Photo: Ben Jones (center) running during the 4th quarter.
The script was nearly written for a comeback of epic proportions.
Down by six with three minutes remaining in its Thanksgiving game with rival Watertown, the Belmont High School football squad was marching down the field in front of an ecstatic home crowd behind another heroic effort by senior running back Ben Jones and under the steady leadership of four-year starter quarterback Cal Christofori.
Heck, the sun was even peeking through the steel gray overcast seeming to provide the heavenly light to guide the home team to a classic victory.
But a pass thrown ever so slightly skewed to a Belmont receiver was intercepted by Watertown’s defensive back Isaac Huff finishing off the Marauders’ rally as Belmont ended the game on the wrong side of a 34-28 scoreline Thursday, Nov. 24, at Harris Field.
After reaching midseason at 3-3, the Marauders ended 2016 at 4-7, repeating last year’s record.
The loss marks Belmont’s fifth consecutive defeat to the Raiders in the yearly Thanksgiving Day that began in 1921. Watertown now leads the series 47-43 with five ties.
“It was Belmont/Watertown and we knew it was going to be a dogfight and we were pretty confident in our ability to shut these guys down, but we couldn’t shut these guys now,” said Belmont Head Coach Yann Kumin.
In a game delayed due to the Watertown squad arriving at Harris Field well past the official start time – despite having to travel a mere 2.5 miles – it was both team’s running backs who stole the show. Jones’ three touchdown performance was matched by Watertown senior Vasken Kebabjian with a trio of his own as both players collected more than 200 yards on the ground.
“Ben Jones is fantastic … [and] is a tremendous athlete and has had a tremendous season but what’s more important to me is that he’s a quality human being and quality man,” said Kumin.
Kebabjian started the scoring early as he ran 47 yards on the right side of Belmont’s defense for the first TD after two and a half minutes of the first quarter to give Watertown the lead, 7-0.
The Raiders doubled the lead with their next procession but only after being aided by the officiating crew whose rulings throughout the game left many on the sidelines and in the stands pondering its collective competence.
After missing an apparent fumble recovered by Belmont on its 36-yard line, Belmont’s Tyler Reynolds was called for pass interference despite being manhandled and thrown to the ground by the Watertown receiver as Reynolds attempted an interception.
On the next play, Raider QB Deon Smith scrambled 24 yards for the TD and a 14-0 lead with a minute left in the first.
Belmont broke through early in the second quarter as Jones broke into the open over his favorite left side of the line and outraced the defenders 45 yards to cut the lead to 14-7.
After apparently holding Watertown on a third down play, a late flag was thrown by the officials for a personal foul against the Marauders to continue their drive that resulted in a 41-yard field goal by junior Conor Kennelly to give the visitors a 17-7 lead midway through the second.
Kebabjian scored his second touchdown on a 54 yard run in the final three minutes of the half to extend the lead to 24-7. The half ended after another late flag for a holding penalty was called after Christofori hit junior wide receiver Will Ellet inside the 10-yard line with eight seconds remaining.
At half time, Kumin said “we knew we could play better” and “they came out on fire.”
It didn’t take Belmont long to score as on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter; Jones swept around the left end 71 yards to chip at the lead, 24-13 as Aidan Cadogan’s extra point attempt was blocked.
After a Watertown three and out, Belmont used a combination of Christofori passing and the running attack of Jones and fullback Adam Deese to push Watertown back to its goal. But on two occasions, the officials held up the play during the drive to discuss the location of the ball while forgetting to move the sideline markers “and both times that affected our ability to bring in personnel and our plays to call,” said Kumin.
“[The officials] certainly affected the course of today,” he said.
After Christofori found receiver junior Jake Pollack on a 10-yard pass to the 17, Jones finished the drive on a series of runs, scoring from five yards out with three minutes remaining in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 24-20.
But Watertown would take less than two minutes to score as Kebabjian scored his third long TD run, from 53-yard with a minute left in the quarter.
Belmont struck back quickly in the fourth quarter, first through a diving 25-yard catch by Ellet to the 21-yard line with Deese finishing off the drive with a fourth down dive into the end zone to trim the lead to 31-28 with 7:19 remaining.
But Watertown was soon knocking on the door as Kebabjian had two long runs to bring the ball to the Belmont 7 yard line. But a penalty and Belmont’s defensive line stopped the Raiders at the 9 which forced Kennelly to kick a 28-yard field goal that was partially deflected by Jones who got a hand on it.
Trailing by 6, Belmont took the ball with 3:08 to play at its 33-yard line and marched it down the field to the Watertown 43 yard line with 1:45 remaining before the Huff interception ended the Marauders’ final drive.
Despite the close loss, “I’m not going to hang my head one bit,” said Kumin to his players after the game.
“You took a team that had one win [four] years ago, and in three seasons you are competitive in one of the best leagues in the state. You did that. We did that. What I’m going to remember of this group of young men who had no quit in them, who sacrificed for their brothers no matter what, who played for something more than themselves every single day,” he said.
“I love you guys, and eat your turkey with pride,” said Kumin.