- Scott Barboza, ESPN Staff Writer
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NATICK, Mass. – For whatever Jack Lavanchy might go on to accomplish in life, he’ll always have the memory of making a field goal with the game on the line in the final seconds.
It wasn’t just any game either. As No. 8 Walpole traveled to No. 9 Natick in a battle of unbeatens and with the Bay State Conference Herget division title on the line, the senior wide receiver and cornerback could have been struck with pangs of trepidation before setting up for what would prove to be the game-winning 28-yard field goal Friday night.
With the hopes of a town settled on his shoulders, Lavanchy split the uprights, giving the Rebels a 17-14 win.
For the last seven years, the game had decided the Herget title, with Natick getting the upper hand in recent years, including a wild overtime victory at Walpole last year, when the teams combined for 111 points. With Lavanchy’s boot, the Rebels returned the favor in serving the Redhawks a taste of the gut-wrenching loss they’d encountered a year prior.
With so much riding on one kick, it would have been understandable for a young man to falter. Lavanchy didn’t. And, for whatever emotions might have been bottled up inside his helmet in lead up to that kick, you certainly weren’t able to tell otherwise afterward. “Probably number one in the books,” was Lavanchy’s assessment of one of the finer high school football games you’d ever see.
“It’s a hyped-up game, but you try to stay mellow,” he added. “But we came to play, the defense played well.”
The kid’s just cool as a cucumber.
“I’m just elated”: So how did the Rebels beat the Redhawks?
It was one part plan, and another part execution.
Walpole’s coaching staff knew they needed to stop Natick’s Harvard-bound receiver Brian Dunlap coming in, but the myriad ways in which they’d have to stop Dunlap might have been another story.
Natick (6-1) used Dunlap across a number of formations, setting him in the backfield of what Rebels head coach Barry Greener called “Georgia” sets, pushing Dunlap in motion out of the backfield and, of course, split out wide. Dunlap accounted for Natick’s longest offensive play of the game with his feet. His 79-yard run on a jet sweep, which set the Redhawks up with a first-and-goal to go from the 1, led to Dunlap’s 1-yard touchdown for the game’s opening score, with the senior lined up at tailback in a two-back set.
Dunlap accounted for both Redhawks’ touchdowns, hauling in a 5-yard pass from Nick Olson (8 of 13, 94 yards) while motioning out of the backfield out of the same goal-line set used on his rushing touchdown.
“He’s a hell of a player, the best I’ve ever seen,” said Lavanchy, who drew the primary responsibility of covering Dunlap from his cornerback position. “The double moves will get you, he’s got quick feet.”
Walpole (7-0) countered Dunlap’s rushing score with some special teams wizardry.
Senior wide receiver and defensive back Andrew Papirio returned a punt 37 yards for a touchdown to tie the score, 7-7, with 9:59 remaining in the first half.
Unlike the game’s predecessor from a year ago, when the teams volleyed scores with each possession, the 2014 installment of the rivalry was marked more by clutch defensive stops. And Walpole struggled at times to finish drives, despite getting 159 yards from running back Steve Cuqua on 29 carries.
However, the Rebels were at their offensive best in the fourth quarter, with junior quarterback Tyler Berkland orchestrating the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.
Yet another of Walpole’s promising drives was threatened with sputtering out in Natick’s half of the field with a third-and-1 from the Redhawks’ 25. That’s when Berkland took the game into his own hands.
“Quick count. First sound. Go.” That’s how Greener summed up Berkland’s decision to check out of a running play to Cuqua and steam 23 yards in between the hash marks, setting up a first-and-goal to go.
“Our number one play – I probably shouldn’t say this – but if the quarterback sneak is there,” Greener said.
He paused and added, “Tyler Berkland is one smart cookie – a very smart quarterback. He understands the game, he understands fronts.
“If he sees it … What Natick was doing, their linebackers were filling great, their secondary was coming up hard in short-yardage situations – and if you hand it back to your tailback, it’s too much time that’s elapsed and they’re outnumbering you at the hole.”
Berkland eventually finished the 11-play, 79-yard drive with a 1-yard keeper on fourth and goal after T.J. Collins (2.5 tackles for loss) and Natick’s defensive front resisted.
“He’s a great athlete and he kept his head in it,” Papirio said of Berkland, a first-year starter. “He knew he had to make plays and he did.”
That score, with 4:13 remaining in regulation set the stage for Lavanchy’s heroics, after the Rebels forced a Natick punt with less than two minutes to play.
Papirio added his second noteworthy punt return, picking up a bounding ball on the fly and turning it down the left sideline for a 51-yard gain.
“Papirio had two big plays, one in the first half and one in the second half,” Greener said. “He’s just a warrior. I think they caught one ball on him all night. He was right there in coverage.”
After running a couple of plays and centering the ball between the hashes, Lavanchy’s 28-yard kick was the synthesis of Walpole’s plan: one part stifling defense, one part opportunistic offense, one part special teams prowess.
“I’m elated,” Greener said. “I’m just elated.”
Lack of pocket time: Olson entered the game with more than 1,200 yards passing and, with a stable of receivers at his fingertips, Walpole’s defensive brain trust knew getting pressure on the Natick quarterback would be paramount.
Greener said his staff targeted five sacks as a goal for the game. Well, the Rebels hit their mark and then some, tallying six sacks on the game, led by junior defensive lineman Xavier Andujar, who got his second sack of the game on the final play of the game.
“We played very little zone, we were in man most of the time and we were sending pressure to get at Olson,” Greener said.
Walpole’s defensive ends were a factor throughout. Despite playing through a shoulder injury, Chris Bender was a constant pest for Olson, contributing two pressures along with a tackle for loss.
“Bender didn’t play last week, with his shoulder it’s very painful,” Greener said. “He played in a lot of pain tonight, but sucked it up and went. [Nate] Porack played his usual, our tight end and defensive end, he’s smart as hell. Kevin Mansen came in and gave us some good time there as a sub, he’s another good, smart player and a senior.”
On the back end, Walpole stayed mostly in man, with a sprinkle of combo coverages sprinkled in. With pressure established up front, it limited the amount of time required for the Rebels defensive backs to trail the Redhawks’ stable of receivers.
“We had to give Dunlap extra attention, so Lavanchy was playing some man-under with our safety Jon Henri over the top,” Greener said.
Dunlap had as many carries (5, for 80 yards) as he did targets.
“He just had that one play that he hit big,” Greener said. “We turned it in pretty well, our defensive end played it great, but one of our linebackers must’ve gotten blocked because we didn’t get the fill – I’ll have to see it on film. But he cut it up and we didn’t have the scrape.”
252dBrendan C. Hall