WESTWOOD, Mass. -- In the final minute of the second quarter of their annual Thanksgiving clash with Holliston, Westwood found itself facing a fourth-and-nine situation at the Panthers 14-yard line.
The Wolverines held a 14-7 lead at the time but the stakes in this game were pretty high. The winner would clinch the Tri-Valley League Large title and the playoff spot that goes with it. The loser would be handing in uniforms and equipment the next morning.
Westwood coach Ed Mantie had to weigh his options carefully. He could opt for a field goal try, not always a sure thing in high school football. He could give the ball safely to one of his two sure-handed running backs, Daniel Roache or Brandon Rodenbush, with the hope that one of them might break through the line, or let dynamic Alex Berluti just keep it himself. Even if the Wolverines didn't produce anything, the Panthers would be pinned deep with minimal time to mount a drive.
Mantie decided throw caution to the wind and go for the jugular. Setting up in the shotgun, Berluti took the snap and faked a handoff to Roache. Holliston nose tackle Jake McLinden blew past the center and took a dive at Berluti's legs, forcing the quarterback to dance to the outside. Berluti took a couple of steps, set his feet and lofted a pass toward the back of the end zone where Pierce Dierker had gotten behind the Panthers safety and hauled down the pass for the touchdown.
The ensuing extra point gave Westwood a 21-7 lead with 31 seconds left in the half, but served as a microcosm for an aggressive nature borne out of a team's belief in itself.
"If you’re getting your kids to believe we’re the better team then once you have your hands around the throat you have to squeeze a little bit and that's what we tried to do," Mantie explained. "We were able to control the clock a bit at the end of the first half, get down into a position where we could take some chances. It got down to fourth down but we made it - that's the play of the game right there to push it up to 21-7 at the half."
The Wolverines inspired play continued in what was the most complete effort they put together all season en route to a 42-14 rout of Holliston (7-4) at Flahive Field. Now, Westwood (8-3) will make its first postseason appearance since winning the 2004 Super Bowl when they take on Wayland Tuesday.
"We haven’t won since 2004 so to bring home the league is really great," Berluti said. "The team played really well, everyone did what they had to do. We worked hard for two weeks. We prepped hard and it was a good win today."
FAMILY AFFAIR ON THANKSGIVING
The Berluti brothers - Alex, the quarterback, and Bo, the receiver - displayed a terrific connection on this day. Alex finished with 14 completions in 17 attempts for 269 yards and three touchdowns. Bo was his main target with five catches for 107 yards and the go-ahead score at the start of the second quarter.
Westwood had scored first, courtesy of a five-yard run by Rodenbush, but Holliston came right back to tie it up when TVL MVP Max Athy broke through the middle of the defense for a 26-yard scoring jaunt. The Wolverines proceeded to march from its own 24 down to the Panthers nine, where Alex drilled Bo on a perfect slant pattern to take a 14-7 lead.
"It’s nice throwing to him," Alex said. "It’s fun. It was memorable. I’ll have that for the rest of my life."
UP-TEMPO PACE MEANS SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE A STOP
Both teams favored the up-tempo, no-huddle offensive style that is en vogue across the nation. Holliston runs its plays so fast that the sideline chain gang had to hustle to keep up after each gain. Berluti proved equally adept at running the fast-paced spread, primarily utilizing his brother and Dierker, who finished with 72 yards and two scores on four catches.
What helped Westwood stand apart on this day was its ability to run the ball and get key stops on defense early on. Roache lugged the rock 25 times for 141 yards and a touchdown, while Rodenbush ran in a pair of scores.
Defensively, the Wolverines really only allowed a handful of the big plays that had helped Holliston win the last two TVL titles and a Super Bowl a season ago. Holliston scored on Athy's 26-yard run, then added an 85-yard TD pass from Matt Jeye to Zach Elkinson, but stalled twice in the red zone in the final frame.
"We just completely shut them down," said Rodenbush, who had an interception - as did Roache. "They came in here thinking they could run WAR all over us and we shut it down so they tried to pass and we shut that down. They couldn’t do anything. This was the most confident game we've played since I've been here."
Added Mantie, "We gave up two big plays and those were their two scores. Snap after snap after snap they just kept battling. I think we controlled the line of scrimmage pretty well, I think we tackled pretty well for the most part, which is huge because Athy is such a dynamic kid. In the end, it came down to us being able to cover their guys because they were trying to throw the ball. We gave up a little bit at the end there but certainly made the plays when we had to. "
WESTWOOD 42, HOLLISTON 14
HOLLISTON (7-4) 7 0 7 0 - 14
WESTWOOD (8-3) 7 14 14 7 - 42
WW - Brandon Rodenbush 5 run (Connor Cote kick)
HO - Max Athy 26 run (Grant Slattery kick)
WW - Bo Berluti 9 pass from Alex Berluti (Cote kick)
WW - Pierce Dierker 14 pass from Alex Berluti (Cote kick)
WW - Rodenbush 3 run (kick failed)
HO - Zach Elkinson 85 pass from Matt Jeye (Slattery kick)
WW - Daniel Roache 1 run (Alex Berluti rush)
WW - Dierker 30 pass from Alex Berluti (Cote kick)