CHICOPEE — After both teams' offenses had numerous chances to win Friday night's game, Taconic senior Dez Merced decided to take the ball into his own hands.

Quite literally.

Merced intercepted a Chicopee pass in the end zone and raced it back 100-plus yards the other way, as time expired, scoring a game-winning, walk-off touchdown to send the visitors to a 20-14 victory.

"I saw it coming. Just found No. 10 and natural instinct is to go get the ball. I got it and just ran down the field," said Merced.

As for what he saw ahead of him: "I just saw my mom. She passed, so all I could think was her screaming my name as I was running down the field. I knew I could make it." 

A game that saw eight turnovers figured to be ended on one, and Merced made it count. There were three interceptions in the final 30 seconds, with Chicopee taking over after a pick by Jason Lee Lozado. Taconic was flagged 15 yards on the unsportsmanlike tackle, and the Pacers started first-and-goal from the 9-yard line. Despite moving the ball on the ground with great success, and Taconic already having intercepted three passes on the night, Chicopee went to the air with just 11 seconds left.

Lozado, who also plays quarterback, dropped back to pass and looked right. Merced was fronting the intended receiver and got both hands on the ball. Taconic's Jake Hall blew up the wide out, and Merced bolted the other way. The senior burner ran through two diving tackle attempts, and no one else in a black jersey could catch him.

"Plays like that. Those are the types of plays that can change seasons sometimes," said Taconic coach Jermaine Sistrunk. "Just the way it was going, we're feeling excited. Coming up there, it's huge. I really haven't processed it. I was kind of running with him, making sure the clock went to zeroes. It was phenomenal."

Merced ghosted the other 21 players on the field so quickly, even fellow defensive back Sean Harrigan, who had two interceptions himself, struggled to catch him.

"They shouldn't have thrown that," said Harrigan. "We just sit there and watch, every single week in practice, we're watching. We play really well together, we've been with each other since we were nine or 10 years old.

"I did my best just to catch up with him in the end zone to celebrate. Once he caught it, I knew he was going. I just wanted to get there too."

It was an emotional rollercoaster of a fourth quarter. Taconic had a chance to take a lead at the quarter-change, driving to the Chicopee 19-yard line late in the third, before getting backed up and turning it over on downs on fourth-and-31 to start the final frame.

With the score tied at 14, Chicopee drove from its own 38 to the Taconic 11, where the Pacers were faced with fourth-and-1. 

Chicopee senior back Johnathan Escalera, a 6-foot, 2-inch, 240-pound freight train, carried 23 times on the night for 152 yards. But in the second half, Taconic's adjustments started paying dividends. Of the 13 handoffs he took after scoring on a 5-yard run late in the second quarter, seven went for 1-or-fewer yards. 

"We practiced this week with a 200-pound running back, so we were trying to get used to tackling a big guy," said Sistrunk. "What happened in the first half was they were allowing him to get his speed up, and that's like trying to stop a Mack Truck with its speed up. We started shifting our line over and having linebackers shoot gaps, since that was going to be their offense."

And the Taconic defense walled up just in time on fourth-and-1, turning the ball over on downs with 5:55 left in the game.

"Dazyear Moore, when we moved him down on the line, that's when the chaos started," said Sistrunk. "That was the biggest key. He's a bull. He does many things, one of which is run through walls. He looks for contact."

Moore and Cazmere Stein each carried for a first down on Taconic's ensuing drive, exiting its own end. However, a loss on second-and-6 led to a pair of incompletions and the Pacers took over on downs with 1:18 remaining and the ball still on Taconic's 35.

On second-and-8 from the 33, Lozado looked to the end zone, but Harrigan swooped in for his second pick of the night with just 29 seconds to go. Taconic gave it right back to Lozado on second down, though, setting up Merced's heroics.

It was a frustrating night throughout for the Pacers offense in the red zone. After forcing a game-opening three-and-out by Taconic, Chicopee moved nine plays to the Taconic 23, but Escalera dropped a handoff and Merced recovered. Taconic gave the ball back, and Lozado connected on a 26-yard pass to get first-and-goal from the 8, but Escalera put the ball on the ground again with Merced recovering.

A third possession saw the Pacers take over on the Taconic 17, but Lozado threw four consecutive incompletions as the hosts tried to find space against freshman cornerback Ceasar Santos, who denied a pair of catches in the end zone. A quick, failed Taconic series gave Chicopee a fourth try from the visiting 24, but Harrigan intercepted Lozado on the first play to end the opening quarter.

While the Taconic defense carried the day — with Damon Pause also intercepting Lozado on the second play of the second half, the visitors did manage to move the ball through the air a bit.

Junior quarterback Matt McIntosh completed 8 of 20 passes for 127 yards and a touchdown to junior Wesley Ahoussi from 2-yards out. Harrigan caught four of those throws for 84 yards, making some highlight plays both to catch the ball and to gain yards afterwards.

Immediately after Escalera got Chicopee a 6-0 lead, Taconic went on an 11-play scoring drive to tie the game up. On a third-and-8 from midfield, McIntosh was flushed from the pocket and threw short while on the run. Harrigan flashed back toward the ball, stealing a sure interception from a defender. He turned and racked up 21 yards for the first down. After a penalty pushed THS to first-and-goal from the 13, Harrigan caught an 11-yarder to set up Ahoussi's short TD grab with 10 seconds left in the half.

"Dez and Sean, they're seniors and they want this more than anybody," said Sistrunk. "Sean, IQ-wise, he's one of the most intelligent football players I've ever met at that age. He's aware of so many things out there and coming back to help out a quarterback is just one of them."

Harrigan did it again in the third. On second-and-22 from the Chicopee 28, he came down with a 25-yard catch-and-run, again setting his team up on the goal line. Moore punched it home, and Merced converted for 2 points, giving the visitors a 14-6 advantage.

"Our throwing game, when our line is on, feels practically unstoppable," said Harrigan. "We have four receivers that are huge threats, we can all catch the ball"

Up next for Taconic (2-4) is a rivalry bout with Pittsfield High. The Generals (4-1) won at South Hadley on Friday for their fourth-straight victory. 

"Going into PHS with two straight wins, it feels good going in with two wins," said Harrigan. "Hopefully come out with a third."

"This was a big week, we've got PHS obviously coming up. That's a really big game for us," Sistrunk added. "Coming in off two in a row, we're going to battle. We're not holding any punches. You'll see everything we have in our playbook on both sides of the ball."

———
Taconic    0    6    8    6    —    20
Chicopee    0    6    8    0    — 14
Second Quarter
C — Johnathon Escalera 5 run (run failed), 4:53.
T — Wesley Ahoussi 2 pass from Matt McIntosh (pass failed), 0:10.
Third Quarter
T — Dazyear Moore 1 run (Dez Merced run), 9:43.
C — Nathan Serrano 19 pass from Jason Lee Lozado (Escalera pass from Lozado), 4:00.
Fourth Quarter
T — Merced 103 interception return (not contested), 0:00.
———
INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS
RUSHING — T: Dazyear Moore 9-33, Matt McIntosh 6-45, Sean Harrigan 6-8, Dez Merced 4-6, Cazmere Stein 2-10; C: Johnathon Escalera 23-152, Jason Lee Lozado 3-19, Jeremy Beach 2-7.
PASSING — T: McIntosh 8-20-1 127, Harrigan 0-1-0 00; C: Lozado 4-15-1 59.
RECEIVING — T: Harrigan 4-84, Moore 2-3, Merced 1-38, Wesley Ahoussi 1-2; C: Nathan Serrano 3-47, Escalera 1-12.

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6240. On Twitter: @WalshWrites89.

Sports Editor

Mike Walsh is sports editor at The Berkshire Eagle. He's been with The Eagle since 2017. Walsh also authors the NENPA-winning Powder Report column. He's an avid snowboarder, runner, homebrewer, and he used to play a pretty mean sousaphone.