Saturday, September 8, 2018

Doherty Edges Wachusett on Opening Night

By John McGuirk (@patsfan13)

Holden, Mass. - While many came into opening night enamored with Doherty's potential offensive ceiling, it was the Highlanders' defense which took center stage during Friday night's season-opener against Wachusett Regional.

In a battle between two of the more dominant teams in Central Mass, Doherty managed to pick off Mountaineer quarterback Melke Shabo three times, and also recovered a pair of Shabo fumbles en route to a 14-7 victory at Hal Lane Field.

The bend but don't break Highlander defense appeared to set the tone early. After watching Wachusett sustain an impressive opening drive that took up nearly the entire first quarter, it ended after they forced Shabo into coughing up the ball on a fourth-and-goal from the Highlanders' 21. Although the turnover did not lead to points, Doherty made it quite clear that moving the ball against them would not be so easy.

"I realize how good Division 3 football is out here, so we will probably be in games like this every week," said 29-year Highlander coach Sean Mulcahy. "We'll just take them one at a time. We made a lot of first game mistakes tonight but overall, I thought our kids battled throughout."

Despite Wachusett out-gaining the Highlanders 223 yards to 197, the Mountaineers' scripted ball-control offense continued to struggle once they set foot inside Doherty territory. On two occasions they were stopped on fourth down and Shabo was sacked a total of four times. The senior finished with a minus 41 yards on the ground. When he did have time to throw, Shabo completed 5 of 12 passes for 79 yards and one score.

On the other side, it took a while for the Highlanders to get their offense untracked. Premier running back Tajon Vassar had trouble finding holes to run though early on. Much of that had to do with a tenacious Mountaineers front line spearheaded by Jacob Nadeau, who seemed to have the fleet-footed Vassar in his cross hairs for a good portion of the evening.

But some tweeking of the offense late in the first half changed the Highlanders' fortunes soon thereafter. With Wachusett holding a 7-0 lead following a Shabo 25 yard touchdown strike to receiver Barry Walsh, Doherty finally came to life.

Getting the ball back with just over two minutes remaining, following the Mountaineers score, Vassar proceeded to rip off three consecutive runs netting 40 yards. Facing a second-and-10 on the Wachusett 23, quarterback Noah Callery, out of the shot-gun, fooled the entire Mountaineer defense by faking a give to Vassar and rumbling down the sideline for a touchdown with 21 seconds to go, capping off a 70 yard drive and sending both clubs into the break knotted at 7 apiece.

"We knew coming in that Wachusett is a very good team," Callery said. "Our scout team, I felt, really prepared us for tonight in terms of what Wachusett does defensively. Tajon is a great player who makes plays and our offensive line did an excellent job blocking. Getting this first win is huge for us."

Doherty opened the final half with the ball first but made little progress in its efforts to move ahead. Now it was up to the defensive unit to keep the Mountaineers at standstill. Not only were they successful in accomplishing that task, they took things a few steps further. 

With Wachusett sitting on the Highlanders' 48, Shabo attempted a swing pass out to his left. Not fooled by the play, defensive back Jon Forson held his position before darting towards the ball. The senior snared it and took it back 53 yards untouched into the end zone putting Doherty ahead to stay with 4:50 remaining in the third.

For the remainder of this tilt, Wachusett continued to backtrack as it continued to feel the heat brought fourth by the Highlanders defense led by Chris Yeboah, Charlie Payson, Josh Brunelle, Ariel Perez among others. Just before the start of the final quarter, Shabo was sacked again on fourth down. That, in turn, allowed the Highlanders to chew up key time off the clock behind the elusive running of Vassar, who finished with 146 yards on 16 carries.

"Tajon is someone teams are going to design their defenses around to try and stop him," said Mulcahy. "I think once some of their guys started getting a little tired we were able to set up some running lanes for him. He's probably one of the best running backs in the area if not the best. He didn't have any breakaway runs tonight but continued to move the chains for us which was big."

Unable to capitalize on fourth down deep inside Wachusett territory, Doherty gave possession back to Mountaineers.

But another Wachusett turnover resulted in more time being sliced away by the Highlanders before, once again, running out of downs. Over the final two minutes, the Mountaineers had two opportunities to score the equalizer. Yet both ended in disaster as a Shabo pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage and into the arms of Doherty junior Dan Sheeran. On their final attempt, it ended with Shabo being slung to the turf as waning seconds ticked off.

"That's a very good football team and are well-coached," said Mountaineers coach Mike Dubzinski, beginning his 20th season at the helm. "It's tough but we'll be fine. Tonight was a typical Wachusett-Doherty football game. Last year we beat them in double-overtime and this year it's 14-7 game. All we can do is go back to work and try to block and tackle better and get ready for next week."

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