NATICK, Mass. -– As victories go, No. 7 Natick’s 42-19 win over Bay State Conference Herget Division opponent Milton at Memorial Field was anything but aesthetically pleasing.
Despite a bevy of penalties -– especially in the first half -– coupled with numerous potentially crippling lapses in judgment, the Redhawks still managed to make enough plays over 48 minutes to earn the win and lock up a postseason slot for when the new MIAA playoffs begin Nov. 1-2.
“Way too many,” said Natick coach Mark Mortarelli of his team’s first-half penalty total. “I don’t know how many, but it was way too many.
“We had to clean it up. We had holds, we had off-sides -– we had two or three off-sides –- illegal formations . . . everything you could do wrong, we did wrong. Luckily, we played very well in the second half.”
Senior quarterback Troy Flutie, who finished 12-of-24 for 241 yards along with four TDs and an interception, added, “We made a lot of mental mistakes out there, which hurt us big time on a couple drives.
“I think it’s just guys coming back and playing who haven’t been playing a lot like Alex [Hilger], who had a couple of those false starts. He just needs to get loose and get into the game. In the first half, I felt like we had to get into the game. We didn’t play that much; we didn’t get a lot of snaps. Once the second half hit we were on a roll.”
While Natick, which improved to 6-0 (4-0 Herget) secured a top-two spot in the Herget Division, enough to clinch a berth in the Division 2 South playoffs, the Redhawks did not make it easy on themselves.
Natick wasted little time finding the end zone first against Milton (3-3 overall, 3-1 Herget), as sophomore Jared Abbruzzese returned the game’s opening kick 82 yards for a 7-0 lead.
The Redhawks looked poised to take a commanding two-score lead after holding Milton on its first possession when Andrew Boynton returned the ensuing punt 85 yards –- zigzagging across the field, seemingly untouched –- for a touchdown.
However, a block in the back against the Redhawks negated the play and instead gave Natick the ball at its own 11-yard line.
Following a three-and-out and punt, Milton assumed possession on the Redhawks 38-yard line with 6:31 remaining in the first quarter. Approximately four minutes later, Milton senior Chula Loomis rumbled into the end zone from six yards out to knot the score at 7-7.
The Redhawks responded on their next possession. Flutie first found Alex Hilger (six catches, 128 yards, two TDs) on a 42-yard strike down the right sideline before hitting Tommy Ranucci for a 37-yard touchdown. Ben Nottonson – who stayed perfect on PATs this season, going 6-for-6 on the evening – split the uprights to give Natick a 14-7 lead.
Though Milton had a chance to tie the score when senior quarterback Liam Collins connected with Chavinskee Milcent for a 38-yard touchdown with 9:52 in the second quarter, the point-after attempt by Dara Kennedy sailed just wide.
The Redhawks then stretched their lead to 21-13 with 39 seconds left before the half as sophomore Chad Kidd (12 carries, 47 yards, TD) plunged in from 1-yard out.
In the opening minutes of the second half, Natick appeared poised to score again after Nick Olson picked off Collins at Milton’s own 35-yard line. But a Flutie fumble three plays later was returned 73 yards by Milton’s Anthony Smith, setting up a pivotal two-point conversion attempt.
“That’s me being too greedy, trying to make a big play,” Flutie admitted. “I can do that from time-to-time, but against good defenses like this, and for the more that we’re going to see in the playoffs, I’ve got to stop that. I’ve just got to make smart plays out there.”
Fortunately for Flutie and the Redhawks, the home team’s defensive unit came up with a big stop as Milton junior running back Jonathan Pierre attempted to run it in between the tackles.
“We were thinking run the whole time,” said Milton coach Jim Bowes. “We had faith in our big guys. We just blocked it the wrong way and let go of the ball down here, inside. They did a good job up front. We thought we’d be able to pound it and stuff it in.”
From there, Natick effectively sealed the win by scoring 21 straight points.
First, Flutie connected with Hilger for a 7-yard touchdown with 7:43 left in the third quarter. Less than two minutes later Flutie struck again. This time, he found Andrew Boynton for a 13-yard touchdown which was set up by an Olson fumble recovery. Then with 52 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Flutie tossed his fourth touchdown, finding Hilger in back right corner of the end zone on a beautiful throw and catch from 23 yards out.
Still, it was Natick’s defense which had Mortarelli satisfied after the game.
“I think we stopped them on three different fourth downs and the two-point conversion,” he said. “Those were obviously huge.
“I thought our defense played well. We don’t want to give up 19 points to anybody, but I think we played well on defense. We tackled well. We stopped their counter which was part of our game plan. They got a couple [passes] behind us, which we’ll have to fix, but overall we pulled it together in the second half and we’ll take the win.”
In addition to interceptions by senior defensive back Colin Leddy and junior defensive back Nick Olson, who also added a fumble recovery, senior middle linebacker Gus Black was everywhere defensively.
“Gus Black was huge tonight,” said Mortarelli.
Back-to-Back in the Herget: With a postseason berth now secured, the Redhawks can focus on capturing a second consecutive Herget title. To do so, Natick will need to defeat host Walpole next Friday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m.
“It’s huge,” said Flutie. “Walpole week. Rebel week. This is what you look forward to as a kid when you’re watching these games and you’re in middle school. You just can’t wait for it.”
However, if Walpole, which beat Norwood, 35-6, on Friday to improve to 4-2 (3-1 Herget), were to defeat Natick, the Rebels, and not the Redhawks, would be crowned Herget champs based on league tiebreaker rules.
Natick knows it will need its best effort, especially in light of its inconsistent performance versus Milton, if the Redhawks are to knock off Walpole and repeat.
“We have a lot of things to fix if we want to even give Walpole a game,” said Mortarelli.