LYNN — It gets nailed home in every August practice across the state: Special teams and defense can make the difference in November.
For North Reading, it was all the difference.
Now the Hornets have a date at Gillette Stadium after topping Pentucket, 31-14, in a Division 5 semifinal Friday at Manning Field.
Ryan McCullough put the top-seeded Hornets (10-1) up 14-7 early in the third quarter with a 77-yard punt return touchdown after North Reading’s defense forced a three and out to start the second half. McCullough set up another score with a 43-yard punt return to the 5-yard line. Alex Carucci hit Matthew Guidebeck three plays later for a 6-yard touchdown to make it 24-14 in the fourth quarter.
“It’s just so crucial to have those plays in our arsenal,” McCullough said. “We emphasize special teams so much during the week, the offseason, it’s such an important part of our team.”
Added North Reading coach Eddie Blum: “We make sure we win special teams, we want to win special teams, we need to win special teams. Late in the year you lose some time in practice so it’s so important to nail that stuff down, lock that stuff down in August and September.”
The Hornets defense did its part in shutting down a second-half push from Pentucket (8-3). Chase Dwight (9-of-20 passing, 143 yards) made it 17-14 with a 1-yard plunge after completing 5-of-6 passes for 61 yards in the 11-play scoring drive with 10:21 to play.
North Reading forced Dwight to miss his last six attempts, including a game-sealing interception, shutting things down with a double team of Pentucket deep threat Che Condon (4 catches, 111 yards). Pentucket finished with just 189 yards of total offense.
“[Condon] is the guy and we knew they were going to go to him late in the game,” Blum said. “It was guys recognizing route combinations and guys doing their jobs. Late in the game when the execution was needed, the focus, the energy and the communication was there.”
William Batten (27 carries, 159 yards) tacked on with a 13-yard touchdown run to lock in the Hornets’ date at Gillette.
“I’m at a loss for words, I can’t describe,” McCullough said. “It’s really just such an unbelievable feeling.”
Added Blum: “Now, I can relax. It’s been a long playoffs. Now I can just enjoy the night.”