Sports editor emeritus
PAWTUCKET — Things were looking pretty bleak for Tolman High’s football squad at halftime of Friday morning’s holiday clash with Shea inside McCoy Stadium. The Tigers trailed 18-0 on the scoreboard. They were missing five starters due to injuries or academic issues, including quarterback/kicker Corey Hughes, one of the Tigers’ co-captains.
“One of our assistant coaches (Norm Hardacker) said ‘Don’t forget about the Patriots. They trailed 24-0 last week and beat Denver,’ “ Tolman coach Dave Caito recalled after his Tigers rallied for a 20-18 victory that represented the very best of this annual rivalry between Pawtucket’s two public high schools.
“This might have been the best comeback I’ve seen in a long time,” Caito admitted as he stood next to his players and fellow coaches during post-game ceremonies that included the presentation of the winner’s cup and a MVP award for third-string quarterback Tyreal Whitaker, who orchestrated the second-half comeback that left his teammates with big smiles on their faces.
Tolman’s offense started the game with two punts and a fumble on its first three possessions. Caito started junior Isaiah Diaz at quarterback after working Diaz and Whitaker evenly during practices leading up to the game.
Shea took advantage of Tolman’s tentativeness, scoring on its first play from scrimmage, a 38-yard run around right end by speedy Melvin Washington following a short punt by the Tigers.
Shea went up 12-0 after Kevin Lopes recovered a Tolman fumble early in the second quarter at the Tigers’ 17-yard line. Quarterback Tyshon Ashe converted on first-and-goal from the seven to make it 12-0. The Raiders would miss all three of their extra point attempts in the first half, which would come back to haunt them later on.
Shea’s defense forced another Tolman fumble on the Tigers’ next play from scrimmage and the Raiders went 39 yards in six plays for their third score of the half, a screen pass that Anthony Almeida caught near the line of scrimmage before following his blockers through the middle of Tolman’s defense. It all seemed too easy for Shea, which now led 18-0.
Caito inserted Whitaker at quarterback for the final drive of the first half, this one also ending in a turnover as Shea’s Yanique Duarte made an interception with one minute left before intermission.
Caito polished his good cop/bad cop routine at halftime.
“I told the kids we were awful in the first half. But we only needed to score three touchdowns and get one extra point to win the game. They just had to believe in themselves.”
Tolman’s defense forced Shea’s first punt of the game early in the third quarter. Bryan Mosquera’s boot pinned the Tigers down at their own eight-yard line. On third-and-seven, halfback Prince Johnson burst free for 16 yards and then gained 18 more on a pass from Whitaker. The Tigers crossed midfield when Whitaker ran 10 yards for a first down.
On third-and-two from Shea’s 37, Whitaker rolled left and got the first down. A late hit gave Tolman 15 more yards down to the 16. Johnson covered the remaining yards on two carries to make it an 18-6 game.
Tolman then tried an on-sides kick, only to see Shea recover after a wild scramble ensued for the ball. Ashe fumbled on first down and Mohamed Keita recovered, shifting the momentum towards Tolman. But the Raiders got an interception from Almeida at the goal line to momentarily stop the Tigers, who by now were playing with an energy and confidence that had been missing in the first half.
Shea took over at its own three and, limited by poor field position, ran three times before punting from its six. Johnson returned Mosquera’s boot 11 yards to the Shea 24. On second down, Keane Marcello took a handoff, broke free around left end and outran one lone defender to the pylon to make it 18-12 with 10 minutes left in the game.
Tolman then recovered a second on-sides kick by Daniel Stubbs.
“We went into this game not planning to kick (deep) to Shea,” Caito admitted. “Daniel really gave us some nice on-sides kicks.”
Setting up at Shea’s 32, Whitaker hit senior co-captain Codee Bizier for 18 huge yards on first down. Following a holding penalty, Whitaker eluded a blitzing linebacker, rolled left and launched a high pass into the end zone, where Marcello outfought a Shea defender for the ball to tie the game at 18.
Caito called timeout. The Tigers huddled to discuss the one extra point they needed to make to win this game. When time came back in, Whitaker rolled left and raced into the end zone. His elusiveness had prolonged several plays and now it gave Tolman the lead at 20-18 with approximately four minutes left in the game.
How fast is the young sophomore?
“I run around 4.8 (for the 40),” the elated teenager admitted after the game.
At times, Whitaker looked like the fastest player on the field. Maybe he’s one of those athletes who runs faster when he’s being chased.
“Ty is a point guard in basketball and a real leader,” Caito said with a smile. “I think we may have found our next quarterback.”
Shea still had time to answer. The Raiders recovered Stubbs’s final onsides kick at midfield, only to see Ashe intercepted at Tolman’s 20-yard line with around two minutes left. But the Tigers fumbled it right back on the next play, giving Shea a final chance as time ran down.
From Tolman’s 13-yard line, Ashe hit Duarte for two yards and Almeida for five. A low snap on third down resulted in a three-yard loss for Ashe, bringing Mosquera on to attempt a 27-yard field goal into a swirling wind at the temporary goal posts set up near the left field fence at McCoy Stadium.
Mosquera got a good foot into his kick but the football sailed left as time ran out.
“This was a tough loss for our guys,” Shea coach Dino Campopiano said after talking to his dejected players in the locker room. “It just seemed like Tolman wanted this game more than we did. Shame on us.”
Shea finished 5-6 on the season while Tolman went 2-9, winning its last two games after going 0-8 in Division I. The Tigers have won the last three games in this Thanksgiving rivalry and now lead the series 7-5.