By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
LEBANON – Saturday’s NHIAA Division II football quarterfinal game appeared well in hand for Lebanon High at halftime. But now, only minutes into the third quarter, a comfortable lead over Souhegan was slip-sliding away.
Raiders fans were restless.
“Up the middle!” bellowed a leather-lunged spectator, leaning on Henry Emerton Field’s sideline fence. “That’s the only run!”
Raiders coach Chris Childs clearly came to the same conclusion, for the second-seeded Raiders handed off on 26 of their next 27 snaps, doubling down on a ground-pounding attack and pulling away for a 47-20 victory.
Lebanon advances to next Saturday’s semifinals, when it will host third-seeded Milford in what should be a more challenging clash.
“Hopefully today was a little wake-up for us,” said Childs, whose 9-0 team beat the Sabers, 41-0, on Oct. 1. “They were a young team at the beginning of the season, but they definitely got better.
“We capitalized on a couple of turnovers early, but they came out (in the second half) and punched us in the mouth.”
Lebanon led, 27-6, at intermission but surrendered a 63-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Romy Jain to Tony Garrant on the third quarter’s first snap. The Raiders then recovered an onsides kick and drove to the seventh-seeded Sabers’ 14-yard line, from where Tanner Ames’ 31-yard field goal attempt sailed wide.
Souhegan’s next snap resulted in a 76-yard touchdown run by J.J. Bright and angry disbelief hung over the home sideline.
“Oh, my God, what is happening?” shouted one backup lineman. Members of the Raiders defense engaged in animated and emotional chatter as they jogged off the field.
Lebanon had only attempted two passes during the first half, and that approach didn’t change after its lead dwindled. When Childs called his players together, the message was that they would continue to pound the rock, but had to be patient in doing so. This was no time for panic and getting away from the Raiders’ strength.
Souhegan onside-kicked again. Again Lebanon recovered.
“Why?!” shouted an anguished Sabers fan, unhappy with the strategy. “Why?!”
He surely wasn’t mollified by what happened next. Lebanon ran the ball on 13 consecutive snaps, six times being held to 3 yards or less, but three times gaining 8 yards or more. Sabers lineman Xavier Vaudreuil chipped in with a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a comment that caused the referee to immediately launch his flag.
Quarterback Jack Stone, often strung out sideways and taken down by an undersized but agile Souhegan defense, carried six times for 31 yards during the drive, including a 5-yard scamper for a touchdown. An Ames extra point put the hosts up, 34-20, with a minute remaining in the third quarter.
“They’re not a big team but they’re a fast team,” Chris Childs said of Souhegan, which featured eight seniors on a 45-player roster. “They play defense with 11 guys on the ball.”
The Sabers (5-4) went three-and-out on their next possession and this time Lebanon drove 65 yards in eight plays, all but one of them runs. Stone threw 3 yards to C.J. Childs, who fumbled the ball out of bounds at the Sabers’ 5-yard line.
Two plays later, however, the senior redeemed himself by bulling through a pile of bodies for a 5-yard touchdown. Ames’ extra point made the score 41-20 with nine minutes to play.
“It was definitely a gut check for our kids and they showed a lot of pride and self-respect,” Chris Childs said. “When it mattered most, they were able to get it down the field and punch it in and put (the game) away.”
Up next is Milford (7-2), which Lebanon defeated on the road, 27-14, on Sept. 17. That game was tight during the first half and the stout Spartans are willing and able to hit with anyone in the division.
“They’re more of a downhill team that runs double dives and powers,” Chris Childs said, referring to basic, rock-‘em, sock-‘em running plays. “It’s definitely the opposite of what we saw today, where Souhegan wanted to spread us out and chuck the ball all over the field.”
The Sabers and Jain learned from their regular-season matchup with the Raiders. Whereas they put the rookie deep in the pocket and looked for pass connections downfield during that first meeting, this time it was slants, screens and flips into the flat. Jain took a beating back in October but stayed upright much more often Saturday.
“We couldn’t get to him because every throw was quick,” Chris Childs said. “Our guys had to realize that they had to come up and take those plays away.”
Souhegan tried a pop-up kickoff to begin the game, resulting in Lebanon taking possession on its 45-yard line. Five plays later, the Raiders opened the scoring when Nyeoti Punni fought his way up the middle, dragging a defender and then diving across the goal line for a 21-yard touchdown. The point-after attempt went wide and the lead remained 6-0.
The Sabers fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Lebanon’s Mason Arado recovered, but his team soon had to punt. Souhegan then drove 83 yards in four plays, passing for a combined 72 yards on the march’s last three plays and scoring on Jain’s 17-yard toss to Madux McGrath.
The extra-point try went wide and the teams were tied, 6-6, with five minutes remaining in the first quarter.
Lebanon took a 14-6 lead on its next possession, which began at its own 25-yard line. Stone ran 45 yards for a touchdown and threw to a leaping Punni along the end zone’s back line for the 2-point conversion and a 14-6 lead two minutes before the quarter’s end.
Souhegan turned the ball over on downs and Lebanon was back at it, producing a scoring drive that consumed the second quarter’s first 10 minutes. The Raiders crawled 93 yards in 18 plays, only two of them passes. Stone hit Justin DeCarlo with a 19-yard touchdown toss and Ames added the PAT for a 21-6 lead with 2 minutes, 3 seconds remaining in the first half.
The visitors lost another fumble on the following kickoff and this time Lebanon churned 65 yards in seven plays, scoring on Punni’s 5-yard run with 18 seconds on the clock. The extra-point try was blocked but the Raiders walked off at halftime with a 27-6 lead.
“We wanted to attack them between the tackles,” said Chris Childs, who received 130 yards and two touchdowns in 23 carries from Punni, who’s also a standout track sprinter and has received several offers to pursue that sport in college. “He’s a big, strong kid and he definitely lowered the boom on them today.”
Stone ran 22 times for 115 yards and two touchdowns and completed 2 of 3 passes for 26 yards. C.J. Childs carried 19 times for 89 yards and Cole Shambo took eight handoffs for 47 yards.
DeCarlo ran four times for 51 yards, including a 37-yard touchdown to produce Lebanon’s final points. Souhegan lost its third kickoff return fumble of the game shortly after that score.
The Sabers received 116 yards rushing and a touchdown from Bright. Jain completed 8 of 17 passes for 112 yards and two touchdowns. His tosses found seven different receivers.
Asked what he’d like to clean up, Childs mentioned that the Raiders produced a couple of sluggish practices leading to the Souhegan game.
“Hopefully, we’re more focused this week,” the coach said.
Notes: Shambo exited play with eight minutes remaining and did not return, wearing an ice-bag wrap on his upper body while clearly in pain. Childs said the hard-nosed running back and linebacker would be x-rayed after the game… Football isn’t the only Lebanon High squad enjoying a strong autumn. The boys soccer team won the NHIAA Division II title on Friday, the field hockey team advanced to the semifinals and the cheer group is noticeably sharper and into its routines. Another bunch on the rise? The pep band, directed by music teacher Dominick DeFrancisco, who plays a vigorous trombone alongside his pupils.
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