By Greg Phipps
---- — LYNNFIELD — After a first half in which they were dominated possession-wise by host Lynnfield, the Newburyport Clippers appeared to turn around the complexion of Saturday’s game when they scored on their opening drive of the second half to pull ahead 7-6.
But that momentum was lost in a flash, as the Pioneers’ Matthew Kramich took the ensuing kickoff and ran it back 76 yards for a score, giving the home team the lead back for good and catapulting Lynnfield to a 21-13 victory in the season-opener for both squads at Pioneer Field.
The defeat was only the second the Clippers have suffered against Lynnfield since 2004. Newburyport had won the last three meetings between the two teams entering Saturday’s game.
Led by first-year quarterback Michael Shay (9 for 15 for 98 yards passing), Newburyport opened the third period by engineering a 10-play, 63-yard drive, which culminated in tailback Chance Carpenter’s touchdown run of three yards with 5:40 showing on the third-quarter clock. Brandon Trego connected on the point-after kick, and the Clippers had themselves a one-point advantage, albeit a short-lived one.
“If anything, we just put the ball in the air a little more,” said Clippers head coach Ed Gaudiano, when asked about second-half adjustments. “(Lynnfield) had the middle clogged up pretty good against us. You saw their size. We didn’t have much success with our fullback game, and that forced us to the outside and made us a little more one-dimensional.”
Shay attempted 10 of his 15 passes in the second half.
Newburyport did do most of its offensive damage on the outside, as the Pioneer defense was stingy up the middle. The Clippers were able to effectively utilize their speed and quickness at times, especially in the second half. The third-quarter scoring drive was aided by a 29-yard jaunt by fullback Trevor Bradbury and a 15-yard late-hit penalty.
“A lot of things we’re doing on offense are new,” said Gaudiano of this year’s option-style attack that managed 206 total yards Saturday. “We’ve still got things to work on.”
In the end, Kramich’s kick return was the deciding play, as Lynnfield added a 2-point conversion when quarterback Dan Sullivan connected on a pass to Cameron Rondeau for a 14-7 lead with 5:23 left in the third.
“That kickoff return killed us. I don’t know what more to say about it,” Gaudiano said.
“That was really the difference in the game,” said Lynnfield head coach Neil Weidman. “(The Clippers) fought hard to get that lead and then suddenly, they’re down again. That’s a tough thing for any team to overcome.”
Fullback Kyle McGah (a game-high 86 yards on the ground) helped put the game away for Lynnfield with a 45-yard burst up the middle that set up his 1-yard TD run with just over four minutes left in the contest. Daniel Bronshvayg’s PAT kick pushed the lead to 21-7.
The Clippers added a late touchdown when they put together another 63-yard march. Carpenter bulled in from the one with 1:14 remaining to account for the final margin after the conversion try failed.
Gaudiano said his team executed well defensively, but the tackling needs to improve.
“I know we’re going to work on tackling this week, we’ve got to get better at that,” he said. “Our (defensive) schemes were good and the kids were in the right spots. Now they just have to make the plays when they get there.”
Defensive lineman Reed Nation got the lone sack of the game for the Clippers, a 10-yard takedown of Sullivan in the third quarter.
The Pioneers, who advanced to the Division 3A Super Bowl last fall, controlled play in the first half on Saturday. They ran 38 offensive plays, including a 16-play march to open the game, to just 14 for the Clippers. Still, Lynnfield could only muster a slim 6-0 lead after one half. A failed fourth-down attempt for the 10-yard line in the first quarter and a turnover inside the 10 in quarter two kept Lynnfield off the board and Newburyport in the game.
Sullivan finally got the hosts in the end zone on a 4-yard keeper with just under a minute remaining in the opening half.
Weidman said his Pioneers were not affected by the close score at halftime despite their clear advantage in possession time and the missed scoring chances.
“You can always look back on a game and say, ‘If we had only done this or that.’ It’s part of the game,” he said. “Newburyport’s always a tough matchup for us. They’ve always had very athletic kids over there.”
The Clippers actually ended up with more total yards (206-189) in the game despite Lynnfield’s first-half performance.
In his first-ever start at quarterback, Shay was intercepted once — a late second-quarter pickoff by Lynnfield’s Rondeau two plays after Carpenter had returned a kickoff 55 yards to the Lynnfield 35. But Shay appeared to handle the defensive pressure well and looked comfortable running the option.
“We put a lot on his shoulders. I thought he threw the ball well,” said Gaudiano of Shay’s effort. “The offense fell apart a little bit today because we were a little out of control at the line of scrimmage. But these are things we can work on. We’re going to stick with the (offensive) scheme because I think it gives (Shay) a chance to show what he can do.”
The Clippers host Ipswich Friday night at 7 p.m.