WORCESTER, Mass. -- David went down this time versus Goliath.
Anthony Hodges couldn't bear to talk about the game with a straight face. Doused in sweat, the Holy Name wide receiver fought back tears from underneath his helmet, his gaze directed at his feet.
The scoreboard read 22-21 with time expired, the Naps' rival No. 9 St. John's of Shrewsbury had once again gotten the best of them. It was the same result as it's always been during the last quarter century of the one-sided rivalry, but none of the near capacity crowd at Assumption College will soon forget the gut exhibited by the Holy Name sideline.
"We're a smaller team, but we can play against anybody," said Hodges, a senior. "They can have as many players as they want, but we have players that have heart."
The Naps (0-1) list 26 players on their varsity roster, two of which are freshmen. Compared to the 49 the Pioneers (1-0) carry, many of whom play on just one side of the ball, the mere numbers game handedly favors St. John's. When considering Holy Name lost three of its top players to dehydration during the course of Saturday's game, the Naps had no business being in the game until the last minute of the fourth quarter against a bigger, skilled opponent of St. John's ilk.
Still, there they were, one two-point conversion away from stealing the biggest upset of the young high school football season.
"It was a 44-minute game, that's what you get when you play Holy Name," Pioneers head coach John Andreoli said. "They're a solid, physical team. They have a lot of guys going both ways, but they hung in there for a long time. I give our guys a lot of credit because there were a lot of opportunities in that game to let it get away from us."
The Naps moved to within a point of St. John's with 3:26 to play after Hodges hauled in a 21-yard touchdown pass from Seamus O'Sullivan.
After the touchdown, Holy Name head coach Mike Pucko was playing for the win with a two-point conversion. Running back Quron Wright reached the end zone unscathed, however, a holding penalty wiped out the successful try and pushed the Naps back 10 yards. Holy Name's second attempt at two points was denied with a pass from O'Sullivan falling incomplete at the goal line.
"After the first half, the kids were beat," Pucko said. "We tried icing them down and we knew we were in for a rough second half. But they hung together. They hung together and they played well. They helped each other out. The young kids filling in were learning new positions on the fly, coaches have been doing their jobs through the first three weeks because these kids who haven't played high school football before were playing the No. 1 team in the area and they did their jobs."
St. John's ran out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter thanks to two rushing touchdowns by senior running back Sean Wilson.
The Naps cut the deficit to six by halftime after Wright's rushing score and successful two-point attempt.
Holy Name quickly took the lead to start the second half. Hodges took the opening kickoff back 82 yards for a touchdown, blazing down the left-hand sideline uncontested. The point after try had the Naps up 15-14.
However, the Naps couldn't keep the momentum going, as a couple of costly fumbles and a safety undid the offense late.
A Holy Name fumble recovered by Brendan Melanson set up Wilson's third rushing touchdown of the game for a 20-15 St. John's lead. Melanson left another mark on the Pioneers' victory, dragging down Wright on a carry from the end zone for a safety with 5:32 to play.
The safety proved to be the deciding points of the game.
"I was proud of our defense for digging their heels in the way that they did." Andreoli said.
The Naps had one last chance to tie the score after forcing St. John's three-and-out on its possession following Hodges' receiving touchdown.
Holy Name had the ball back with 31 seconds to play, but Jimmy Andreoli intercepted O'Sullivan's pass over the middle to ice it.
Meanwhile, Hodges tried to compose himself and look toward the brighter side of the loss.
"I feel bad for the next team that has to play us," he said, cracking a smile.
-- Big defensive stops and, in particular, turnovers sparked several of the Pioneers' touchdowns. St. John's defense helped set up the first score of the game when Barron Dandridge intercepted O'Sullivan on a screen pass. "We were certainly expecting a run to his side there," Andreoli said, "so we sent pressure off that edge, but then he read pass, went up and batted the ball. He's just athletic and was able to catch it and get the ball back for us."
-- Pioneers running back Sean Wilson could emerge as a dark horse for ESPN Boston's Mr. Football award. While the St. John's offense might be without D1 talents like Dan Light and Richard Rodgers of last year, Wilson looked as though he'll take on a greater role as a feature back with his 178-yard performance on 26 carries in the win. Running behind a hulking offensive line anchored by left guard Ryan Anger will help his cause. "I told him before the start of the game that I was excited to watch him get his senior year started," Andreoli said. "He's worked awful hard in the offseason He's become a terrific two-way player for us. He's a football player. He loves to be on the field, he doesn't want to come off the field. And, when he's on the field, he makes plays."
-- About that Pioneers running game. Part of what makes it hard to defend is St. John's spread attack. Even with junior quarterback Connor Kurtz under center, the Pioneers can air it out (even with Efrain Montalvo out with an injury on Saturday). However, with Wilson possessing the toughness to run between tackles and the speed to cut it to the outside, St. John's trap blocking schemes present problems for opposing defenses. "We were more concerned about all the play-action passes and the quick screens," Pucko said. "We thought our four down linemen would be able to handle it, but they couldn't They were trapping them and doing some different things. Our linebackers got test and by the second half, they'd figured it out, made some adjustments and played much better in the second half."
-- And back to those fallen Naps. Three Holy Name players were taken to UMass Medical Center with dehydration, including a severe case with Sean Zuromsky, who was lifted off the field into an ambulance after a 20-minute delay in the fourth quarter. As the Naps' ranks thinned, however, Pucko was able to find new-found depth. "We had a freshman at corner in the second half that did a great job. We moved some kids in the [defensive] backfield, [including] our quarterback, They were a little big and physical for us, so we had to throw the ball a little more than we normally do, but we had a lot of kids step up and show that they can play football." How's that for modesty? Credit is also due to Pucko's staff (which is small in its own right) for having the youngsters ready and able to fill in at a moment's notice. No small task this early in the season.