NEEDHAM, Mass. –- With all the momentum on the Duxbury (5-2) sideline going into the fourth quarter, the Needham Rockets (7-1) needed a spark after giving up 21 unanswered points to the Dragons and losing their halftime lead.
As he has all year, star tail back Mike Panepinto (26 carries, 232 yards, 4 TD) provided that very spark, rushing for 144 yards in the second half and leading Needham over Duxbury 42-28 in impressive fashion.
Down 28-21 early in the fourth, Rockets quarterback Ryan Charter (7-of-13, 173 yards, 2 TD) found Panepinto on a screen pass. The UMass lacrosse commit proceeded to shed two Dragons’ tacklers and fly down field for a 50-yard touchdown and a tie ballgame.
“We decided as a team in that fourth quarter that we were not going to lose, and we haven’t lost a game here since Natick in 2011...We weren’t about to let it happen tonight,” Panepinto said.
The big play from Panepinto was nothing new for Needham head coach Dave Duffy.
“He was in space, and when Mike is in space, he’s trouble," Duffy said. "He got tripped up a little bit, then regained his balance and he was off to the races. They didn’t have enough guys over there to catch him, they can’t account for him at all times. It was definitely a momentum changer."
Panepinto helped anchor the next drive as well, but it was receiver Mike Elcock (4 catches, 110 yards, 2 TD) who was there in the end zone to recover a Panepinto fumble on the goal line and score a Needham touchdown.
“Before the game, I said we hadn’t been down in a game since Westwood earlier in the year," Panepinto said. "At the end of the game we can’t crumble, we can’t start pointing fingers and stuff. We did a great job of coming together as a team and capping off two great scoring drives there at the end."
Moments later, Cliff Kurker picked off a Bobby Maimaron pass and brought it back to the Duxbury 35 yard line. Panepinto did the rest, busting off two straight first downs followed by a 12-yard touchdown run to seal the victory for the host Rockets.
The star senior chose not to address his individual performance as much, but instead the fact that great performances from teammates like Charter, Elcock, and Jack Walsh (79 yards rushing) helped open up the running game.
“I thought that we did a good job of spreading the ball around tonight, we showed the rest of the state that we have kids who can do stuff all over the field. Mike Elcock played great, and Jack Walsh played really well too,” Panepinto said, “Ryan Charter threw the ball well. When all those guys are playing well, it really opens up the running game for me. It’s good to see the whole team getting the ball.”
Duxbury came out flat and at one point was down 21-7 in the second quarter, but Maimaron, a freshman, had something else in mind.
Maimaron found Wes Quinzani for a 69-yard touchdown pass down the sideline in the second quarter, then ran a score in himself to tie the game in the third quarter. With the ball on the Needham 15 to start the fourth, Maimaron hit Drew Hadley near the front left pylon to give the Dragons their first lead since being up 7-0.
“We did fight back, we had some troubles on our own end and they punched in two quick ones. But the kids never panicked, we’re a senior-laden team. We’ve got 32 seniors,” Duffy said, “The kids did a great job of not getting down on themselves and not bickering...just working hard. They’re a great team over there that we beat tonight.”
The Rockets will go on to face top-seeded Mansfield team next Friday in the D2 South semis. Though the Hornets will be favored in the minds of most, the Rockets will continue to embrace the role of talented underdog.
“With all these great teams, I don’t think a lot of teams are counting Needham into this...we have a pretty good team over here in Needham,” Panepinto said, “I think we’re going to give Mansfield a run for their money next weekend. I wouldn’t count us out of it by any means. We’ve got a good team.”