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Panthers hang on, 16-12

NORTHFIELD — Anyone who played in or watched the last football meeting between Pioneer Valley Regional School and McCann Technical High School had to feel a powerful sense of deja vu Saturday afternoon.

Last Dec. 3, in the Division IV Super Bowl, Pioneer jumped out to a two-touchdown halftime lead, then had to weather a spirited McCann comeback in the final seconds to grab its first WMass football title. Saturday, with much lower stakes, the Panthers went up 16-0 at the half and once again fought off a McCann rally to post a 16-12 Tri-County League victory.

The Hornets took over at their own 38-yard line with 4:18 remaining and worked their way to the Pioneer 44, before the Panthers’ Hayden Manson dropped slippery McCann quarterback Justin Cote for a 7-yard sack. Cote threw an 11-yard completion to John LeClair to put the ball at the Panther 40, but Cote was stopped for no gain by Lukas Rathbun and then Manson pressured Cote into a fourth-down incompletion, giving Pioneer the ball with 1:51 to play.

One first down later — helped by a timely fumble recovery by Pioneer guard Nick Lawrence on a bobble by Rathbun — the Panthers (3-6, 3-4 TCL) could finally breathe easier with their third win of the season.

“Every time we play McCann, it’s a great matchup, it’s always one play or one possession away,” said Panthers coach Glen Wilson. “We had a tough day offensively today, which I didn’t expect. We wanted to establish the run game and McCann did a great job taking it away.”

Panther quarterback Cole Tognarelli stepped up nicely, completing 10-of-17 passes for 129 yards with one touchdown and one interception. His favorite target, Alex Briggs, caught six balls for 87 yards, including an 18-yard scoring pass from Tognarelli late in the first quarter that opened the scoring.

Rathbun ran for 80 yards on 15 carries, but no other Pioneer player made any headway on the ground, with all other ballcarriers totaling 18 carries for minus-one yard.

Pioneer used a fumble recovery by Brian Llewelyn at the McCann 42 to start its first scoring drive. Tognarelli connected with Llewelyn for 24 yards on first down, then found Briggs on a corner route for the 18-yard TD. Tognarelli kept it himself for the two-point conversion as the Panthers went up 8-0 with 3:44 left in the first.

Noah Rathbun then forced and recovered a Cote fumble, running it back six yards to the McCann 27. A 5-yard pass to Tyler Goodnow and a 19-yarder to Briggs put the ball at the 3. Two plays later, Lukas Rathbun went in from the 2 and Tognarelli ran in the two-pointer for a 16-0 lead at the 1:05 mark.

McCann (2-8, 2-6 TCL) drove deep into Pioneer territory on its last two drives of the first half but couldn’t crack the scoreboard. The Hornets seemed to convert a fourth-and-1 at the 10-yard line before a chop-block call nullified the play, and Cote’s pass to T.J. Therrien on fourth-and-11 came up four yards short. The visitors then reached the Pioneer 26 just prior to halftime before Cote’s pass was broken up.

On its second series of the third quarter, McCann took over at its own 47 and Cote (17 carries, game-high 104 yards) got the Hornets on the board two plays later with a 52-yard scoring run down the right sideline. LeClair came up short on the two-point try, making it 16-6 with 6:44 to go in the third.

Pioneer failed to extend the lead when it lost the ball on downs at the McCann 12, and Cote took control on the ensuing drive, carrying nine times himself for 55 yards. The Hornets reached the Pioneer 13 before fumbling the ball away, but one play later, McCann got the ball right back and got six points closer on a 20-yard scoop-and-score fumble return by linebacker Gustavo Montoya with 8:13 to play in the game. That pulled the visitors to within 16-12.

McCann finished with a 228-208 edge in total offense.

The Panthers close out their 2012 campaign Thanksgiving morning at 10 a.m. at Franklin County Technical School.

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