Grafton Ends Taconic's Run in State Semi-Finals
LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- For nearly three quarters on Saturday, the Taconic football team did a pretty good job of keeping the genie in the bottle.
But with just more than a minute left in third, Grafton senior Ifeatu Melifonwu busted a 76-yard run up the left side to give his team a 20-7 lead en route to a 26-13 win in the semi-finals of the state Division 3 tournament.
“We did a good job except for a couple of big plays, obviously,” Taconic coach Jim Ziter said of the Syracuse University football recruit. “We did a good job against him. He’s a good runner. The hype? Yeah. He’s a really, really good runner.
“I thought our kids did a good job against him. But he broke a couple. We kept our defense on the field way too long. They were tired at the end.”
Taconic (9-2) struggled most of the day offensively. Its first score came late in the second quarter on a blocked punt by Justyn Santiago and a short return by Luke Maynard.
Taconic’s second touchdown came with just fewer than four minutes to play when Anthony Whiteley capped a 57-yard drive with an 11-yard run for the game’s final points.
The Western Mass champions managed just six first downs on the day.
What kept them in the game was a defense that forced Grafton without points on four of its first five possessions.
The first quarter was a true defensive battle with the teams trading possession four times.
Grafton finally got on the board early in the second quarter. It was Melifonwu who made it happen, providing a game-changing 41-yard run to move the ball to midfield from the Grafton 10 and carrying the ball on eight of nine plays in the drive (on the other one, he completed a 29-yard pass).
Then the teams settled into the first-quarter pattern -- trading possessions without a first down. But Santiago gave Taconic a big lift by blocking Grafton’s second punt of the game. Maynard turned that play into points, and Brandon Peaslee’s extra point tied the game, 7-7.
That is where it stayed until midway through third, when Grafton quarterback Matthew Holbrook hit Melifonwu for a 30-yard TD. The point after was no good, and Taconic trailed, 13-7.
Taconic’s offense then showed signs of life after a 33-yard kick return by Zach Gage got the ball to midfield. Two first downs led to a third-and-5 at the Grafton 28, but a bad snap led to a 16-yard loss and a punt.
On Grafton’s second play of the ensuing possession, Melifonwu galloped 76 yards to give his team its first two score lead. He finished the day with 238 yards rushing, 30 yards receiving, 29 yards passing, an interception and three TDs.
A muff on the ensuing kickoff gave the ball back to Grafton at the plus-35, but Taconic’s defense made one last stand, staving off a fourth-and-goal at the 8.
Melifonwu’s INT came three plays later, and Grafton scored to go ahead, 26-7, with 4:25 left to play.
Whiteley (56 yards rushing) scored on Taconic’s next possession, and Grafton recovered the inevitable onsides kick.
Taconic recovered a fumble deep in its territory with 2:52 on the clock, but Ethan Farrah picked off a fourth-down pass with 1:36 left to seal the win.
For Ziter and Taconic, one loss could neither diminish the accomplishments of their senior class nor dim the prospects for the future on Valentine Road.
“I’m proud of every one of those kids,” Ziter said. “Every one of those seniors who is living today are the ones who put this program where it’s at. Every single senior who is here today brought this program to where it’s at and where it’s going to go.
“It’s not going to be every 40 years. This program is going to move forward every year. Every year.”