MEDFORD — If you just looked at the score from last Saturday’s game between Wilmington and Arlington Catholic, you’d probably think Wilmington High Football had a hard-fought victory over AC. You would have thought that because the ‘Cats have dominated in almost every statistical category, including winning 19 first downs, compared to just three for the Cougars, while edging AC by a margin of 335-260 in total yards.
The stats didn’t tell the full story of that game, however, as some critical errors, including three turnovers, came back to haunt the Wildcats, and they fell 28-21 in the season opener. for both teams in a scorching Hormel Stadium. .
As they navigated the preseason with a mostly young and inexperienced squad, the Wildcats coaching staff had seen a lot of promise among their young squad, but they had also noticed a tendency to get off to a slow start during their pre-season scrums. -season. Slow starts are why coaches stressed the importance of getting off to a good start against the Cougars, who despite going 2-8 last season, returned talent and experience. Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the quick start they were looking for never happened, as they instead dug themselves a 14-0 hole in the first quarter, which they couldn’t recover from, despite playing well during the most of the match, especially in the second part.
“That’s been the theme for us all through preseason, we’re not ready to play out of the gate,” Wilmington coach Craig Turner said. ” I do not know what to do. We tried to get them to beat their heads early, we tried to shout and shout. At this point, we’re just trying to figure out how to make them work. Sometimes those things can’t come from the coaching staff, they have to come from the kids. You need to show yourself excited and ready to play.
While the loss was definitely frustrating, there were plenty of positives for the Wildcats that day, starting with junior Michael Lawler, who started the game at running back before taking over as quarterback position in the second half. Lawler rushed for 120 yards and a touchdown, while also throwing for 60 yards and another score.
And the Wildcats Wing-T offense, after struggling a bit out of the gates, put together several impressive practices throughout the game, led by freshman quarterback Colin Allard, who started the game. , as well as Lawler, as they rushed for 254 yards as a team.
But, ultimately, the slow start and turnovers, along with a pair of long touchdowns by senior AC quarterback Isaiah Osgood, were too much for the Wildcats to overcome.
The game got off to an ominous start for the Wildcats when they held AC at three and their opening possession, in part due to a false start penalty against AC on fourth and one play, only to see the punt that followed bouncing off the back of the Wilmington player and being picked up by AC at the 50-yard line. Five plays later, Osgood threw a ten-yard touchdown pass to Malakai McClure for a 7-0 Cougars lead.
Wilmington attempted to respond on their first possession under Allard, who was making his college debut. Allard connected with junior tight end Noah Spencer for a 21-yard completion early in practice, but he eventually stalled when Allard was sacked at his 35-yard line.
A nice comeback from AC, which would have been even better had it not been for a penalty, gave the Cougars possession on the Wildcats 48-yard line. In a theme that would repeat throughout the day, their quick strike attack connected on the first play from scrimmage, when Osgood connected with Brendan Bertolami on a screen pass and watched the senior captain of the Cougars take it home to make it 14-0 with 2:03 left in the first quarter.
Wilmington’s defense, behind the efforts of junior defensive linemen Ali Aboukal and Dempsey Murphy, stiffened from there, not allowing a first down the rest of the half.
The Wildcats offense couldn’t capitalize on that though, mostly due to self-inflicted injuries, including a fumble when the center slam deflected off the moving man and was picked up by AC.
Later in the half, the Wildcats put on an impressive drive to the Cougars’ six-yard line, but an untimed play late in the half due to a penalty on AC resulted in a incomplete pass and the Wildcats went halfway down 14-0.
At that point, Turner decided to make the switch to quarterback, opting for the more experienced Lawler over Allard.
“Honestly, I thought Colin did a good job for us, but what really came down to it was that they were charging towards our tight wing, and we wanted to lead the quarterback,” Turner said. “We really didn’t think it was a good place for Colin, so that’s the only reason we made the switch. Michel did a good job. We didn’t ask much of him, but he did a good job directing the ball, passing it and directing the attack.
When Lawler took over under center for the Wildcats in the second half, he gave the team an immediate spark, leading them on a 12-play, 70-yard drive, capped off by a four-yard run down the middle by the runner. junior ball. Julien Cella (16 carries, 93 yards).
Two plays before the touchdown run, Cella had given the Wildcats a first-and-a-go with a spectacular 15-yard run, carrying several tacklers inside the five-yard line before finally being knocked down. Hunter Sands’ first of three extra points of the day put Wilmington within 14-7 with 5:49 left in the third quarter.
But again, AC’s quick-hitting offense made the Wildcats pay as they only needed one play to respond with Osgood breaking free for a 75-yard run and a 21- 7. Osgood beat the Wildcats defenders on the left sideline, then went for runs in the end zone.
Wilmington also struck fast in response, needing just five plays to assemble a 47-yard drive before Lawler connected with Spencer (4 catches, 81 yards) on a 23-yard touchdown pass on a fourth and nine games to make the score 21- 14 with 2:11 to go in the third. Wildcats senior captain Peter LeBlanc got the game off to a good start with a 24-yard run on the game’s first play.
But Osgood quickly responded again, this time from 65 yards on the first play from scrimmage to once again give AC a two-point lead at 28-14. The play was eerily similar to Osgood’s previous touchdown, with him beating Wildcats defenders on the sidelines.
“We knew they had a good quarterback and we knew he was going to make a few plays, but we trained against it all. It was no surprise,” Turner said. “We knew we had to give the advantage, but we’re just not doing what we’re taught, so that’s the frustrating thing. I think AC is a good team, but I think it was more about not doing what we were taught to do.
Wilmington fought back, however, starting a 10-play, 71-yard drive capped by a 17-yard run from Lawler with 7:57 left in the game to make it 28-21. Spencer had an 18-yard clutch reception on the drive, while Cella helped propel the ball upfield, picking up 37 yards on four carries.
An interception moments later by Wildcats junior defensive back Christian Febbo gave Wilmington one last chance to tie or take the lead, and they nearly took the opportunity. They marched from their own 37-yard line to the Cougars’ 7-yard line, Cella leading the charge with a tough run, although junior Nik Iascone also had a big ten-yard run thrown into the mix. But a missed snap on third down brought the ball back to the 13-yard line and a fourth pass to the end zone went incomplete, stopping the Wildcats comeback attempt.
Although disappointed with the season-opening defeat, Turner sees better days for his young side.
“It has to be better,” Turner said. “But I think we will have things to build on here. Certainly, this one will sting, because I have the impression that we let it go.