WEST SPRINGFIELD — Coming into his team's season opener at West Springfield, Fitchburg coach Tom DiGeronimo knew he was going to have to rely on some younger players.
The Red Raiders had a terrific freshman class last season, and returned just one starter on the offensive line.
But while those players up front are technically inexperienced, they were also much bigger than their counterparts Friday night, and sometimes size really does matter.
With a mauling front that dominated the line of scrimmage, Fitchburg closed out a wild, 35-28 win over a West Springfield team that simply could not hold up at the point of attack as the game wore on.
"Yeah, we did wear them down," DiGeronimo said. "We had to stick with what's going, and I can't even talk about how many times we shot ourselves in the foot. It's a great win, one to get under our belt, but, boy, we have a lot of work to do."
Both teams do, as West Springfield travels to Longmeadow next, and Fitchburg hosts Tantasqua.
It was indeed a flag-heavy game with plenty of mistakes and first-game sloppiness, but in the muckiest of circumstances, Fitchburg's grunt crew took over when it mattered most.
Those five offensive linemen — junior center Jaeden Velasquez, sophomore guard Sam Faulkner, senior guard Pete Rivera, junior tackle Gio Long, and senior tackle Stone Schechetti — paved the way for 486 yards rushing and all five Fitchburg touchdowns on 53 carries.
"They had such a great game," running back Anthony Oquendo said. "I would not have been able to run through without them."
Oquendo was sensational and more than just a beneficiary of his blocking, as the sophomore rushed for 233 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. He saved his best for last with 9-yard score with nine seconds to play. That capped an eight-play, 80-yard drive that began with the score tied at 28 and just 2:14 left.
Of those eight plays, seven were runs, as Duncan Poitras spelled Oquendo with two carries for 40 yards on the march.
West Side had an answer for nearly every body blow applied by the Red Raiders, but it mostly came through the air, and the Terriers had trouble sustaining drives in the second half after taking a 20-14 lead into the break.
Still, down 28-20 in the fourth quarter, the Terriers were able to tie it with 4:15 to play in remarkable fashion. Facing a third-and-25 from the West Side 45, quarterback Ryan Russell completed a 34-yard pass to Christopher McMahon that helped set up a 5-yard scoring strike to Ben Green. Russell then found Alex Cunningham for the two-point conversion.
Ben Green makes a nice move to lose his man on a fourth-quarter touchdown.
The Red Raiders, though, threw their weight around on the last drive to finish it off.
"Obviously, they're a great opponent," West Side coach Chad Labonte said. "They were physically much bigger than us. They had a lot more players than we did, but I thought we matched up with them in certain spots. First-week mistakes didn't help, but they were in the same boat, too. So no excuses. Our kids played tough, but I think they out-sized us tonight."
As Labonte said later, "It came down to 300-pound men leaning on you all game."
A few other notes and observations from the game:
— Oquendo is tough, explosive back who can finish his runs and take it to the house when he gets a crease. He also reeled off touchdown runs of 70 and 37 yards.
After getting significant playing time as a freshman in 2018, Oquendo came into the season with high expectations, and so far is living up to them.
"Oquendo did a great job, and then Duncan Poitras came off the bench when Luis Aldarando got banged up," said DiGeronimo of the latter, a senior who had 56 yards on nine carries. "It just shows that we've got good depth at certain positions. Duncan's a sophomore, too. This is his first varsity game here with us, and that's quite a situation to come in, because Anthony got tired and Duncan stepped right in and did a great job."
"We're just hard workers," Oquendo said. "We worked from preseason to now. We're always working. I wouldn't be able to do it without any of my guys."
Perhaps the most telling series came to start the second half, when Fitchburg took the ball and drove 79 yards on 10 plays, all runs.
Anthony Oquendo barrels forward for a big gain on Fitchburg's first drive of the second half.
Junior quarterback Montgomery Graham punched in a sneak from a yard out with 6:29 to go in the quarter, and Justin Comesana booted one of his five PATs to give the Red Raiders the 21-20 lead.
Fitchburg's Montgomery Graham sneaks it into the end zone.
Graham ran well when called upon with 74 yards and two touchdowns on six attempts. The Red Raiders also had solid production from junior fullbacks Jason Corbell (26 yards on two carries) and Devon Barisano. The latter set up Oquendo's game-winning score with a 7-yard reception where he was able to get out of bounds and stop the clock with 22 seconds left.
Devon Barisano catches a pass and gets out of bounds on Fitchburg's game-winning drive.
— The Fitchburg defense was especially tough in the final 24 minutes, as Dee Jones had an interception in the third quarter, and the front seven was relentless in creating pressure and setting the edge on outside zone runs.
The Red Raiders had some breakdowns in the secondary, but are a swarming unit overall, which should serve them well over the course of the season.
— Despite the loss, there were positives for West Side, which took the lead right off the bat when McMahon ran back the opening kick 90 yards for a touchdown.
Russell completed 12-of-23 passes for 170 yards and three touchdowns. The other two came in the second quarter on a 21-yarder to his brother, Michael, and an 11-yarder to Cunningham.
Ryan Russell hits Alex Cunningham for an East Springfield touchdown in the first half.
"I think we confused them with some things we were doing," Labonte said. "Obviously, they were big up front, so we were going to have to attack the edges. But even with some of their pass coverages, we knew we could take advantage of. We took advantage of them outside, then had to move some people around with injuries at certain spots. It took some things away that they couldn't do."
One of those players who went down for the Terriers was Jonathan Rosado, who took some big hits at receiver and held onto the ball on three receptions for 48 yards.
"(I liked) the way that our kids responded, their ability to be coached, their adjustment and no quit, and knowing when one guy would get hurt, the next guy would go in," Labonte said. "It's really something we can build off of. I'm really proud of the team. They played tough. We ran out of bodies at the end there."
— There were loads of penalties, and it took plenty of time to sort out the exact nature of them when they were called. It slowed the game to a crawl at points, especially in the second half, but a lot of that had to do with the players, and not necessarily the new Federation rules.
"I don't think the Federation had much to do with it. It's just not keeping our cool," DiGeronimo said. "Emotionally, I think it got away from us, and that's on me. So we're going to fix it. We're going to fix that. But our kids, they played hard, they fought 'til the end. That's a hell of a drive with two minutes to go. We've got to build on it, but we've got a long way to go."
"I thought the officials were great tonight with the new rules and the changeover," Labonte said. "There was a little confusion with both (teams') sides and (the officials). They're getting used to it, too. They've been doing it for 35 years one way. But, no, I don't think any of the penalties on either side were based on the new rules. I think it was a lot of chippiness, a lot of mental mistakes, things like that."