MANSFIELD — Mansfield was cruising, its sights set on a spot in the Division 2 South final. Hornets coach Mike Redding was even contemplating putting in his second-stringers with his team leading Needham, 35-7, with just over two minutes to go in the third quarter.
In five minutes, though, the Rockets pulled within a touchdown. Three straight scores — starting with a 91-yard kickoff return from Mike Panepinto — had host Mansfield on its heels.
But with the Rockets (7-2) charging for the tying score with 6:42 remaining in the game, senior defensive back Mike Barresi stripped Panepinto and recovered the fumble. One play later, the Hornets were in the end zone and they held on for a 42-35 win in a Division 2 South semifinal playoff game Friday night.
Mansfield (9-0) will host Barnstable in the South final next weekend.
“We thought we had it put away at 35-7 and we made the mistake of kicking to Mike [Panepinto]. All of a sudden it seemed like their juices started flowing,” said Redding. “I think both teams showed unbelievable character. I think a lot of teams would have quit when it was 35-7.
“They kept battling and we sucked it up and found a way to get a score to get the lead back to 14. Just unbelievable football, great playoff football. Two great teams.”
The Hornets got great efforts on offense from running back Miguel Villar-Perez (three touchdowns) and the tandem of quarterback Kyle Wisnieski and receiver Brendan Hill.
Wisnieski (13 of 18, 222 yards, four TDs) and Hill connected for three scores, the most important coming on the first play following Panepinto’s fumble. Wisnieski found Hill (8 catches, 152 yards) cutting across the middle for a 51-yard score that put the Hornets up, 42-28, with 6:01 left.
“I’m glad we got Brendan Hill catching the football for us,” said Redding. “You throw it near him and he’s going to make a play. Kyle’s a cool customer. Most teams, I would have run the ball, but you just have so much faith in our guys to throw it, even late in the game.”
Needham continued to fight, responding with a 10-play drive that ended with Ryan Charter hitting Mike Elcock for a 13-yard score to pull the Rockets within 7.
But the Rockets could not recover an onside kick and Mansfield ran out the clock to clinch the victory.
Needham’s incredible second-half turnaround began after Mansfield stretched its lead to 35-7 on a Villar-Perez 1-yard score. Panepinto (23 rushes, 186 yards, three TDs) brought back the kickoff 91 yards for a score, giving a jolt of momentum and belief to the Rockets’ sideline.
After a Mansfield three and out, the Rockets took two plays to pull within 35-21. Charter found Elcock for a 66-yard score. The Rockets then recovered an onside kick at the Mansfield 44. On the fifth play of the drive, Panepinto jetted into the end zone from 13 yards to make it 35-28.