Gai, Ground Attack Lead Wahconah To Senior Night Victory
DALTON, Mass. – It was only fitting that the Wahconah defense provided the most crucial play of the game.
On a night when the defense was relied upon much more than usual, an unlikely play by cornerback Jack Gai swung the pendulum Wahconah’s way for the pivotal points that helped lead Wahconah to a 30-19 home victory over the West Springfield Terriers.
Clinging to a slim lead with less than three minutes remaining in the contest, and with the Terriers attempting a two-point conversion that could have evened the score, Gai reversed momentum by scooping up a fumble and returning it for a score. West Springfield attempted a run to the right side, and when the ball hit the grass Gai had an easy scoop with a clear path in the other direction. The senior bolted down the field untouched to double his team's lead and assure the victory.
“It was the play of the game, and it ended the game,” Wahconah Head Coach Gary Campbell Jr. said. “That right there was a four-point swing, and we took advantage of that and pounded it down the field and closed the door. Sometimes you’ve got to win games in a lot of different ways.”
West Springfield’s Josiah Griffin scored on a 1-yard rush to cap a 10-play drive that then gave the Terriers (2-6) the chance to tie things up late. Both sides went back-and-forth the entire second half, after Wahconah held a slim, 8-7 halftime advantage. But two touchdowns in the fourth quarter had the Terriers pushing for the upset.
“We knew they were coming after us,” Campbell said. “They had just run the ball in, and they were going the same way. So we went to Cover Zero, which means we were manned-up and we’re sending guys and there is pressure. All of a sudden the ball popped out and our cornerback came off of his guy and the ball popped up into the right guy’s hands. He took it to the house.”
Wahconah (7-1) relied heavily on their ground game, as it racked up 283 rushing yards. Senior Connor Noyes led the way, churning up 154 yards on 20 carries. Noyes ignited his team to start the second half by rushing up the middle and then breaking things outside for a 47-yard touchdown run with 4:31 remaining in the third quarter.
As was often the case throughout the night, the offense responded following a big moment by the defense. Wahconah started the second half with the ball, but was forced into its only punt of the night. Terriers sophomore quarterback Ryan Russell then connected with Joey Tangredi for a 43-yard pass down to the 3-yard line. But the Wahconah defense dug in and held West Springfield on four straight downs to hand things back over to its offense, which then marched 96 yards in eight plays to open things up at 15-7.
With the playoffs now set to begin, the overall execution was a welcome sight for Campbell and the rest of the Wahconah coaching staff.
“I liked the way that we clawed and fought,” Campbell said. “I thought our kids showed a lot of resiliency and toughness, and we ran the football well when we needed it. It wakes up the kids and they know that they have to fight for everything that they get. Tonight they had to, because West Springfield played well. We fought and came out on top and it is a good feeling.”
Ryan Russell and the Terriers showed they meant business right away on Friday night, putting together a long and impressive drive to draw first blood with a 7-0 lead. West Springfield put together a 20-play drive and marched down the field, with Ben Green hauling in a 12-yard pass from Ryan Russell with 5:05 left in the first half.
Wahconah answered right back. Matt Furtin took the kickoff for a 15-yard gain, and Wahconah unleashed its arsenal of running backs to move the ball downfield. Senior quarterback Tim Clayton capped the 10-play, 66-yard drive off by taking the ball in from 5 yards out to put his club on the scoreboard. Clayton then fired a strike to Tom Burris for the two-point conversion that gave Wahconah a lead it never surrendered.
Wahconah linebacker Augie Roughley snared an interception on the next series for his team’s only turnover of the night. The hosts were held on downs on the ensuing drive, which took things to the half.
Clayton scored his second touchdown of the night to respond to a rushing score from Ryan Russell in the fourth quarter, which kept Wahconah up, 21-13. The senior quarterback gained 49 yards on six carries, and was also 8-for-14 passing for 93 yards.
Ryan Russell had an impressive night to lead the Terriers, passing for 222 yards while completing 14 of 30 passes. He also had 45 yards rushing on 13 attempts.
Nate Zink chipped in with 55 yards on nine rushes, and Noyes capped off the night by scoring on an 8-yard run with 1:09 left to play.
Wahconah closed out the season undefeated at home, going a perfect 5-0 on its home turf while winning its 12th straight home game. This one was even sweeter than most, as the program celebrated Senior Night in honoring a large group of 19 seniors. As per Wahconah tradition, underclassmen then carried the seniors off the field in celebration of the victory.
“It is a tradition here, and every senior wants to be carried off the field on Senior Night,” Campbell said. “I don’t know when it started but it was before me, and I graduated here in 1988, so it has been a long time. If you win on Senior Night, you get to be carried off; and it is a big deal to these kids. It’s fun.”