SALEM — For a team to be great, it’s not always about how they start a game but how they finish it.
That sentiment rang more true than ever for the Salem High football team in Friday night’s Division 6 quarterfinal at Bertram Field.
After turning the ball over three times in the red zone in the first half, the Witches not only cleaned up their mistakes but came out for the third quarter with every intention of dominating. And in what was their last home game of the season, they did just that.
Leading by two scores at the break, Albert Pujols kicked off the third frame with a pick-6 to completely swing the momentum in his team’s favor. Salem would go on to score three more times before the quarter was over, ultimately running away from visiting Cardinal Spellman for a 55-0 drubbing.
Pujols finished with four interceptions in the win, two of them going for touchdowns, while adding another score offensively to put the stamp on an historic night in Witch City.
“I’ve never been in a game where I even had two interceptions,” Pujols, who also ran in a 23-yard score on the first play of the fourth quarter, said with a beaming smile.
“It was a good experience, a great experience, especially to do so in the second round of the playoffs,” Pujols added. “I would never imagine doing this in a million years.”
Heading into the game, Witches’ head coach Matt Bouchard admitted he was a bit nervous to see how things would play out. Not only was he rightfully concerned with Spellman’s variety of weapons, including versatile quarterback Matt O’Donnell, but his players had two days off from school this week, which always makes things a bit more difficult.
Turns out he had nothing to worry about.
The Witches — who enjoyed a team outing at the local bowling alley to stay loose prior to kickoff — swiftly seized control of the game while containing O’Donnell defensively before the star QB was forced out of action with an injury. He was unable to return for the second half, and Salem capitalized in a massive way.
“When we watched them on film, it was clear they were really talented,” said Bouchard. “I think obviously when a dynamic player like (O’Donnell) goes down, it really impacts them. But they have some other players, and when we rank teams that we’ve played this year so far they’re right up there. Our guys just had a great day all around — and they were ready for tonight.”
Salem drove the ball into the red zone on each of its first two drive, but an interception and a lost fumble left them walking away with zero points. Fortunately they held strong defensively, leading to a scoreless first quarter.
In the second stanza, senior captain and quarterback Corey Grimes (7-for-10, 198 yards & 2 TDs) had another pass picked off after leading his squad past midfield. But Pujols snagged his first pick of the day on Spellman’s ensuing drive, sprinting all the way down the sidelines for a 65-yard touchdown.
That particular momentum-swinging play seemed to spark something for the hosts, and they carried it with them for the remainder of the evening. Salem would tack on one more score before halftime as Grimes — who connected with Julian Ortiz for a 51-yard bomb two plays prior — found Shane Field out of the backfield for a 4-yard score and a 14-0 halftime advantage.
“That one was huge,” Pujols said of his first pick-6. “Before I even got to the end zone I was looking at the scoreboard and was like, ‘this is a huge play right here’. Our team was scoreless and as a captain I needed to have a way to build up our team. We saw the other team with their heads down after that pick, so that was a great way to build up momentum.”
The third quarter is really where Salem made its mark.
Pujols started the frame off with a 20-yard pick-6 off of Spellman’s back-up QB D’Anthony Amado (who’s normally a weapon in the passing game) and Devante Ozuna (46 rushing yards) added the 2-point conversion for a 22-0 lead.
After forcing a turnover on downs, Grimes found Logan Abboud for a 37-yard seam pass to paydirt. The Witches then forced another punt and Ozuna received it, making a series of cuts before sprinting for a 48-yard touchdown. Following another Spellman punt, Grimes found Quinn Rocco Ryan for a 65-yard touchdown pass. Ryan drew a flag on the play, but was somehow able to haul in the catch anyway, shake off the defender and walk into the end zone.
The Witches ran just two offensive plays in the entire third quarter yet scored four times to ignite the rout. A big credit goes to their defense, with Elias Vasquez (2 sacks) and Shane Field, among others, coming up huge time and time again.
“At the end of the day we’re always striving to have all three phases execute. Tonight, special teams executed, the defense played lights out, and in the second half the offense did their job,” said Bouchard. “We’re really happy for these guys, especially the seniors. They’ve really helped shape Salem High School to an overall program that I think everybody in Salem is really proud of.”
With running time in effect for the fourth quarter, Salem would tack on two more touchdowns to supplant the scoring: the 23-yard run by Pujols and a 65-yard punt return from Rocco Ryan. Ozuna actually started with the ball in his hands on the latter score, sprinting about 40 yards before being wrapped up and lateralling the rock to Ryan at the last second as he took it to the house.
“I actually asked (Ozuna) after the play, I was like, ‘was that planned, did you guys talk about that or anything?’, and he said no,” said Pujols. “Rocco was just behind him, he tossed it back and he scored. Just two smart players and we were just having fun, doing our thing.”
Fittingly, Pujols would then snare one final pick (he got his third at the end of the third quarter) to put the final stamp on the decisive victory.
Lovinsky Nicolas and Alfred Ferrioli were two other standouts defensively for Salem, which truly got a complete team effort on that side of the ball. In total, they limited Spellman to just 18 passing yards (among three different QBs) and 70 yards of total offense on the evening.
Now it’s on to the state Final Four where Salem will play No. 15 Stoneham (a 26-20 winner over Bellingham Friday night) next week for a chance at advancing to the D6 Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium.
“This is amazing. We knew from the start of the season that we had a chance to be here, and the fact that the dream came true is huge,” said Pujols. “From here on out we’re gonna be relentless, we’re gonna stay disciplined … We’re looking for the ‘ship and I think that’s a big part of why we’re even here. Our mentality, throughout practice, throughout the preseason, everything.
Salem 55, Cardinal Spellman 0
at Bertram Field, Salem
Cardinal Spellman (7-3);0;0;0;0;0
S — Albert Pujols 65 interception return (Corey Grimes kick)
S — Shane Field 4 pass from Grimes (Grimes kick)
S — Pujols 20 interception return (Devante Ozuna rush)
S — Logan Abboud 37 pass from Grimes (Rush failed)
S — Ozuna 48 punt return (Grimes kick)
S — Quinn Rocco Ryan 65 pass from Grimes (Grimes kick)
S — Pujols 23 run (Kick failed)
S — Rocco Ryan 65 punt return (Grimes kick)
RUSHING: Salem — Devante Ozuna 9-46, Albert Pujols 1-23, Quinn Rocco Ryan 2-7, Shane Field 3-6; Cardinal Spellman — Matt O’Donnell 13-42, D’Anthony Amado 9-19, Ronan Manning 1-(-3), Umarei Murray 5-(-6).
PASSING: Salem — Corey Grimes 7-10-198-2-1; Cardinal Spellman — O’Donnell 4-7-13-0-1, Manning 2-8-5-0-2, Amado 1-5-1-0-1.
RECEIVING: Salem — Rocco Ryan 1-65, Julian Ortiz 1-51, Logan Abboud 2-49, Ozuna 2-29, Field 1-4; Cardinal Spellman — Jay Comeau 4-11, Amado 3-8.