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Indians dismantle Panthers

NORTHFIELD — The Pioneer Valley Regional School football team received applause striding past parents and friends down to the field for pre-game warm-ups Saturday. “They’re starting to make believers out of us,” said Dave Lambert, the father of freshman receiver Zach Lambert. “They’ve been a surprise.”

Unfortunately for Lambert and the other Pioneer faithful, there was little reason for post-kickoff applause. The Panthers were throttled, 42-26, by Ware High School in a Tri-County League game that left both teams tied with 2-1 records.

“This was put-up-or-shut-up week,” said Ware coach Rob Slattery, referring to the previous Saturday’s lopsided loss to the Franklin County Technical School. “We laid an egg in that one.”

After studying film of Pioneer’s two wins thus far, Slattery decided to roll out the tanks and establish a ground attack. The Indians rolled up 401 rushing yards and threw one pass, an incompletion concluding the first half.

Tri-captain Zered McCoy rushed 26 times for 209 yards, four touchdowns and three two-point conversions. “He’s amazing,” Slattery said of his 5-foot-6, 180-pound steamroller. “He loves the sport of football. You see him on the street, you’d never think he could go on the field and do what he does.”

Indeed, McCoy’s low center of gravity made it difficult for Pioneer tacklers to bring him down. Many of his trips to the end zone were accomplished standing up, partly Pioneer’s fault. At times he encountered less resistance than a passenger pushing his way onto a commuter train. And it wasn’t complicated, he simply took the handoff from fellow tri-captain Seth Beckland and ran up the middle or off tackle, lowering his shoulder and hitting full stride as soon as he cut upfield.

“If you don’t stop him at the line, he’s hard to bring down,” said Beckland.

The Indians trailed early, 6-0, on a 1-yard TD run by Pioneer quarterback Cole Tognarelli, then scored 24 unanswered points in the second quarter. One score was set up by a fumbled kickoff, the other by a Tognarelli pass that went into the arms of Ware defensive back Hunter Millier, sparking a seven-play, 48-yard drive. Tognarelli made amends for the errant throw by running for a 45-yard TD that narrowed the halftime score to 24-14, as close as the Panthers got to winning their third straight game.

Ware took the second-half kickoff at their own 45 and used 10 plays and almost six minutes on a drive capped by McCoy’s 2-yard plunge. By then, Ware had run 44 plays to Pioneer’s 14. “We shut down their passing game,” said Beckland. “When you do that, you shut down their offense and that was the key to our success.”

Any hope of rebounding from that 16-point deficit ended when McCoy stepped in front of a long pass intended for Lambert and picked it off, returning it 25 yards to set up yet another score.

Another part of Ware’s strategy was to double-team Pioneer receiver Jake Hale. “No. 5, we put an extra safety to cover him,” said Slattery, whose wife Kelly had a baby girl named Mckayla this past week. “My assistants were just amazing, they stepped things up and got things going while I was gone.”

Hale did impact the game with two fourth-quarter TD passes, but by then the game was history. Lambert and Alexander Tyson had catches of 58 and 34 yards, respectively, while Tognarelli rushed for 93 yards and passed for 200. But senior back Lukas Rathbun mustered just two catches for 5 yards with 17 yards rushing.

Pioneer coach Glen Wilson made no excuses. “They beat us on both sides of the ball. They physically manned up on us.”

The Panthers hit the road for another TCL matchup on Friday when they play at Dean Technical High School in Holyoke.

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