Turnovers prove costly in Taconic's 29-20 loss to South Hadley
SOUTH HADLEY — Taconic's Isaiah Hartman-Caesar forced and recovered a South Hadley fumble at the Taconic goal line with 60 seconds of game time remaining and his team trailing by two. About that long in real time later, the Tigers had the ball back and were gearing up to score the game-sealing touchdown.
Untimely turnovers and penalties hampered the Braves all night in a 29-20 road loss to South Hadley on Friday night.
On the first play after Hartman-Caesar's strip, a Sal Amaral pass bounced off the hands of a receiver and into the arms of a black jersey. Two plays later, Liam Dawson high-stepped through the middle and into the end zone from 20 yards out. Shawn Mitchell's extra-point kick, with 42 seconds left, put the Tigers (4-3, 3-1 Intercounty North) ahead 29-20 and eliminated the Braves (2-5, 1-3) from postseason contention.
In total, Taconic surrendered possession four times via turnover and also allowed a kick-return touchdown. If you take away Amaral's late picks and a first-quarter fumble after the Braves had driven to the South Hadley 23, the Tigers starting field position on drives were Taconic 41, Taconic 38, Taconic 46, own 40 and own 47.
"Turnovers. We've got to clean up the turnovers. We're sloppier than we've been and you're not going to beat anybody with turnovers," said Taconic head coach Jim Ziter, whose squad was also tagged with four separate 15-yard penalties. "One step forward, two steps back."
Still, the gritty Braves had a chance in the end thanks to a defense that refused to break and a senior quarterback who refused to let his season go down without a fight.
Taconic opened the game looking strong, picking up three first downs on the night's first drive. Even the fumble was quickly righted by a Jalen Hill interception on the Tiger's first offensive play. A pass interference penalty put the ball on the Tigers 10. Hunter Johnston lugged it to the one and Cedric Rose finished it off for the 6-0 lead. Hunter Carey took the ensuing kickoff 82 yards, though, and a two-point conversion put the Braves instantly behind.
The Braves shook off the special teams mishap and moved the ball 58 yards to score on a 16-yard pass from Amaral to Nick Sayers. This time, Nikos Gian succeeded on the two-point conversion and Taconic led 14-8 at the end of the first quarter.
Dawson chewed up yardage for the home team to open the second frame, and scored the equalizer in quick order with 10:09 on the clock.
The Braves fumbled the kick return, but the defense held strong to force a turnover on downs inside their own 10. A three-and-out gave little rest, though, and Taconic couldn't hold up against South Hadley on yet another short field. Ben Watkins scored the go-ahead touchdown 21 seconds before halftime.
"I thought the kids played hard, the line stepped up again and kids ran hard. But defensively, we can't be on the field that long," said Ziter. "They had the ball 11 minutes on one drive and we stopped them. It's just the little things. We haven't had a team on the other side of the 50 on kickoff all year, tonight we give up a return touchdown. It's that kind of stuff."
The third-quarter play discrepancy was jarring, as the Tigers rolled a 19-play drive down near the one-minute mark. Taconic withstood eight goal-to-go plays and got a hand on a field goal try to keep the deficit at 22-14. While they only managed two plays in the entire third, they proved to be the start of a 15-play scoring drive.
Amaral threw the team on his diminutive back and got the sideline going with a trio of tough, shifty runs. He carried four times on the drive for 28 yards, giving at the point of contact as good as he got. His last run, which went just for one yard, drew a facemask penalty to set up Gian for a pair of runs, including a seven-yard touchdown plunge with 5:25 left.
"Sal did a great job," said Ziter. "That kid, this is his seventh game, and he was huge tonight. He stepped up and did a great job for his teammates. That kid plays his heart out."
The Braves had multiple chances to get the ball back in time to complete the comeback, but couldn't catch up to the Tigers' counter plays. They gave up a first-down run on third-and-15, and added a personal foul penalty, to boot. Two plays later, Hartman-Caesar emerged from a pile with the ball, but by then, as the offense found out, it was too little, too late.
While Taconic will now be unable to finish with a .500 record before playoff seedings are decided, the Braves will contend for a championship of sorts next week. All eyes in the city of Pittsfield will turn to Wahconah Park, despite both Taconic and cross-town rival Pittsfield High being eliminated from the postseason, to see if the pigskin will have a green or purple tint to it for the next year.
"We're going to be playing for the City Championship. When we go in there against them it doesn't matter what our records are," said Ziter. "It's always a battle and it'll be fun. I'm looking forward to it, after I get over this one."
Taconic 14 0 0 6 — 20
South Hadley 8 14 0 7 — 29
T — Cedric Rose 1 run (kick failed), 6:52.
SH — Hunter Carey 82 kick return (Liam Dawson run), 6:39.
T — Nick Sayers 16 pass from Sal Amaral (Nikos Gian run), 2:14.
SH — Dawson 7 run (run failed), 10:09
SH — Ben Watkins 1 run (Carey run), 0:22.
T — Gian 7 run (run failed), 5:25.
SH — Dawson 20 run (Shawn Mitchell kick), 0:42.
First Downs 13 14
Rushes-yards 31-183 41-231
Passing yards 52 1
Comp-att-int 4-10-2 1-6-1
Fumbles-lost 2-2 2-1
Penalties-yards 5-68 8-52
RUSHING — T: Nikos Gian 11-57, Cedric Rose 9-48, Jalen Hill 4-31, Sal Amaral 4-28, Hunter Johnston 3-19. SH: Liam Dawson 18-166, Ben Watkins 12-35, Hunter Carey 4-20, Hunter Borowski 4-(-4), Michael Pratt 3-14.
PASSING — T: Amaral 4-10-2 52. SH: Pratt 1-6-1 1.
RECEIVING — T: Nick Sayers 2-24, Luke Hescock 1-11, Hill 1-13. SH: Watkins 1-1.
Reach sports writer Mike Walsh at 413-496-6240 or @CLNS_Walsh.
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