The Pilgrim and Johnston football teams played what had to be one of the most exciting games in Division II play this season last Friday night at the Michael A. Morry Football Field in Warwick. The two evenly-matched teams battled it out all night from start to finish as the Panthers held off a late fourth quarter drive to prevail, 26-21, in a game that was decided in the final seconds.
“We came out on the short end, but our kids just kept on punching, that's all you can ask,” said Pilgrim head coach Rob Pacifico. “We played well and our kids showed all the heart in the world, almost finishing.”
Johnston improves to 2-2 in Division II-A, while the Pats fall to 0-4.
After a scoreless first quarter, the Pats would get on the scoreboard first with a James Baldwin to Steven Rosa 9-yard touchdown pass, the first of three touchdowns the tandem would connect for on the night.
Johnston answered that score on its next possession on a Ty Harriel 60-yard touchdown run up the middle. Harriel was the Panthers’ leading rusher in the game with 103 yards.
Despite a 5-yard penalty on the point after attempt and a high snap, Johnston place kicker Bianca Robbins drilled home the extra point to tie the game at 7.
Pilgrim's Kyle Ford would intercept Johnston quarterback Evin Califano, which set up the second Baldwin to Rosa touchdown pass from 15 yards out to give Pilgrim a 14-7 lead going into the break.
The Panthers would tie the game up at the 9:03 mark of the third quarter with a perfect Califano to Harriel pass that covered 54 yards.
The Pats answered that score just one minute later as Baldwin, who threw for over 200 yards and ran for another 80, hit Jaron Petrozzi for a 55-yard pick-up that set up the third touchdown between Baldwin and Rosa from eight yards out. Rosa managed to come up with the catch despite double coverage by the Panther defense. Matt Pacheco hit his third extra point of the night for a 21-14 Pilgrim lead.
Califano drove the Panthers downfield early in the fourth quarter and connected with freshman Matt Fortier for a 30-yard touchdown strike. Pilgrim’s Mariano Santos blocked the extra point, which kept his team on top, 21-20.
Califano would once again drive his team down the field late in the fourth quarter with a 35-yard pass to Elijah Burgess. Califano converted on a fourth-and-long with a big run that gave the Panthers a first down in Pats territory. Burgess would then give Johnston its first lead of the game with 1:20 left in the game on a 15-yard touchdown burst. Burgess ran for 47 yards in the game, but none were more important than those last 15. It was the first lead Johnston has had in a game since its win over Coventry on Sept. 15.
The Pats stopped Burgess on the 2-point conversion, which meant they only needed a touchdown to take the lead.
Baldwin had two timeouts and a little more than a minute to bring his team back. He would connect with his favorite target, Rosa, for a first down and then the Pats’ signal caller scrambled for a first down on a key fourth down play. Baldwin hit Ethan Asadorian inside the Panthers’ 5-yard line for a first-and-goal situation with 13 seconds left on the clock. Baldwin appeared to connect with Rosa for a score for the fourth time, but the officials said he trapped the ball in the end zone for an incomplete pass. Burgess and Harriel would have good pass coverage and knocked the ball away from a Pilgrim receiver on the next play, but Baldwin still had time for one final play. Working out of the shotgun, Baldwin went back to pass and was nearly sacked by Harriel, but he alertly flipped the ball back to Ford, who came up a few yards short of the end zone as the game clock expired.
“It's a W,” said Johnston head coach Joe Acciardo. “I'm proud of the guys. We told them to go fast for four quarters and we got four quarters out of them tonight. This was a good way to recover. It would have been a real heartbreaker to lose, for either team. Califano had his best game of the year and it helped having Burgess and Harriel healthy.”
“We just ran out of time,” Pacifico said. “It's tough, but we will be OK. We had a couple of mental mistakes that kept Johnston in the game.”
After being hurt for most of the season, Harriel was glad to be back on the field.
“I have been injured since the summer, but I am finally getting back to 100 percent," he said. “We want to show the coaches what we have out there, plus the new coaches who have given it their all. Elijah and I have been hurt since the summer, but we are finally getting healthy. We want to come back for our team and we all went 100 percent full speed on every play tonight.”
Pilgrim will travel to Providence to face the unbeaten Moses Brown Quakers on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. The Pats expect their leading rusher, Simon Davis, to be back soon for the stretch run.
Johnston will host Westerly in its annual Homecoming Game on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at Polisena Stadium. It will be the 50th homecoming in Johnston High School history, and the turnout is expected to be very big.