Super Bowl Champs! First Time Since 1999, and It Feels Just Fine
By BRETT FERRY
Thirty-four seconds remained on the clock. The Manchester Essex Hornets had just scored on a quarterback sneak to put them within two points of the Vineyard in the Division VI Super Bowl. The Vineyard defense, in a moment reminiscent of their playoff match against East Boston, faced a game-threatening situation in the final seconds.
Looking for the two-point conversion to tie the game, Manchester quarterback Vincent Orlando took the snap and immediately began scrambling away from a blur of purple. The wily quarterback, named Division VI Player of the Year by the Boston Globe, got free just long enough to see a wide-open receiver in the back right corner of the end zone. He launched a pass only to watch the receiver drop the ball - and with it any hopes of defeating the Vineyarders in the year's decisive game.
With the two-point lead, Tristen Atwood pounced on the on-sides kick and Vineyard fans - those willing to brave the bone-chilling winds that swept the Chelsea High School field - counted down the final seconds as they prepared to rush the field in celebration.
The Vineyarders had not won the state title since 1999 - the year before these seniors entered the high school as freshmen. For Vineyard head coach Donald Herman, it marked his fifth Super Bowl victory in seven appearances throughout his Vineyard career.
Coach Herman was carried on the shoulders of his players to the middle of the field. The four team captains - John Valley, James Rebello, J.D. Wild and Zach Mahoney - accepted the state championship trophy.
Coach Herman remained composed amidst the celebration.
"We had to earn every one of our points tonight. Nothing came easy," he said to a group of reporters surrounding him. "Defensively, we made the plays we had to."
It is hard to imagine that the coach was as calm in the locker room at halftime with his team down 12-6.
With 29 seconds left in the first half, the game was tied 6-6 and the Vineyard had just won possession of the football. Vineyard quarterback Hans Buder dropped back and aired a deep pass that was intercepted and returned 45 yards to the end zone.
At halftime, fans scurried into the school cafeteria to escape the cold, some questioning the decision to pass at the end of the half from such poor field position.
"We talked about finishing, doing the things we did to get here," Coach Herman said of his halftime talk in the locker room. "They were very confident that we would come back."
Manchester started the second half with little success moving the ball. The Vineyard defense focused on Orlando and his receivers.
On fourth down, Manchester's punt was tipped and the Vineyard recovered the ball on their opponent's 40.
The Vineyard offense took the field and returned to what they did best all year - running the ball. In six downs, the Vineyard sent Wild into the end zone from the one yard line to tie the game 12-12. E.J. Sylvia's extra point kick was blocked.
The Vineyard defense again came out menacing Orlando and the Hornets. Manchester was forced to punt on fourth down and 18 after Mahoney and Brad Cortez converged on Orlando for a loss of eight yards. An errant snap on the punt gave the Vineyard the ball on Manchester's 28. It was an advantage that gave the Vineyard team its first lead of the game. Several short gains by Wild and a 14-yard reverse by Valley set up Wild again for a four-yard TD run. Wild's third touchdown of the game gave the Vineyard a 19-12 lead to start the fourth quarter.
The exciting first three quarters were quiet compared to the final 10 minutes.
The Hornets came out firing in the fourth quarter with three quick first downs in a row, working their way to a first down on the Vineyard one. The Vineyard defense held strong for three downs. On fourth down, Orlando took the snap, fumbled the ball, recovered it himself and scrambled to the sideline looking for an open receiver in the end zone. Vineyard defenders were pulling him to the ground as he pitched the ball into the end zone, directly into the hands of a Hornet receiver. The referees' arms went up - touchdown Manchester.
The Vineyard fans, announcers, and TV crews were dumbfounded, not having seen the pitch on the far side of the field. No one was sure what happened.
The two-point conversion attempt was intercepted by cornerback Rob Hale, securing the slim 19-18 lead.
On the next drive, Vineyard quarterback Hans Buder stepped to the line of scrimmage, took the snap, faked the handoff to Wild up the middle and sprinted for the outside. As he rounded the left end of his offensive line, his eyes saw a clear path to pay dirt and his feet answered the call for 51 yards. E.J. Sylvia's extra point kick stretched the Vineyard lead to eight points with less than three minutes on the clock.
That might normally be a comfortable lead, but no one could doubt Orlando's ability to pull another rabbit out of his hat.
After the Vineyard gave the Hornets 15 yards with a facemask penalty on the kickoff, Orlando showed more of his magic.
Facing first and 10 on the 30 yard line, the Hornets needed eight points to put them into overtime. Again Orlando fumbled the snap, recovered it, continued eluding Vineyard pursuit and eventually launched a pass that was pulled in by a Hornet receiver on the one yard line.
The next play, Orlando scored on a QB sneak that led to the devastating two-point conversion pass dropped in the end zone. One dropped pass ended the season for the Hornets and at the same time secured a Super Bowl victory for the 2003 Vineyard team.
J.D. Wild, the Vineyard's leading scorer and a threat opposing teams focused on all year, reflected on the team's championship season.
"This is exactly what we wanted. It's what we worked for all year," he said. "I couldn't be prouder of my team.
"That's the best team that's ever come out of Martha's Vineyard High School. I've never felt better in my life."