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Big 2nd half propels Red Raiders past Senators, 49-20

ATHOL — Matt Summers credited the savior on his back Thursday, but clearly his shoulders were wide enough and his legs strong enough to carry the weight of a few dozen of his Athol High School teammates.

In his final high school game, Summers saved his best for last, with 222 rushing yards on only 13 carries and four touchdowns — three of 45 yards or better — and the Red Raiders stomped on the gas pedal in the second half to overwhelm Mahar Regional School, 49-20, in the teams’ annual Thanksgiving morning clash at Thomas J. O’Brien Field.

Jerry Parker added a couple of touchdown passes to Dakota Melanson and also returned a fumble 70 yards for a score for Athol (7-4, 5-3 Intercounty League), which won its last two games of the year after a three-game losing streak that dropped the Red Raiders out of league title and Division III playoff contention.

“Jesus was on my back today and helped me through everything,” said Summers. “My linemen opened up the holes. It means so much, I’m so thankful I could have a huge breakout game today. We talked about playing our hearts out, just leaving everything on the field, and that’s what we did.”

In last year’s Turkey Day game, Summers led Athol with only 29 rushing yards, but smashed that number on his second carry Thursday and walked away with the Timothy J. Donelan Memorial Award as the Red Raiders’ Most Valuable Player.

Even though Athol held the ball for only 14 1/2 of the game’s 40 minutes, and 5 1/2 minutes in the first half alone, the Red Raiders knew what to do with it, piling up 298 rushing yards and 408 yards in total. Parker completed all five passes he threw for 110 yards, with Melanson grabbing three of them for 76 yards.

“Matt’s got sprinter’s speed. He’s a good football player, and when he gets in the open, he’s tough to catch,” said Athol coach Matt Gauvin. “There were a couple of long touchdowns where he didn’t even get touched. If it were tag football, he wouldn’t have been down.

“We wanted to concentrate on winning the battle up front and making some big plays. I don’t want to say the game plan was to make big plays, but the plan was to run it and get these guys in the open.”

Mahar (3-8, 2-6 IL) had early leads of 6-0 and 12-7 and trailed 21-12 at the half, helped in large part by three first-half Athol fumbles. In the first quarter alone, the Senators ran 23 offensive plays to the Red Raiders’ two, but still found themselves on the short end of a 7-6 score after the first 10 minutes.

“We lost the momentum on a couple of big plays, and that’s what’s killed us all year long,” said Senators coach Greg Scotland. “We tried to take advantage with some speed, and we couldn’t always get out there. We had a little pressure when we tried to throw the ball. We just didn’t get it done.”

The Senators went right down the field to start the game, with an 11-play drive featuring good production on the ground from Zach Watson, moved from receiver to running back. Tristen Merchant snapped off a 29-yard run to give Mahar first-and-goal at the 2, then Watson went in from the 2 on first down for a 6-0 lead with 6:09 left in the first.

Two plays and 45 seconds later, Athol was in front for the first time, with an 8-yard gain by Summers followed by his 52-yard burst off right tackle for the score. Jake Lajoie’s first of seven extra points on the day put the Red Raiders up 7-6 at the 5:24 mark.

Mahar then drove to the Athol 44 before being forced to punt, but Andrew Poor fumbled during the return and Chris Jackson recovered for the Senators at the Athol 17. A 16-yard completion from Logan Barrett to Watson put the ball at the 1, but Mahar needed four shots from there to punch it in. Merchant finally did the deed on fourth down from the 1, giving Mahar the 12-7 lead with 9:29 left in the half, but Barrett’s two-point conversion pass intended for Rafael Silva was swatted down by Poor at the goal line.

The next series saw Athol drive to the Mahar 25 before a bad snap from center was recovered by the Senators’ Drew Patria at the 39. Mahar couldn’t move it and was forced to punt, but Athol’s Adrian Sexton came through to block Watson’s kick, giving Athol the ball on downs at the Mahar 37. Not for long, however, as Summers fumbled on first down and Charles Verheyen recovered for Mahar at the 40.

After a Watson punt gave Athol possession at its 32, Summers took a pitch from Parker and took off around left end and down the sideline for a 68-yard TD run with 3:39 left. Lajoie’s kick put the Red Raiders ahead to stay at 14-12.

Before the half, Athol would get the ball back with Parker throwing completions of 23 yards to Melanson, partially negated by a face-mask call at the end of the run, and 17 yards to Poor. With only 31 seconds to go in the half, on first down from the 10, Summers angled through the left side for his third score of the morning, boosting the Red Raiders into a 21-12 halftime lead.

“We didn’t have a problem scoring when we had it, but then we gave them the ball three times and really kept them in the game,” said Gauvin. “That kept our offense off the field. We just tried to stress hanging on to the football.”

From the second-half kickoff, Athol got an immediate 48-yard run from Lajoie (61 yards on three tries) down to the Mahar 13. On fourth-and-7 at the 10, Parker hit Melanson down the right seam for the TD making it 28-12 with 7:22 left in the third.

Mahar’s best chance to stay close came on the next series, when Troix Adams broke off a 43-yard gain to the Athol 4. The Red Raiders’ defense held firm, forcing fourth-and-goal at the 7, where Barrett’s jump pass fell just out of Patria’s reach at the back of the end zone, giving Athol the ball back on downs.

The Raiders punted from their own 2 and Mahar looked to be in great shape at the Athol 32, but Barrett was hit on a scramble, fumbled, and Parker scooped up the loose ball at the 30 and returned it 70 yards for the backbreaking score at the 2:20 mark of the third.

Trailing 35-12, Mahar couldn’t hold much back, going for it on fourth down on each of the next two series and losing the ball on downs both times. Athol turned both into fourth-quarter touchdowns to complete the rout. Summers went off for his fourth score on a 45-yard run with 9:15 left, and Parker connected with Melanson on a jailbreak screen pass for 43 yards with 5:39 to go.

The Senators managed to cap the scoring with 1:26 remaining. Merchant capped a 50-yard drive with his second touchdown, a 1-yard plunge, and Barrett fired to Patria in the end zone for the successful two-pointer.

Merchant, who earned the Donelan Award as Mahar’s MVP, led the Senators with 58 yards on 15 carries. Adams and Watson were close behind with 52 and 51 yards respectively. Barrett finished 7-of-15 passing for 54 yards, with Watson totaling five receptions for 36 yards.

The O’Brien Family Awards, symbolizing the best lineman for each team on Thanksgiving, went to Christian Currier of Athol and Mahar’s Chris Jackson.

Athol took a 47-29-1 lead in the 77-game all-time series that dates back to 1894.

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