This year, it might be the deepest it’s ever been.
There isn’t much separation among all six teams, but even less between the top three or four teams vying for the Kelley-Rex crown.
On Friday night, it turned out the difference between Milford and Mansfield was only a matter of inches.
Sophomore Damien Carter went up and hauled in a 9-yard touchdown over a pair of defenders and landed just inches inside the touchline for the walk-off winning score, giving the Hawks a 27-24 win over the Hornets in overtime at Alumni Field.
After early fireworks that saw Milford score on its first two drives and Mansfield orchestrate a pair of good drives, scoring on the latter, the teams settled down in the second half. Mansfield took an early lead on its second drive of the half but Milford responded in the fourth quarter to tie the game.
Both defenses buckled down in the final quarter as the teams combined to punt five straight times and the game went into overtime.
Mansfield went on offense first but a pair of incomplete passes sandwiched for a loss of yards on second down meant the Hornets had to settle for a 30-yard field goal off the right foot of James Gilleran.
Milford went next, gaining just a yard on first down. The Hornets nearly ended the game on an interception on second down but instead, it was Milford putting the game to bed when Evan Cornelius (11-for-20, 156 yards, two TD) floated one just past the pylon on the right side and Carter came down with it; the sideline ref ruling his foot landed in-bounds before his body did out of bounds.
“I hope people believe now that Milford is for real,” said Milford head coach Dale Olson. “We knew coming into this year that we had some young kids but some talented kids. If we’re not a top 6-8 team in this state, I don’t know who is.
“I had actually called for the play before to go over there and [Cornelius] decided to go to the other side. After that, we wanted the 1-on-1 on that side. [Mansfield] did a great job on Isaiah. We went up 14-0 and they started to double on him. I thought early on we ran the football at-will on them. But that’s a great program, they did a great job tonight. But in the end, our kids buckled down and played great defense.”
It was a dream start for the visitors, who were making their first trip to Alumni Field since joining the Hockomock League nearly a decade ago. The Hawks needed less than five minutes to march 75 yards on 12 plays to get into the end zone. A 21-yard scamper from Tyler Lane (18 carries, 90 yards) helped move Milford into the red zone and Cornelius kept it himself to convert 4th and less than a yard for a 7-0 lead.
Mansfield looked poised to respond right away as the Hornets started to move the sticks. But the drive came to a sudden halt on its 10th play when Mansfield lost the ball on a run up the middle and the Hawks recovered the ball for their first red zone takeaway.
The Hawks’ offense picked up right where it left off, this time orchestrating an 88-yard drive in just seven plays. On the final play of the first quarter, Cornelius hit Isaiah Pantalone (eight catches, 94 yards) on a slant that went for a 67-yard gain. Three plays later, Lane plunged into the end zone on third down from a yard out to give Milford a 14-0 lead with 10:47 left in the second.
The turnover didn’t seem to bother the Hornets’ offense and they came up with a much-needed response. On third down, junior Conner Zukowski (12-for-21, 146 yards) connected with sophomore Trevor Foley for a big 40-yard completion. Three plays later, Drew Sacco took the handoff and sprinted in for a 5-yard touchdown that cut the deficit on the scoreboard in half.
Mansfield’s defense gained some momentum with back-to-back stops. The Hornets forced the Hawks into back-to-back three-and-out series to get the ball back. The offense rewarded them with a 6-play, 54-yard drive that resulted in the tying score just before the half. Zukowski hit Foley for a first down and then dropped one to CJ Bell for 31 yards and a visit to the red zone. Milford’s defense came up with some stops to make it tough but Zukowski got low and kept it himself to convert a fourth down with a 1-yard touchdown keeper.
The Hornets looked to pull a double, scoring on both sides of the half, and it looked like there was a good chance they’d complete it. Mansfield marched 44 yards on 7 plays but Milford’s Jaden Agnew made a terrific read and a diving interception inside the red zone to put the Hornet drive to a halt.
Mansfield’s defense had an answer of its own and on third down, defensive lineman Pedro Cruz got his paws up to bat down a pass and force a punt. Given a second chance to take the lead, Mansfield took care of business. Bell made a great move to evade a defender and get a first down on a 16-yard reception and a holding call in the secondary moved the sticks again for the hosts. On fourth and one from the 3-yard line, Zukowski tossed it to James Fichera on a sweep to the right and the senior captain rushed it in for a score and Mansfield’s first lead, 21-14, with 1:53 left in the third quarter.
“We finally get the lead and had a big score in the second and one in the third and then we just couldn’t get a first down,” said Mansfield head coach Mike Redding. “We tried to run it but they were doing a good job defending that. They were doubling our receivers. That was the key…we needed to get some first downs. We didn’t need to score but at least punt from midfield and give them a long field but we gave them way too many chances in the second half and sooner than later they capitalized.
“We’ve got to start better. it’d be nice to be up a touchdown instead of down one. We have to find a way to get a lead and play ahead. The last three weeks we’ve been playing from behind. We play hard and we catch up but these teams, it’s too much to overcome early.”
Milford’s offense couldn’t find its rhythm as it had to punt again on its next drive after a fumble on second down set them back. But the Hawks’ defense did its job and forced Mansfield into a three-and-out. That was a big swing and the Hawks found their footing on offense again. A penalty on third and short gave Milford life, and a holding call in the secondary moved the sticks again on the next play. Cornelius connected with Carter twice on the drive, the first for 13 yards and a first down and, three plays later, on a slant on the right side that turned into a 40-yard touchdown. Nick Araujo’s third successful point after attempt made it 21-21 with 7:56 left.
“In past, I think this program would have [panicked], they didn’t know how to win big games like that,” Olson said of Mansfield scoring 21 straight points to take the lead. “Tonight, we had that 14-0 lead and it felt like the Natick game all over again. I was hoping for one more stop and I thought, if we can go up three scores against a Mike Redding team, we’re going to force them into throwing the football more than they want to. But our defense stepped up in the end.
Mansfield had two drives in the final minutes of the fourth but only totaled 19 yards on its eight plays. Milford also had a shot at the go-ahead score but their five plays had a total of 7 net yards and they had to punt both teams as well, sending it to overtime.
“Every drive is important, every third down conversion is critical,” Redding said of the tight competition in the Kelley-Rex this year. “We’re learning as we go with young kids and they are playing hard but they need to realize how every series is critical in terms of momentum. You have to move the chains when you have the ball. And we just have to find a way to start better. We almost overcame it again but just not enough.”
Milford (2-0 Kelley-Rex, 5-0 overall) hits the road for the third straight week with a trip to Wrentham to take on King Philip. Mansfield (0-2, 3-2) will look to snap a rare two-game skid when it hits the road to take on Attleboro.