Photo: Belmont High Mekhai Johnson literally carrying defenders on his run against Winchester.
Belmont High’s Mekhai Johnson proved this weekend once again why he’s one of the best running backs in MIAA Division 3 as the senior scored four touchdowns while rushing for a career-high 250 yards to lead the Marauders past host Winchester, 35-28, on a crisp, sunny Saturday morning, Oct. 17.
The win was Belmont’s first Middlesex League victory in more than three years.
“The offensive line opened a lot of holes up. Then when [I] got past the line of scrimmage on the second level, I just took off,” said Johnson, who ran for touchdowns of 3, 36, 80 and 23 yards.
(Video courtesy Marauders Media)
Johnson’s running effectiveness allowed junior quarterback Cal Christofori to find his senior receiving corp of Joseph Shaughnessy, Justin Wagner and Grant Gilbert on critical long yardage downs.
“Everybody just coming up and making big plays at big moments,” said Belmont Head Coach Yann Kumin, who saw his team’s record go to 2-4.
“We wanted to establish the run because then we knew we could get things going with Joe Shaughnessy … and we were excited about what he did for us catching a huge touchdown in the [fourth] quarter,” Kumin said.
“This was a great Middlesex League win,” he said.
It was an eight-yard pass from Christofori to Shaughnessy that put Belmont up 35-21 with 3:12 remaining in the game that proved the game winner as Winchester came back to score its touchdown in just over a minute to cut the margin to 35-28.
The game showcased Belmont at its best, controlling the ball and demonstrating a defense that did not allow a single same breaking run or pass from the Sachems.
Belmont took the opening kickoff and took nine minutes off the clock to travel 72 yards downfield to set up Johnson’s first score, the three-yard run off left tackle. The big plays were a pair of Christofori to Shaughnessy hook-ups for 12 and 21 yards, the last one coming on a fourth down and 4 at the 28. The missed point after gave Belmont a 6-0 lead.
The Marauder defense stepped up on Winchester’s first drive as junior defensive back Kevin Martin intercepted sophomore QB Liam Fitzpatrick’s pass on Belmont’s 25-yard line. On the next play, Gilbert took a Christofori pass and slipped by two Winchester defenders to rumble 39 yards to the Winchester 25. Two plays later, Johnson took a pitch and ran right 36 yards to give Belmont a 13-0 lead.
Belmont’s first offensive play after Winchester scored on a Fitzpatrick pass, Johnson took a handoff and steamrolled through a hole made by his offensive line to outrun untouched by the Sachem defense for 80 yards to give the Marauders a 20-7 lead with 4 minutes remaining in the first half.
But Winchester got within 6 points as they scored with 31 seconds left in the second quarter.
Early in the third quarter, just as it appeared that Belmont’s improving defense was ready to stop Winchester on a fourth down play, Fitzpatrick’s deflected pass landed into the hands of receiver Sam Curtin who skipped 33-yards for the touchdown, giving Winchester the lead 21-20.
But Kumin said after the Sachem touchdown, the team did not allow the fluck play alter its positive approach to the game.
“It’s a testament to our players that they shook it off,” said Kumin.
Back on offense, Belmont converted a fourth and one yard (on Christofori’s two-yard plunge) before Johnson securing his fourth touchdown on the 38-yard rumble down the right side with 3 minutes remaining in the third. Christofori’s found Gilbert on the two-point conversion to give Belmont a 28-21 lead.
Belmont’s defense now stepped up behind the big men in the middle – led by Justin Aroyan and Lowell Haska – who plugged the running lanes and forced Fitzpatrick to hurry his throws, forcing Winchester to punt on Belmont’s 40 with 10 minutes left in the game.
“We told the defense they had to step up as we did against Woburn (a hard-fought 18-15 loss) rallying to the football and make tackles. And we did that making a couple of big stops, a big interception from Martin.”
Belmont would give the ball back to Winchester, but the Sachems could not make first down. The Marauders benefited from a weak Sachems’ punt to start its game-winning drive at the 43. The big play in the drive was Wagner’s catch from Christofori for 15 yards on a third and 12 from the 45, which prompted the big receiver to give a “Gronk” first down pose.
Kumin had high praise for the offensive line that had its hands full last week against Reading.
“We are starting three sophomores right in the middle (the guards and center) in Andrew Mazzone, Dennis Crowley, and Ryan Noone. We are excited about those guys on the interior line with Haska and Chris Piccione stepping up and taking care of business as bookend tackles.”
“O-linemen are always a little bit weird, and those five guys are definitely that. But they’re weird together and weird in the right way,” he said.
Belmont returns to Harris Field on Friday when the welcome Lexington which is seeking its first win of the season.