The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football team literally fumbled away the chance for a state championship on Saturday, turning the ball over four times in the first half en route to a 40-19 loss to Amesbury in the Eastern Massachusetts Division 3A Super Bowl at Bentley University.
The Vineyarders have dominated their opponents all season, winning most games by two or three touchdowns. But it was the Amesbury Indians’ turn to be the bully on Saturday, forcing the Vineyarders to turn the ball over on their first three possessions while building a 21-0 lead in the second quarter and a 34-7 lead at the half.
In the Island Cup game against Nantucket the Vineyarders scored on a 76-yard return on the opening kickoff, but Saturday’s game had a markedly different beginning. After Cody Brewer nearly fumbled the kickoff, senior quarterback Mike McCarthy fumbled the ball on first play from scrimmage, giving the Indians the ball on their own 34-yard line.
It was McCarthy’s last game as a Vineyarder and perhaps his worst. He fumbled the ball twice and threw an interception, although he showed a lot of heart — throwing for two touchdowns while running for another to make the final score somewhat respectable.
Indians quarterback Jarred Flannigan, an offensive force all day, capitalized on the Vineyard’s miscue and found fullback Jesse Burrell in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown to give his team an early 7-0 lead. Amesbury won a coin toss prior to the game and was named the home team at the neutral site in Waltham. The Indians fans certainly earned that distinction, filling the stands on the home side of the field with their dazzling red and white team colors.
Flannigan was the best player on the field Saturday, running for 149 yards on 11 carries, while throwing for two scores and running for two more.
When McCarthy went back to work he was promptly intercepted by linebacker Stephen Serwon to give the Indians the ball on their own 41-yard-line. Amesbury scored three plays later when running back Kevin Johnston scrambled 13 yards for a touchdown. Johnston also had a strong game, gaining 70 yards on 12 carries and two touchdowns.
On their next possession the Vineyarders were able to move the ball. But after crossing midfield, the Vineyarders again coughed up the ball when McCarthy fumbled in the middle of a confusing scrum. Despite evidence he may have been down by contact, possession was awarded to the Indians.
Flannigan scrambled on a broken play and broke free into the Vineyarders’ secondary, gaining 42 yards to the two-yard line. Johnston punched it in on the next play to give the Indians a 21-0 lead.
As if things weren’t bad enough, McCarthy hurt his ankle on the next possession and had to leave the game, forcing Nick Billingham to take over at quarterback. But after only two plays on the sidelines, a valiant McCarthy ran back onto the field — trotted, really — and forlorn Vineyard fans on the far sideline came back to life.
For the dreamers in the stands, the heroic return of McCarthy may have led to thoughts of a storybook comeback. McCarthy appeared to write the first chapter of that impossible dream four plays later when he found Gross in the back of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown. The play was certainly heroic, as McCarthy floated the ball over two defenders to place it gingerly in the hands of Gross, who bobbled the ball before securing the catch.
Just like that it was 21-7.
“If [the Vineyarders] come back it would be the kind of thing you would see in a B movie,” speculated one radio announcer in the press box. The 300 hundred or so Vineyard fans were on their feet.
But there would be no storybook ending on this day, as the Indians marched down the field on their next possession and scored again on a naked bootleg by Flannigan to make it 28-7.
The Vineyarders looked snake-bitten on the next play when Gross fumbled the kickoff to give the Indians the ball on their own 15-yard line. Two plays later Flannigan scrambled and found wide out Ryan Dragon in the back of the end zone to make it 34-7 at halftime.
Coach Donald Herman tried to fire up the troops in the locker rooms during the break.
“Eleven players on the field, one heartbeat,” he said during a rousing speech.
But when the game resumed the story remained the same, as Flannigan on the first play from scrimmage rolled left and cut up field for a blinding 61-yard touchdown run to make it 40-7. A television announcer in the press box summed up the scene in three words: “Ugly, ugly, ugly.”
Amesbury kept in their starters for the third quarter, but the Vineyarders did manage to shut them out for the rest of the contest. McCarthy later threw a touchdown pass to Gross and scored again on a quarterback keeper in the final minutes to make the final 40-19.
Coach Herman did not mince words, calling it his team’s worst game of the season.
“[Amesbury] did what they wanted to do. We didn’t tackle. When we were in position, we didn’t do a good job of tackling,” he said.
He said it was uncharacteristic for his team to turn the ball over once in a game, never mind four times in one half. “When it rains, it pours. It was a thunderstorm today,” he said.
Indians coach Thomas Connors said his team might have been overlooked heading into the Super Bowl. “We were very opportunistic all year. Whenever we got a big turnover, we turned it into points,” he said.
McCarthy Nominated for Old Spice Award
Vineyard quarterback Mike McCar-thy has been nominated as an Old Spice Red Zone Player of the Year. McCar-thy is among a select group of players who are eligible for the nomination; the winner will be honored in a full-page feature in USA Today in February.
The award honors athletes who embody leadership, performance and desire and serve as examples to their teammates on and off the field. High school coaches across the country are naming one player from their team. Each team’s player of the year will receive a certificate to acknowledge his accomplishment.
The varsity and junior varsity football teams will hold their end of the year potluck banquet on Wednesday, Dec. 17 at 6 p.m. in the high school cafeteria.