By Dan Guttenplan
---- — AMESBURY — The honking car horns and celebratory screams emanating from the surrounding grounds of Landry Stadium yesterday could only signal one thing: The Amesbury football team’s season will continue past Thanksgiving Day for the first time since 2008.
The Indians (9-2 overall, 5-0 CAL) put an exclamation point on their regular season with a 13-10 victory over Newburyport in a Thanksgiving game that decided which of the two teams would represent Cape Ann League Division 3 in the Eastern Mass. playoffs.
Amesbury, which won its most recent league title during its Super Bowl season of 2008, will play CAL Division 4 champion Lynnfield (8-2, 5-0) Tuesday evening in the Division 3A semifinal at a site to be determined.
With the score tied at 10-10 with 7:01 remaining in the game, Amesbury kicker Mac Short converted his second field goal — this time from 32 yards — to give the Indians a 13-10 lead it would not relinquish. Short also connected from 27 yards in the third quarter in his first field-goal attempt of the season.
The Amesbury defense then stood firm over the final 5:55, allowing only one first down over two Newburyport possessions. Amesbury ran this season’s winning streak to eight with the victory. The Indians also snapped a three-game Thanksgiving Day losing streak, marking the first time since their Super Bowl season in which they beat Newburyport.
“Those field goals were gigantic because (Newburyport) is so tough down in the red zone,” Amesbury coach Thom Connors said. “We decided to go for field goals rather than go for it on fourth downs. It turned out to be the right decision.”
Amesbury came into the game averaging 30.4 points per game on offense, but figured to have tougher sledding against a Newburyport defense that held opponents to an average of 12.4 points. With 10 days to prepare for each other, both teams unveiled new offensive schemes from the start. Amesbury started in a spread attack rather than the pistol wing-T it had employed for much of the season, and Newburyport used a Wildcat formation with Colton Fontaine taking snaps rather than its standard look with Connor Wile behind center.
It was not a finesse game. Newburyport had success running the ball with its bigger backs, like Fontaine and fullback Sam Francis. The two seniors combined for 156 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries. On the other hand, speedy tailback Tyler Cusack was limited to 25 yards on 10 carries.
Amesbury also received a significant contribution from its power fullback Perry Mroz, who carried seven times for 41 yards and a touchdown. On the other hand, shifty quarterback Matt Talbot could only muster 32 yards on 15 carries.
The biggest difference in the game was the effectiveness of each team’s passing game. Talbot completed 9 of 18 passes for 124 yards, while Wile connected on 4 of 10 passes for 48 yards.
“We went in, and we knew we’d do a lot of passing,” Mroz said. “(Coach Connors) told me he’d try to ram the ball with me at the end for ball control. I knew going in I’d get the ball at the end.”
Mroz was effective moving the chains in the fourth quarter, although Newburyport had one final chance to get out of the 13-10 hole when cornerback Drew Bourdeau intercepted a Talbot pass on the Clippers’ 14-yard-line with 2:51 remaining in the game.
Newburyport’s final possession showed promise when Wile connected with Fontaine for a 22-yard pass, moving the ball to the Newburyport 41 at the two-minute warning. However, Wile, who entered the final drive with only six passing attempts, threw three incompletions in the final four plays to force a turnover on downs.
“They’re a good team,” Newburyport coach Ed Gaudiano said of Amesbury. “Hopefully they go a long way in the playoffs and represent the league well.”
Newburyport struck first on its opening possession of the first quarter, marching 60 yards in 14 plays for a touchdown. Perhaps feeling as if his team needed to take a few chances to win the game, Gaudiano left his offense on the field for two fourth-down plays on the drive. Francis converted the second — a fourth-and-4 — with a 15-yard touchdown run.
Amesbury evened the score on a long drive that started on the final play of the first quarter and spilled over into the second. Mroz capped the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run, although Talbot converted three third-and-long situations with passes of at least 13 yards on the drive.
“We’ve been throwing the ball quite a bit all year,” Connors said. “(Newburyport) has two great defensive ends and two inside linebackers who are really tough. We hoped to spread their guys out, and wear out the middle of the defense for later in the game. Perry Mroz was outstanding finishing the game.”
Tied at 7-7 coming out of halftime, Amesbury received the opening kick, and Ben Cullen returned it to the Amesbury 40-yard line. Six plays later, Short teed up his first field-goal attempt of the season, giving the Indians a 10-7 lead. Although Short had not attempted a field before yesterday, he is 34 for 34 on extra-point attempts this season.
“He’s been perfect all year,” Connors said. “He’d been kicking PATs over the wall and fence. We knew he had more than enough leg. We talked about it all the time this year. I said, ‘Some day, Shorty, you’ll win us a game with a kick.’”
Newburyport responded immediately after facing its first deficit, piecing together an 11-play, 50-yard drive to the Amesbury 10-yard-line. Wile then tied the game with a 26-yard field goal, setting the stage for Short’s game-winning kick.
“He’s one of the best kickers I’ve ever coached,” Connors said of Short. “Last year, as a sophomore, he struggled. This year, he’s been solid. There wasn’t any hesitation at all. The play before, we ran the ball and didn’t get the first down. I said, ‘Where are we (on the field)?’ Then I said, ‘Let’s kick it.’”
Newburyport fell short in its bid for a repeat CAL Division 3 title. A season that started with a lingering shoulder injury to Wile, which sidelined the record-setting quarterback for the first six games, also ended with a devastating injury to a key player. With 2:42 remaining in the fourth quarter, Francis had his legs cut out from under him on a 3-yard run up the middle. He remained on the turf for several minutes after being tackled, and was eventually helped off the field by two teammates. Upon the presentation of the J. Walter Chase Trophy to Amesbury, the annual prize for winning the rivalry game which dates back to 1891, Francis could be spotted on crutches on the outskirts of the ceremony. Francis is also an All-League lacrosse player for Newburyport, a team coached by Gaudiano.
“The trainers are saying a couple of things,” Gaudiano said of Francis’ injury. “I’m not sure. We’ll wait until he sees the doctor on Monday. Hopefully it’s nothing serious.”
Newburyport still holds the all-time series lead with Amesbury, 47-37-6. Yesterday’s game drew the largest crowd of any football game in the area this season, as both bleacher sections at Landry Stadium were filled to capacity, and much of the perimeter of the field was lined with fans.
In a show of how many spectators made their way to Amesbury yesterday, the game’s 50/50 raffle offered a winning prize of $1,355.
Amesbury 13, Newburyport 10
at Landry Stadium, Amesbury
N — 7 0 3 0 — 10
A — 0 7 3 3 — 13
N — Sam Francis 15 run (Connor Wile kick), 3:54
A — Perry Mroz 11 run (Mac Short kick), 7:14
A — Short 27 field goal, 7:01
N — Wile 26 field goal, 1:11
A — Short 32 field goal, 5:55
Rushing: N — Francis 11-85-1; Colton Fontaine 11-71; Tyler Cusack 10-25; Wile 3-20; A — Matt Talbot 15-32; Mroz 7-41-1; Ben Cullen 3-17; Bobby Campbell 1-5; Tommy Connors 1-0.
Passing: N — Wile 4-10-48-0-0; Talbot 9-18-124-0-1.
Receiving: N — Fontaine 3-39; Evan Habib 1-9; A — Devlin Gobeil 3-34; Cullen 3-20; Connors 2-51; Pat Scanlon 1-19.