SOUTH HADLEY — You name it, Amherst did it well in a 28-7 win over South Hadley to earn the program's first outright Suburban North title since 1999.
No, it was not always consistent throughout, as the Hurricanes' offense sputtered at times and turned the ball over.
Still, how is this for a total team win? The defense made three interceptions, including a pick-six, recovered two fumbles, and forced a turnover on downs. The special teams scored a touchdown on a returned onside kick. The offense threw for one score and powered in another on the ground.
Whether it was up front or on the perimeter, Amherst did a little bit of everything to hold off South Hadley. The win improves the Hurricanes to 7-0, who are not just a threat to win Division 5 West, but the whole ball of wax.
Although South Hadley dropped to 5-2, the Tigers are also very much in the hunt to contend in Div. 7 West and more.
But for an Amherst program that has had to share the league title the last two years, fourth-year coach Chris Ehorn has brought it to another level. Although the game was not a total rout, one never got the sense that the outcome was truly in doubt.
"Well, what's wonderful is the last two years we've been tri-league champs, which isn't very fun because we had to share it with other teams," Ehorn said. "This year, to win it outright, we're so excited we were able to do that. It was a big game for us. South Hadley is the best opponent we played in the regular season. So to come out and get the win when I don't think it looked very pretty, to get the win and find ways to score, I think that's awesome. That's huge."
For Amherst, which has had talent in the past but not been able to cash in on it, Ehorn and Co. feel good about where the program is heading.
"I think we've made a lot of strides where Amherst isn't always known for being competitive and disciplined," Ehorn said. "For the last four years for these guys to buy in and build this program the way they have is fantastic. It helps that we have a bunch of athletes and big guys on this team."
Said Darius Robinson, who made two of the three interceptions: "It's a great experience. We want to continue it next year, and we're definitely not done yet."
Let's take a look at a few things that popped in Amherst's big win:
— You have to start with the defense with Amherst, because the Hurricanes ended two red zone trips from the Tigers with interceptions.
The first came with less than two minutes remaining in the first half and the Hurricanes protecting a 6-0 lead. Sophomore defensive back Zayd Sadiq corralled a tipped ball and raced 90 yards the other way for a backbreaking touchdown.
Amherst's Zayd Sadiq picks off a South Hadley pass and returns it to the house.
With a 14-0 advantage heading into the third quarter, Amherst again found itself backed into its own end when South Hadley capitalized on two penalties to get down to the Hurricanes' 7-yard line. But after an illegal procedure penalty, Robinson, a junior, picked it off and brought it back to the Tigers' 45.
Darius Robinson thwarts another South Hadley scoring opportunity with an interception.
Early in the game, Amherst linebacker Tom Dion recovered a South Hadley fumble to set up the first Hurricanes score. Pierre Tillus, who rushed for 48 yards on 11 carries, recovered a fumble in the first half, as well.
Whether it was the defensive line of Gabe Kebede, Jack Nagy, and Landen Worgess, linebackers Dion, Josh Vecchio and Dan and JJ Block, or defensive backs like Sadiq, Ethan Howard, Robinson, and CJ Woodfine-Holmes, the Hurricanes allowed very little. South Hadley had just 50 yards of total offense in the first half, and had trouble maintaining any real sustained drives.
"If our offense isn't rolling, then our defense is," Sadiq said. "I think we have the best defense in Western Mass., hands down. I think we can stop anybody."
Although Springfield Central may have a little something to say about that, the Hurricanes have a shutdown unit. Through seven games, Amherst has allowed 51 points and blanked three opponents. That bodes well for a postseason run that could include a date with a West Springfield team that is putting up big numbers every week.
— Tillus came up with the most unusual scoring play of the night when he grabbed an onside kick attempt and ran for a 40-yard touchdown following South Hadley's only score, a 9-yard touchdown run from Hunter Carey.
"I was just thinking about, I knew they were going to try an onside (kick). I just didn't want to drop the ball," Tillus said. "I almost did, but (kept) thinking, 'Don't get caught from behind and take it to the crib.' "
After a JB Mills two-point conversion toss to Ethan Howard, it pushed Amherst's lead to 28-7, and the game was essentially over.
"I think what's good is in practice everybody's focusing," Ehorn said. "One thing, special teams, I've been a part of teams where everybody kind of checks out when you're doing special teams. We have a pretty intense special teams period every day of the week. So to see it pay off, the hard work that they're able to focus in practice when we're doing periods like that (is great).
"And then the little details on defense. South Hadley does certain things that is counter to our regular defense, so we needed to change things. So, for our guys to be able to pick that over the week and run it the right way during the game is fantastic."
— Offensively, Mills threw one pick, but was otherwise in total control. The senior completed 14-of-22 passes for 114 yards and lofted a pretty pass to CJ Woodfine-Holmes on an 18-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
JB Mills hits CJ Woodfine-Holmes for a touchdown in the first quarter.
But even though Mills was able to spread the ball around to pass-catchers like Woodfine-Holmes, Shane Robles, Tillus, Howard, Dion, Sadiq, and Josh Vecchio, there is no replacement for what Amherst can bring in the power run game.
Usually out of the pistol with a fullback in the form of JJ Block, the Hurricanes are able to pound it behind their big offensive line of Owen Frennette, Nagy, Nolan Klaes, Cenai Collins, and Nick Parker.
"It's huge for us," Ehorn said of the line play. "Right now we're down two starters on our offensive line. So, for the other guys to come in and play the way they did is fantastic. For the most part, we kept JB upright, which is nice. We gave him the protection he needs."
It was almost a perfect balance with Amherst rushing for 57 yards in each half. In perhaps most typical of how the Hurricanes like to finish games, Vecchio punched in a 12-yarder in the third quarter behind a crushing block from JJ Block.
Fullback JJ Block leads the way with a punishing block on Josh Vecchio's touchdown run.
"Yes. I didn't even see it, but I heard it and said, 'JJ just hit somebody,' " Ehorn said with a big grin.
"JJ Block, I don't know if there are too many true fullbacks," Ehorn added. "But at the same time, there are a lot of teams that run a lead. Nobody's really like JJ. So it's wonderful to have that guy as an outside backer to do his job and to be a lead back. It kind of gives it away. Everyone knows where we're running when JJ's lined up and where he's going, but he's such a good blocker. Yeah, it's a huge part of our offense."
— Even though it was a tough loss for South Hadley, all is not lost for this young team that can certainly make a deep postseason run. Carey is a talented runner and receiver, and he even threw a first-down completion at one point.
Hunter Carey rumbles in for a South Hadley touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Coach Scott Taylor was frustrated with how the game played out in what he saw as a few too many preventable mistakes from his team.
"We gave them two cheap ones. How many times do you see an onside kick go back for a touchdown?" Taylor said. "The kid muffed it, and it just went straight back to him. Sometimes it doesn't bounce your way. We gave them three tipped interceptions, nothing that they did. Our kids, off their chests, although one was off one of their hands. This is a 14-7 game. It just wasn't our night."
The game had its chippy moments, but there seemed to be a solid amount of respect on both sides. Taylor was asked if this was the beginning of a budding rivalry between the two programs.
"Well, that's the first time in 13 years I've lost to Amherst," Taylor said. "So, you know, we'll see. You've got to win more than one to be considered a rival. That can be as much bulletin board material as you want, but that's the bottom line. But it's a credit to coach Ehorn that he's building quite a program over there. But, again, we'll see about longevity."