Vineyard Downs Carver in Home Opener

By MAX HART

With just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School football team's season-opener Sunday, it seemed somewhat odd that the Vineyard cheerleaders were still throwing candy to fans in the crowded stands.

After all, with the Vineyard offense scoring almost at will, the defense stymieing the opposing quarterback and the scoreboard showing a commanding lead over the Carver Crusaders, it's not like the wound-up crowd needed the sugar rush. The Vineyarders had provided all the stimuli necessary.

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Combining a potent running game and efficient passing attack with a suffocating defense, the Vineyarders routed Carver 37-6 at McCarthy Field in Oak Bluffs. Several personal fouls that led to Carver's only score late in the third quarter were the only blemishes on an otherwise perfect afternoon that featured bright sunshine, clear skies and a Vineyard team hungry to play.

"Not a bad first game," a reserved head coach Donald Herman said. "I was fairly pleased with the effort, and I think we saw some positive things."

Erasing memories of last year, when the team struggled to score points en route to a 5-6 record, the 2005 Vineyarders scored three touchdowns and a field goal in the first half, taking a 23-0 lead into halftime and never looking back. The Crusaders' offense, led by talented tailback Michael Grant (who ran for 133 yards against the Vineyarders last season), was shut down by a Vineyard defensive squad that showed its strength is in its speed and tenacity. Carver rarely moved the ball for a first down and was mostly contained in its own territory.

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Senior quarterback Ryan Rossi threw for 135 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He was seven for 10 in completions, spreading the ball out to five different receivers. Senior Tony Cortez (eight carries, 58 yards) and junior Taylor Pierce (five carries, 37 yards) led a stampede of six Vineyard running backs who totaled 152 yards on the ground.

The game Sunday was rescheduled from Friday night, when torrential rains from tropical storm Ophelia forced the postponement. It was, by all measures, a complete performance on both sides of the ball: while the offense chewed up 287 total yards, the defense beat up on an outmatched Carver team. The Vineyard snatched two interceptions, forced a fumble and blocked Carver's only extra point attempt.

"The entire offense is steadily improving each week, and that is what you want to see," Coach Herman said. "But we know we'll have to get better as we face bigger challenges."

On Sunday the challenge was figuring out how to move the ball against a Carver defense built to stop the Vineyard running game.

"They were putting nine guys up on the line to stop the run," Coach Herman said. "They were daring us to throw the ball, so we did."

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Rossi was up to the task, looking at ease throughout the game. He resembled little of the tentative junior of last year as he barked out plays, moved comfortably in the pocket and fired long passes down the field. After a 27-yard field goal by senior E.J. Sylvia in the first quarter made it 3-0, Rossi struck twice, first to sophomore tight end Matt Lucier for a 31-yard touchdown and later to senior tailback Tristan Atwood on a five-yard catch for a score.

Standout cornerback John Swann picked off Crusaders quarterback Keith Littig with 2:36 left in the first half and returned it 36 yards to the end zone to make it 23-0 at the half.

"Ryan's arm has gotten stronger, he has more confidence, and he is more comfortable with the offense," Coach Herman said. "Our offensive line protected him well and he really wasn't rushed so he was really never under pressure."

Rossi was especially effective at the play action pass - faking hand-offs to his tailback, rolling outside the pocket and firing spirals downfield to open receivers. The quarterback was also efficient on third-down conversions, often connecting with an open receiver for long yardage. He opened the second half with a third-down-and-12 strike to senior tailback Anthony Sullo for a first down, and moments later hit Lucier down the right side for a 35-yard touchdown that made it 30-0.

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Carver's only score came after the Vineyard was charged with three personal foul penalties, which moved the ball deep into Vineyard territory. The Crusaders scored on a pass into the end zone, but had their extra point blocked by Atwood, who raced to the ball untouched and batted it away with a resounding thud.

With that score, Rossi was rested and replaced by junior backup quarterback Cliff Ibarrondo. But by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, a tired and dejected Carver was struggling to stop a Vineyard offense comprising mostly backups. A relentless rushing attack throughout the fourth quarter showed just how much depth the Vineyarders have at the tailback position.

Juniors Tyler Hathaway and Pierce announced their arrivals by taking advantage of a fatigued Carver secondary while the Vineyard's starting tailbacks Atwood, Sullo and Alan Fortes rested on the sidelines. Twenty-seven of Pierce's 37 rushing yards came on two runs that set up the final Vineyard touchdown, an eight-yard run by Cortez. Hathaway also impressed with several long runs of more than 10 yards in the fourth quarter.

"Taylor and Tyler are two good backs, and I think they illustrate how deep we are at the position," Coach Herman said. "Kudos to Matt Lucier, too. He stepped up big."

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Lucier, who is listed as a running back, stepped in to fill a hole at tight end left by Sylvia, who is still recovering from an injury and is not yet cleared to play the position. Lucier learned how to play the position in just four days of practice.

The Vineyarders' next opponent is the relatively unknown Lynn Classical, a Division II school that is 1-1 on the young season. The game is home on Saturday at 1 p.m.