Monday, November 12, 2007

Defensively, a struggle for both teams

Defensively, a struggle for both teams
Tom King

Published: Sunday, November 11, 2007

Al Neville walked off the Motta Field turf at Stellos Stadium late Saturday afternoon huffing and puffing. He didn't get feted with the Londonderry High School band playing the Notre Dame fight song the way his counterpart defensive coordinator, outgoing Lancers head coach Tom Sawyer, did.

No, Neville's reward was rest. After Nashua South's 35-31 win in the Division I semifinals, where the yards seemed easy and the defense on both teams seemed oh, so penetrable, he needed it.

"That (Alex) Theodhosi is as good a back as I've seen in New Hampshire in years," he said. "We have a couple of outstanding ones, too, but . . . we pulled out every defense we had to try to stop them and they still ran well on us . . . You couldn't slow them down. We put nine people in the box and they still ran well."

If you were a real estate agent, Stellos was the place to be as both the Panthers and Lancers were buying up property in huge chunks, mostly on the ground (a combined 739 yards). Remember when rushing for 200 yards was, well, a big deal? Theodhosi gets that in a half, it seems, as Saturday he shredded the Panthers defense for 332 yards on the ground. And for South, almost lost in the shuffle was junior back David Zocco's 201 yards. Amazing.

"You feel helpless," said Neville, speaking from the defensive side. "That's a helpless game."

If you want helpless, imagine the feeling of Sawyer as he was in the press box, watching the Lancers take not one, but two crucial 5-yard penalties in the red zone, one at the end of the first half for delay of game that turned a chance for a touchdown into a field goal, and the other perhaps the most disappointing of Sawyer's career. It was a 5-yard illegal procedure call on a first-and-goal at the 5 with just over two minutes to play and the game in the balance.

That seemed to do something the sight of Theodhosi running wild didn't do for the Panthers defense. They stuffed the Lancers on four plays to eventually preserve a four-point lead and the win.

"We didn't do anything different," Neville said. "Just a couple of kids stepping up and making huge plays. I can't even tell you who made 'em. Just a couple of kids barreling in and making huge plays."

"Penalties down there killed us," said Sawyer, right before a touching post-game scene where the band circled around him and gave him one last hurrah as he waved and took a few bows. "It's a mistake – it's high school.

"But we couldn't stop each other," laughed Sawyer. "Basically, we couldn't stop each other. That's what it came down to. You're not going to stop that (South) team, with those two kids (Zocco and Bill Ferriter) back there. And they didn't stop our two kids (Ryan Griffin along with Theodhosi). It was a slugfest."

South head coach Scott Knight always has a calm demeanor after a game when meeting with the media. How he kept his cool during it, however, had to be a question.

"Frustrating," he said. "They're running a scheme (single wing) that's perfect for that kid, much like people say we're doing for our kids. We thought we were filling the gaps. You leave one gap uncovered, and he goes. We've got some kids in the secondary who can close, but (Theodhosi's) fast. He would have busted a couple of others if we didn't have the team speed we have."

But he couldn't bust one inside the 10 when it mattered most, and that was the key. South only had two two-way players, Ferriter and Zocco, and when asked afterward if it was really tiring out there, Zocco simply answered, "Not really."

"Hey, that was a track meet," Knight said. "Every point counted. It's a football game, you know what I mean? It was more of a matter of getting frustrated. You think you've got the kid buried, and he breaks out. What was the score, they scored 31 points and they lost?"

Sawyer was right, that's high school football. It wasn't until the third quarter that both teams finally stopped the other from scoring.

But the biggest stop had to be by the Panthers in the final minutes. Theodhosi for 2 yards. Then no gain. Griffin for a 3-yard loss. Then a 4-yard pass way short of the end zone.

"We just said, 'This is our season,'," said South linebacker Mike Lefavor (also huffing and puffing), whom Neville praises as a leader of his defense. "(Theodhosi) is a tough back to stop. We pulled together, and we got the stops when we needed to, and it turned out in our favor."

Imagine what it was like for sophomore linebacker Marty Voorhis, getting his first start. Lefavor kept a close eye on him.

"It was frantic out there," Lefavor said. "We were just thinking, our season is going away right now."

But that didn't happen.

The Panthers will host Pinkerton Academy next week in what should be a doozy for the Division I crown. This is indeed a great year to be a high school football fan. But Saturday wasn't a great day to be a defensive coach.

"I would say that's the toughest one," Neville said. "I'm proud of that game. We gave up a lot of yards, but I'm proud that we beat that football team."

"Hey, we almost won the damn thing," Sawyer said. "Just a great game for everybody. They got their money's worth. These kids, I just wanted to thank them for leaving me with this memory."

A memory of yard after yard after yard . . .

"We said it going in, it would take four touchdowns to win," Knight said. "I didn't think it would take five."

That was the price of victorious real estate in a suddenly booming market, where the buyers and sellers were out of control.

Tom King can be reached at 594-6468 or e-mail at


The Telegraph Publishing Co.

P.O. Box 1008 Nashua, NH 03061

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