as tough as nails. His attitude filters down through the whole team.”
Matthew Bailey dropped Sedoma for another loss and Warwick punted once again as the first quarter came to a close. Just minutes into the second quarter, Johnston quarterback Mark Breton found an open Hopson for an 82-yard touchdown pass play and a 14-0 JHS lead.
“Hopson is a great athlete,” Johnston head coach Joe Acciardo said. “He stretches the field and has some good speed.”
Another sack by the Panthers, this one by Halton, forced yet another Vets punt that set the Panthers up in good field position. Ndifon and Marc Conte had first-down runs and Pappas, who rushed for 138 yards last week, finished off the drive with a 35-yard touchdown bolt and a three-touchdown lead for the Panthers.
After another Vets punt, JHS quarterback Steve Simone went deep to Hopson, who hauled in a 40-yard touchdown pass putting his team up 28-0.
“We spread the ball around a lot,” Acciardo said. “Three quarterbacks touched the ball today and we have three packages we can put together.”
With 3:09 left in the half, Vets embarked on its best drive of the game. Sedoma hit Tony Lonczak on two big pass plays, one of which covered 40 yards as the ’Canes tried to get on the board before the half ended. But with first-and-goal at the Panther 5-yard line, the Johnston defense held on four downs highlighted by Conte's pass deflection.
After a long intermission, where several JHS Hall of Fame athletes were recognized, Halton took the kickoff and ran it back 80 yards for a score and a 35-0 Panther lead. Johnston went up 42-0 on a Simone 30-yard halfback option touchdown pass to Steve Perfetto.
Vets got on the board in the fourth quarter when a returning Boyajian scored from 20 yards out to avoid the shutout.
“The score is really no indication of how the game was played,” Acciardo said. “It was good for us to be a little on our heels and see how we could react to some adversity.”
Johnston will travel to Westerly on Friday night while Vets will host Mt. Hope the same night. It will be the last regular season game for both teams with a lot at stake for both squads. Acciardo said that his team is not looking past anybody and that they are focused on the Bulldogs.
“If you look past somebody it is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “We take one game at a time and when you are undefeated everyone wants to knock you off.”
Vets will host Mt. Hope on Friday at 7 p.m., and will be looking for its first playoff berth since 2008. Vets is in good position if it can get a win, because it would hold tiebreakers over Mt. Hope and Westerly. Coventry, who would have had a tiebreaker over Vets, lost to Westerly on Saturday and will likely be out of the mix.