MANCHESTER — For all the offensive fireworks at the beginning of Friday’s opening round 3A East region playoff game between Manchester Valley and Hammond, the outcome was ultimately decided by the defense.
After allowing a 67-yard touchdown reception on the opening offensive play of the evening by the Golden Bears, the host Mavericks buckled down to hold Hammond scoreless the rest of the way en route to a 14-6 victory.
Manchester Valley (6-4) answered the quick Hammond (5-5) score with a 59-yard touchdown run from Nathaniel Costley on its third-play from scrimmage and then added another touchdown on a 19-yard catch and run by Zach Bowen midway through the opening quarter to stake itself to a lead it never lost.
“The way that first quarter was going, you start thinking it’s going to be a high-scoring game … but defensively our kids came up big,” Manchester Valley coach Bernie Koontz said. “We had a couple big stands, one at the end of the first half and another right there at the end. Defensive pressure and the secondary took away a lot of those things that they do well in terms of both throwing the ball and running the ball.”
The Mavericks will host Wilde Lake — a 14-10 winner over top-seeded River Hill — in the second round of the regional playoffs on Nov. 15.
Hammond opened the game with a bang, using a trick play that saw Sam Mercedes take an end-around and launch a pass to a streaking Tayshawn Yates down the left sideline for a score before many in the crowd even had a chance to take their seats.
“We put something in there, something we thought we might be able to catch them off guard with and it worked,” Hammond coach Will Bell said. “Honestly, it was a bit of a surprising start for both teams, because I think we came in expecting a defensive battle that was going to be won up front. Then you look up and there’s three touchdowns on the board in the first few minutes.”
After the initial onslaught, though, Bell’s inclinations came to fruition. Both defenses settled in and took over.
Even still, trailing by eight, Hammond had its fair share of chances to get itself back into the contest. The Golden Bears had five more trips into Manchester Valley territory over the course of the evening, but every time that the Mavericks needed a play, their defense delivered.
Bowen made a big interception in the first quarter to set up Manchester Valley’s second touchdown drive — culminating with the junior catching a pass from quarterback Owen Murphy and racing down the left sideline into the end zone.
“A lot of credit to the coaches for helping us make adjustments, switching up our defense to put ourselves in position to make plays,” Bowen said. “I know for me, the biggest thing was just not to hang our heads. We got blown up for that big play, but we came back even more motivated. We got the first touchdown, I got the pick and then we were able to get that second touchdown and we knew the game had turned.”
Later, in what ended up being one of the biggest plays of the night in terms of maintaining momentum, the Mavericks’ halted a Hammond drive into the red zone with another interception just before halftime. This time it was Dahon Saunders who picked off an Eric Grinwis pass in the back of the endzone on a fourth-down play from the Mavericks’ 10-yard line to keep Manchester Valley ahead by eight points.
Hammond had gotten into the red zone courtesy of another long pass play to Yates, this one accounting for 71 yards. But, while the drive ended with the turnover, Bell said it was penalties that put his team into the tough spot on fourth and long.
“Penalties hurt us tonight, really putting us behind the sticks several times, but in particular on that drive before the half,” he said. “I really felt like we were in position to get first and goal, which would have given us four cracks at maybe tying the score. Instead, we get that penalty and we end up having just one try at it.”
In the second half, Manchester Valley fed its workhorse running back Costley to play the ball-control game and nurse its lead. Costley, spurred on by his long touchdown run in the opening minutes, ended up rushing for 157 yards on the night.
Hammond had one final chance to drive for the game-tying score, taking over on its own 20 with just over three minutes left in the game. But after the Golden Bears again moved the ball into Mavericks’ territory, Manchester Valley senior Noah Brown delivered a key sack as part of a game-clinching stop with just under a minute left.
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“I feel excited for the kids that they get this chance to experience the playoffs,” said Koontz, who has guided the program back to the playoffs for the first time in the last four years. “We have been through a lot of adversity, playing without seven or eight starters since like week 5 and a lot of kids have stepped up to fill those voids. They have persevered throughout the season to make this possible.”