SOUTH HADLEY – Clinging to a seven-point lead over No. 8 Northampton late in the fourth quarter, the No. 7 South Hadley football team was faced with two separate third-down conversions as it looked to ice the game.
On both occasions, the Tigers converted, earning a hard-fought 7-0 victory over the Blue Devils in the season opener for both schools.
With a little over two minutes to go in the contest, South Hadley was faced with its first third-down opportunity as it looked to prevent giving the Northampton offense one final crack at tying the game. Needing about six yards to move the chains, Tigers running back Collin Mailhott took a handoff from quarterback Shawn Mitchell and muscled his way through the Blue Devils defense to keep the offense out on the field.
Approximately 45 seconds later, Northampton had South Hadley on the ropes again, but a 10-yard rush for Brock Fitzell sealed the win for the Tigers.
“It’s great because they really kind of turned to each other on that last one, on Brock’s run,” South Hadley head coach Scott Taylor said.
“They were like ‘if we get this first down, we win’,” Taylor continued. “When they can rally together, when it’s not a coach getting them fired up but they work to get each other fired up and they’re there for each other, that’s what you wanna see as a coach and that’s when it’s exciting.”
The lone touchdown of the contest came with 5:18 left in the first half when Tigers senior running back Kyle Johnson punched his way into the end zone from a yard out. Just a couple plays before, Mitchell hooked up with James Couture (43 receiving yards) for a 29-yard completion to set up the Tigers inside the Blue Devils red zone.
Johnson, who finished with 32 rushing yards and 20 receiving yards on a pair of receptions, acknowledged how great it felt being back out on the field for his team’s first meaningful game in over a year
“It brought me back to last year it felt so great,” he said. “We fought very, very hard because we had a long, long offseason. We didn’t have too much hope that we were gonna play, and then we finally got the word that we were gonna so we’ve been working our butts off to get here and we pulled through tonight.”
Despite its offensive struggles, South Hadley’s defense rose to the challenge of handling the Northampton backfield duo of Brett Holden and Braeden Tudryn.
Holden ended the night with 18 yards on the ground, while Tudryn recorded 28 rushing yards and 34 yards through the air. Blue Devils quarterback Ben Sledzieski completed just nine passes for 83 yards on 19 attempts, with receiver Trevor Maslowski responsible for 38 of those yards on two catches.
“They were phenomenal,” said Taylor, referring to his defense. “I thought coach (Brian) Couture and coach (Dean) Carey did an amazing job preparing them. We’ve been preparing basically since we knew Northampton was our opening opponent.”
“We scrimmaged Agawam last week and we ran our Northampton defense,” he added. “They just did a great job of getting everything in … I was pleasantly surprised at some of the tackling. The kids were putting their noses in there and that’s what you wanna see on the first night of real football.”
Northampton was provided with a huge opportunity to put points on the board in the third quarter after a muffed punt gave the ball back to the Blue Devils inside the 50, but South Hadley took back the momentum with a key stop on fourth down.
When asked about the turnover on downs, Taylor acknowledged the importance of having short-term memory and not dwelling on the previous play.
“It’s great, and that’s what we talk about, the ebb and flow of a football game,” he said. “There’s gonna be moments that are high and moments that are low, and you just have to persevere and stay in the middle so you can celebrate when the game is over.”
482 days after his team’s Division VII state semifinal loss to Leicester, Taylor expressed his elation at just being back on the sideline with his team.
“I couldn’t be prouder,” he said. “I’m just happy that they’re playing and I’m excited to see where this team can go.”