By JOE RUSSO
For the Sun Rise Trailing 20-13 at halftime, the Cranston West football team scored 29 unanswered second-half points to post a 42-20 non-league win over the Johnston Panthers before a packed crowd at Polisena Stadium in what was “Salute to Service” night on Friday evening. Fourteen Rhode Island high school teams throughout the state, including Johnston and Cranston West, wore special camouflage uniforms in honor of the brave service of men and women who serve our country. Former Panther football great and veteran Don Iafrate, who is a 1967 graduate of Johnston High School, took part in a special ceremonial coin toss before the game. The crowd was treated to a terrific halftime show that featured the always-spirited Johnston High School cheerleaders, as well as their majorettes. The ever-popular Cranston West Falconettes and their marching band closed the show with a great routine.
Both Johnston and Cranston West opened their respective league schedules the previous week, which saw the Panthers overrun by West Warwick, 55-16, while the Falcons lost 34-0 against Portsmouth. The two teams were looking to build momentum, as they will both be playing division opponents the rest of the season. It was the second time in three weeks that the Panthers faced a Division I team and lost. They were on the short end of a 20-6 score with Woonsocket three weeks ago in a competitive game. West scored first midway through the first quarter on a Mike O’Neill 14-yard touchdown run. Johnston would answer back with 20 straight points. Its first score was aided by a West roughing-the-passer penalty that kept the drive alive. A Kyle Nelson pass to Evan Pennacchia for a touchdown was negated by a penalty, but the Panthers did not get discouraged and would score their first touchdown of the game a few plays later, a Nelson to Nassir Vasquez 10-yard touchdown pass with 3:07 left in the first quarter. Ty Harriel ran in the 2-point conversion for an 8-7 JHS lead. Early in the second quarter, Vasquez would find the end zone again, this time on the ground with a 45-yard touchdown bolt that upped the JHS lead to 14-7. After West turned the ball over on downs thanks to a good tackle for a loss by Nelson, Johnston would increase its lead to 20-7 with Vasquez’s third touchdown of the game, a 45-yard bomb from Nelson. The Panther signal caller was 13-for-18 passing in the game for 192 yards, with Vasquez catching 11 passes for 155 yards. The Falcons would go 60 yards in five minutes, as their running back-turned-quarterback Cam Harris drove them down the field, scoring with just 44 seconds remaining in the first half on a quarterback keeper that provided some momentum for West as the two teams entered the break.
“Scoring just before the half really made a big difference in the game,” said Cranston West head coach Steve Stoehr. “Mike O’Neill is a guard playing running back and he will get better with time and Cam Harris is a running back playing quarterback and he will do anything he can to help this team win.”
Harris was making his first start of the season at the quarterback position after starter Nicholas Dionizio broke his collarbone in the second half of the Portsmouth game. The Falcons took the lead with 3:20 left in the third quarter on an O’Neill 50-yard touchdown run, while William Such converted the 2-point conversion, giving the Falcons a 21-20 lead that they would not surrender. A turning point in the game came late in the third quarter, when the Panthers seemed to convert a fake punt as Nelson found a wide-open Vasquez for a big gain, and more importantly, a first down. Johnston was flagged, however, as Vasquez was called for being illegally downfield.
“[West] was not covering Nas and we saw that he was wide open and we called the play, but the officials said he did not come back into the numbers,” said Johnston head coach Joe Acciardo. The Panthers would now have to punt after a tough call and West would take advantage, moving the ball downfield and scoring to take a 29-20 lead thanks to two Harris completions and some good running by Karim Jamous on the drive.
Such would intercept Nelson and run it back 45 yards for a touchdown to boost West’s lead to 16 points. The Falcons recovered the ensuing kickoff at the Johnston 35 on a fumble. Jamous would punch it in from 15 yards out for an insurance score. In all, the Falcons would score 35 unanswered points after being down 20-7 late in the first half.
”We were not consistent tonight and a little bit of inexperience hurt us,” Acciardo said. “We have to learn to how to fight through adversity and we will just have to recover. You can’t have a few bad plays, that leads to breakdowns, and in football you have to make adjustments. We just have to mature and look past our lack of experience, all teams deal with it at some point. [West] shut down the run and we had to change our game plan and throw the ball and Kyle Nelson can really throw it. He needs a little bit more help from the line. You need a balanced attack, and we did not have that tonight.” Stoehr spoke about the changes he made in the second half.
“We made adjustments in the second half and our defensive coordinator, Thomas Milewski, made some good defensive calls. We adjusted our outside linebackers because their quarterback was very good and we had trouble covering the pass. We had some trouble tackling and we have to clear that up by next week or we will be in trouble. We have a very young team, we play a lot of sophomores and we have a junior line and our schedule does not get any easier from here.” The Panthers, 0-1 in Division II-A, will host two-time defending D-II Super Bowl champion Moses Brown on Friday night at 7 p.m. The Quakers are 2-0 thus far this season, as they squeaked by West Warwick last week, 9-8. The Falcons, 0-1 in D-I play, will visit Curtis Corner Middle School to play South Kingstown at 7 p.m. on Friday as well.