MANSFIELD, Mass – In past years, Mansfield has traveled around the country to find competitive early season opponents. In 2011 and 2012, the Hornets have looked a little closer to home and have played a series of classic games against the Needham Rockets. Friday night, at a packed Alumni Field, Mansfield fell just short against the defending Division 1 Super Bowl runner-up in a 21-14 defeat.
With only 29 seconds on the clock, Mansfield faced a 4th and 4 at the Needham 12-yard line after a completion from junior quarterback Kyle Wisnieski to junior wideout Mike Hershman. Needham had started getting pressure on the Hornets’ signal caller in the second half, but Wisnieski had battled through and made several big plays. However, his final pass of the game to Brendan Hill was tipped by Nico Panepinto and fell incomplete, handing the victory to the Rockets (2-0).
Head coach Mike Redding was proud of his team’s effort and had nothing but respect for the team lined up across the field, “Kyle Wisnieski got hit tonight and he kept fighting – kept making passes. Again, I thought we kind of moved the ball well, we just didn’t do a good job finishing drives. They did a good job on offense of moving the chains. They’re a very nice, balanced offensive football team and they did a good job of playing keep away.”
The game went into halftime tied 7-7. Mansfield’s score was a little fortuitous when a high snap on a field goal was fielded by Wisnieski and he scrambled and found Hershman to take the lead. Needham answered back in the second quarter with a 17-play, 93-yard drive that was capped by a Mike Panepinto 1-yard touchdown run.
Needham opened the second half with a similar touchdown drive again ending with a 1-yard dive by Panepinto. The Hornets again answered back after Hershman picked off Rockets junior QB Ryan Charter. On the very next play, Robbie Rapoza raced 65 yards straight up the middle to tie the game at 14.
Turnovers hurt the Hornets in the fourth quarter when Wisnieski was sacked by Tim McCarthy and stripped of the ball. Mike Manigault recovered it for Needham at the Mansfield 31-yad line. Three plays later Panepinto tacked on his third score of the day and gave Needham a 21-14 lead that would eventually be the final.
Coach Redding noted that these competitive early season games will give his young team plenty of experience heading into league play, “I think both of us are going to be better in November. Nights like this make you better, win or lose. Hey, you know, two years of this rivalry, it’s been a heck of a game…this has been good football between two good programs and we’re honored to play them.”
The Hornets faced several situations where the game could have been over in the final quarter. They stopped the Rockets on a 4th and 3 at the 29 to get the ball back with just over three minutes remaining. Facing a 4th and 7 at the Needham 41, Wisnieski made a perfect pass to the sideline to Hershman for 12 yards.
Senior defensive lineman James Comer, Raposa, and Hershman were solid for the Hornets on the defensive side of the ball. Mansfield limited the opportunities for Charter, the talented Rockets quarterback, consistently putting pressure up the middle and not allowing the ball to get into the hands of Nico Panepinto on the outside.
Things do not get any easier for Mansfield (1-1) next Friday as they will travel to play Northern powerhouse Dracut and its no-huddle offense.