LYNN — Three weeks ago, the Danvers High football team was pushed around in suffering its first loss of the season against Lynn Classical.
Friday night in the first round of the Division 3 North playoffs against that same Rams team, the Falcons were resolute in their determination not to let that happen again.
Executing all three of head coach Ryan Nolan’s keys to the game — ball security, special teams and physicality — No. 6 seed Danvers upended No. 3 Classical, 21-7, Friday night at Manning Field to advance to the sectional semi’s for a third straight season.
“It’s not very often that you get another chance to play a team that already beat you,” said Danvers senior captain Zach Dillon. “We knew it was something we had to take advantage of. We beat each other up all week in practice to get ready for this and it paid off.”
How did Danvers (6-2 and facing the winner of Saturday’s Tewksbury/Concord-Carlisle clash next week) get the better of the Rams (also 6-2)? It started with tough, disciplined defense: the Falcons did not allow Rams QB Keith Ridley — who burned them for 180 yards in the first meeting — to get outside the pocket, instead forcing him to throw down the field.
When he did, senior Isaac Downs (interception) and Matt McCarthy (interception) were solid in coverage. Dillon and Franco Abbatessa did a good job turning back interior runs and Almany Vargas did a great job with containing the edge.
“It wasn’t any kind of gameplan or change,” Nolan said of the difference for his defense. “All week, our assistant coaches honed in on the fundamentals. We were disciplined and everybody stuck to their assignments.”
Special teams was a huge benefit for Danvers, which had a tangible advantage in field position thanks to booming punts unleashed by Dillon. That led to short field which the Falcons were happy to cash in on: the first score came on a one-yard Justin Mullaney plunge on a drive that began at the 34 — set up by Dillon pinning Classical at its own 1-yard line.
“I keep it simple and try to kick it as far as I can,” said Dillon, who pinned Classical at its own 5-yard line later in the game, leading to another short Ram punt and another 35-yard Danvers scoring drive. “When you have athletes like Tahg Coakley and Matt McCarthy gunning down there, you kick and they’re going to be able to make things happen.”
Coakley, who ran for a game-high 66 yards, scored from 17 yards out on a burst up the gut just four snaps after Mullaney made it 7-0. Dillon recovered a Rams fumble on the ensuing drive and in a span of just 1:12, the Falcons had a 14-0 lead.
The Rams got on the board early in the third when Tyrese Joseph hauled in a 63-yard TD pass from Ridley (16-of-29, 145 yards). Danvers stretched out the lead after some razzle-dazzle action on a fake field goal. Mullaney, the holder, rolled out and hit Colby Holland for the first down on fourth and eight, setting up Coakley’s second rushing score for a 21-7 lead.
From there, the Falcon defense took over. Abbatessa had two tackles for loss, Downs made his interception early in the fourth quarter and Holland ended a Classical drive with a sack to essentially put the win away with just over four minutes to go.
“We played the way we want Danvers football to be identified: tough, physical, smart and unselfish,” said Nolan, whose team was marginally outgained 241-189 in total yards but led in turnovers (3-to-1) and forced the Rams go the length of the field by executing in the kicking game.
“The kids sold out for this game and they played physical football. It was a total team effort. Classical’s great and they’re big, but our kids stuck their noses in there, put body-on-body and hung tough.”
Classical, which has made the playoffs three times under the new format but has yet to win, was also hampered by seven penalties for 70 yards, most of which came in the first half. It was the first career playoff win for first-year head coach Nolan, and Danvers has now won a postseason game in each of the last three seasons.
“It feels great. We had what, two starters back from last year?,” said Dillon. “To win a playoff game shows how hard everyone’s worked and how much the young guys have stepped it up.”