Football: Pembroke D forces five turnovers, ups physicality in first win of the season

By DAN ATTORRI

Monitor staff

Published: 09-17-2023 4:46 PM

HOPKINTON – The Pembroke Academy coaching staff gives out Reese’s candy as rewards for takeaways. The Spartan coaching staff had some shopping to do after Saturday’s game.

The first half was scoreless, but in the second half everything clicked. Blocking assignments and missed tackles that were common in weeks one and two were executed. Pembroke’s defense had four takeaways and forced a turnover on downs, and the line allowed the skill players on offense to thrive as the Spartans (1-2) picked up their first win of the season, 31-8, at Hillsboro-Deering/Hopkinton (1-2) on Saturday.

Pembroke doesn’t have a deep bench and is a young team, in terms of both age and football experience, so for head coach Will Moher, seeing the lessons of the first few weeks of the season take hold was positive.

“We’ve got some really good, young kids on the team who are getting better and have bought in,” Moher said. “I’m excited to see where we go from here. Anytime you can cash in on the things you’ve been talking about and working on, it just makes practice easier. It makes what the coaches say more legit. We’ve known we had a good group. We keep telling the kids ‘We can do this thing. You’ve just gotta believe and execute’ and they did.”

The Spartans showed flashes of excellence against the two 3-0 teams in the Division II East, but ultimately suffered tough losses to Plymouth, 42-7, in the opener and Kennett, 49-22, last week after having to make the drive from Pembroke to Conway two times due to weather delays.

But Pembroke was much more consistent from the opening kick on Saturday with Stephen Cox intercepting Redhawk quarterback Noah Carter’s pass to end the first drive of the game.

Devin Friel also recovered an HDH fumble late in the second quarter, but Spartan penalties hindered good ball movement.

Pembroke had six penalties, costing the Spartans 45 yards (all of them in the first half). HDH power running back Mason Nichols did a tremendous job on the ground, but the Redhawks had four penalties for a combined loss of 25 yards (three of the four penalties were in the first half) and a 28-yard field goal attempt early in the second quarter went wide right.

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HDH didn’t make too many blocking errors, but the ones that were made proved costly. Pembroke quarterback Joe Fitzgerald (6-for-12, 146 passing yards) found an unmarked Treyvon Cannon with a beautiful spiral deep up the middle. The 65-yard completion put the Spartans up 6-0 with 5:34 left in the third quarter.

Cannon was Fitzgerald’s top target (85 receiving yards on three catches), but was also the team’s leading tackler, had some key blocks and showed prowess as a runner out of a wildcat and sweep offense, including a 7-yard run in the red zone to set up Fitzgerald’s 1 yard dive to make it 12-0 with 11:51 left in the fourth.

Within the first four minutes of the fourth, Pembroke’s lead grew from 6-0 to 25-8. After Fitzgerald’s QB keeper, lineman Nick Cushing (two tackles for loss) – the only senior lineman on the roster – hit Carter (1-for-6, 10 yard pass to Nichols) well behind the line of scrimmage, forcing a fumble that Luke Hanson returned 32 yards to make it 18-0. Nichols responded with an 80-yard TD run to put HDH on the board and ran in the 2-point conversion to make it 18-8, but Pembroke responded right back.

Sophomore Jake Menczywor returned the ensuing kickoff 67 yards and Hanson (54 rush yards on 10 carries) ran 18 yards to the house on the next play. Hanson also kicked the extra point to make it 25-8 with 8:15 left in the game.

Menczywor also scored on a 7-yard run with 1:28 left to cap the scoring.

Behind the scenes were several freshmen winning physical battles in the trenches and in the backfield.

Freshman defensive back Porter Brown had an interception on the drive following Cannon’s TD catch to start the drive that led to Fitzgerald’s score, while fellow first years Andrew Fitzgerald and Kyren Baines also saw significant time in the backfield.

Nate Poulin made the snaps at center, while Jace Michaud and Cole Demers played on the line.

“We went super fundamental and physical on Tuesday (during practice),” Moher said. “I think the point was delivered.”

He added, “We didn’t bring back a single middle linebacker that had started any games. You can start to see them make plays and see them starting to understand the read.”

Johnny Holler, Menczywor, Jackson Olisky and Corbin Brown, while not freshmen, are new to the middle linebacker role and were key to Pembroke’s physicality.

The Spartans might have a lot of rookies on their roster, but after Saturday’s performance, Moher is ready to shed that label.

“At this point we have no rookies anymore,” Moher said. “They’ve all stepped up and grown.”

For the Redhawks, Nichols (195 yards on 20 carries) was the one bright spot as the team’s main rusher, kicker and punter, but too many errors were committed elsewhere.

“(Pembroke) took advantage of mistakes we made,” head coach Jay Wood said. “We squandered some opportunities we had. … We just picked a bad time to not know some of our (blocking assignments). It just so happened that those plays hurt us and we were in a position where we couldn’t get back … Hat’s off to Pembroke. They played a good game.”

Both teams host their next opponents on Saturday, with Hanover traveling to Hopkinton and Pembroke hosting Gilford-Belmont.

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