PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Junior quarterback Matthew Mortellite on the carry during the final quarter of the Pioneers’ 21-20 Thanksgiving day loss to North Reading.
By JUSTIN BARRASSO
LYNNFIELD – Senior running back John Merullo lifted North Reading over Lynnfield, 21-20, Thursday for its first road Thanksgiving win since 2008.
“Johnny Merullo has a ton of heart,” said North Reading coach Jeff Wall. “He is undersized, so he’s always trying to prove himself. I know he didn’t get as many carries as he would have liked during the season, but he turned Thanksgiving into an opportunity. This game was his show, and he seized the moment.”
Photo gallery: Lynnfield vs. North Reading 2016 Thanksgiving football game
North Reading (9-2) trailed until midway through the third quarter against Lynnfield (6-4). Yet the Hornets flourished when Merullo (14 carries, 85 yards, TD) was thrust into the focal point of the North Reading offense after star running back Matt McCarthy (11 carries, 92 yards) injured his knee on the first play of the third quarter and was forced to watch the remainder of the game on crutches from the sideline.
“We didn’t panic or break with Matty hurt,” said Wall. “We always tell the guys, ‘Believe in yourself and believe in each other.’ Matty was on the sideline asking the team to believe in each other and win. Matt is one of the best athletes we’ve ever had, but I had a feeling we were going to need other people to step up. We just didn’t know Matt would be out, but guys stepped up. This was a great team win.”
After a scoreless opening frame, Lynnfield scored in the second quarter on a 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back Anthony Murphy that capped a 10-minute, 95-yard drive.
“We wanted to come out strong,” said Lynnfield coach Neal Weidman. “We knew we were up against a very good team with two backs – McCarthy and Merullo – who are great athletes. They broke a lot of tackles and made a lot of guys miss. That’s what we were worried about going into the game, so we needed to be aggressive.”
McCarthy nearly single-handedly drove North Reading into the Lynnfield red zone, but the Pioneers forced the Hornets to settle for a field goal. North Reading’s Bob O’Donnell booted a 23-yard kick inside the left upright with nine seconds remaining in the opening half, and Lynnfield went into intermission ahead, 7-3.
“North Reading is phenomenal, but they overlooked us at the beginning,” said Lynnfield senior wide receiver Kyle Hawes (four receptions, 36 yards). “We knew North Reading would come to play in the second half. They’re a really tough team, and their playmakers made plays. It’s tough for us to come out on this end of it.”
North Reading struggled to move the ball on its opening drive of the third quarter, turning the ball over on downs, and Lynnfield grabbed control of the game with a 60-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Matt Mortellite to senior wide receiver Louis Ellis.
“I’m most proud of our effort,” said Hawes. “That showed on the field today. North Reading was the better team, but we fought. We fought all season and came back from starting the year 0-2, and we worked hard all season. The team just needs to keep their work ethic up, and great things are going to come from Lynnfield football.”
North Reading, trailing 14-3, drove to Lynnfield’s 21-yard line when the offense suddenly went cold. Junior quarterback Kyle Bythrow threw back-to-back incomplete passes and the Hornets faced fourth-and-10 when Bythrow scrambled to find an open Jake Bedell in the end zone for a 21-yard TD with 1:46 remaining in the third quarter. O’Donnell rushed into the end zone for the 2-point conversion, and North Reading gave itself new life, trailing 14-11.
“Lynnfield is a very good team, and we knew coming in this was going to be a battle,” said Wall. “After that touchdown, you could see in their eyes they believed, and we just needed to finish climbing the mountain. The seniors came together and made it happen, but it’s just a shame we didn’t have Matt with us.”
The game turned on the ensuing possession. Lynnfield’s Anthony Murphy picked up a first down, but the Pioneers were forced back 15 yards for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that placed them in a first-and-25 on their 15-yard line.
“We need to mature and can’t let those penalties happen,” said Weidman. “We’ve just to get better. Work better and work harder in the offseason.”
North Reading forced Lynnfield to punt, and then the Hornets’ Robert Donohue blocked the kick, which was quickly recovered by Bedell. Aided by a Lynnfield personal foul, North Reading’s Merullo stormed into the end zone with 9:57 remaining in the fourth quarter to give the Hornets the lead, 18-14.
Lynnfield was forced to punt on its next possession, and the defense made three critical stops after Merullo rushed to the Pioneers’ 22-yard-line. The Pioneers stuffed North Reading three straight times, forcing the Hornets to attempt a 40-yard field goal. O’Donnell then drilled the football through the uprights to give North Reading a seven-point, 21-14, advantage with only 4:27 to play.
“We were pretty confident in that spot with Bobby,” said Wall. “We end every practice with Bobby kicking – and, in practice, if Bobby makes the kick, we don’t have to do more conditioning, so he’s been under pressure all season. We believed in him, and he delivered.”
Lynnfield showed off its offensive potency on the following drive, piecing together an eight-play drive in less than two minutes capped off by Mortellite hitting Ellis with a 29-yard strike in the end zone. Lynnfield’s Liam Fabbri missed the extra point, which allowed North Reading to remain in the lead, 21-20, with 2:35 remaining in the game.
“We would never say that one play cost us the game,” said Weidman, defending his freshman kicker. “That’s not the case – there are just too many plays that decide a game.”
Lynnfield forced North Reading to punt and received the ball on its 28-yard line with 1:47 to play, but any notion of a miracle comeback was put to rest when the Hornets’ Ryan Edison picked off Mortellite to end the game.
“The entire team came together to win this game,” said Wall. “People thought we were just Matt McCarthy’s team all season and that we didn’t have any other good players, but the kids stepped up and shined. They believed and came together.”