WESTWOOD — The first game of the season was far from what they envisioned on the Needham High sideline.
Parents, stunned. Coaches, perplexed. Players, frustrated.
And Mike Panepinto , who led all of Division 1 in scoring last fall with 25 touchdowns, ended up sitting on the bench with an injury as Westwood High played near-perfect football against a Rocket team that looked like it could have used a few more practices.
“I don’t think they were quite ready to play football,” suggested Westwood coach Ed Mantie after his club registered a 36-26 nonleague win Saturday night.
Needham coach Dave Duffy agreed.
A season full of promise, much of which centered around the running back who had the breakout of all breakout performances a year ago, was now appearing more gloomy by the minute.
Toughest to watch was Panepinto, who had been forced to the sidelines with hamstring cramps, attempting a comeback in the third quarter. When he tried bursting out of the backfield with his usual speed and explosion, he instead went crashing down at the line of scrimmage. He limped off the field.
“When Mikey went down at halftime there, that kind of threw a wrench into our plans,” said Duffy.
No Panepinto, no running game. All the offseason planning went out the window. Much of the playbook became obsolete. In the first half, Panepinto accounted for 140 of his team’s 187 yards.
Without him, even the opposition seemed confused.
And that’s when Ryan Charter caught everybody off guard.
Charter isn’t the typical high school quarterback. He weighs about 175 pounds and is thinly stretched over a 6-foot-2 frame. He’s a stand-in-the-pocket passer with an impressive arm and mind for the game. A senior, he’s been starting since his sophomore year, when he helped lead the Rockets to their first-ever Super Bowl appearance at Gillette Stadium. BC High won the game, but Charter still opened eyes.
Former New England Patriots quarterback Scott Zolak was doing color commentary for the game’s television broadcast.
“Charter threw a 50-yard pass,” Duffy recalled. “We got tackled at the 2, and Zolak said, ‘That’s a sophomore, and it’s the best throw we’ve seen all day.’ He had a good game.”
While Charter has always had the arm, he’s recently become surprisingly elusive.
He ran the ball a few times Saturday, prolonged plays with his ability to escape pressure, and had no problem throwing accurately on the run.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, he rolled out and dropped a 40-yard touch pass to Mike Elcock to pull Needham within 10.
On Needham’s next possession, the Wolverines pinned the Rockets on their own 4-yard line, forcing Charter to work out of his own end zone. On the first play he was buried by a pair of Westwood defenders and couldn’t get the pass off cleanly. It was intercepted.
Charter didn’t miss much after that.
He drove the Rockets 52 yards on four plays, finishing with a 25-yard touchdown to Elcock in which Charter quickly broke down Westwood’s coverage and floated a pass over the safety and into the corner of the end zone.
“I’m working on attacking the safety,” he said. “The second half we became much more dependent on the pass game. And I improved my reads a little bit more.”
Charter was 7 for 10 in the fourth quarter with 102 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. He also broke off a 16-yard run to extend a drive with time winding down.
The Rockets, unable to overcome a sluggish first quarter, lost. But they were reminded that they can score points in a variety of ways.
Panepinto is expected to be in uniform when Needham plays Walpole on Sept. 20, but expect Charter to be just as involved.
“He’s a guy that we’ll rely on more in weeks to come,” assistant coach Doug Kopsco suggested.
The scouting reports will surely change after Saturday’s game.
For Needham, that might not be a bad thing.
New playoff system may alter strategy
New format, new strategy?
With the new statewide playoff system giving hope to teams that lose a few games during the regular season, it could provoke coaches to take more chances when calling plays during close games.
“You still want to come out with a victory to get those power rating points,’’ Needham High’s Duffy said, “but win/loss doesn’t crush you like it used to.”
Playing devil’s advocate is Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High coach Tom Lopez , who said he won’t be taking any more risks than usual.
“This year actually has more implications because of the seeding of the playoffs,’’ he said. “The opening game this year had more pressure than the last couple.”
No looking back as
Weston takes opener
After a three-win season a year ago, Weston got off on the right foot with its senior-laden squad on Saturday.
The Wildcats expect to be more competitive this fall with a more experienced crew under coach Sean McHugh .
While the offense came in spurts and made too many mistakes for McHugh’s liking, the defense held Randolph scoreless in the second half for a 35-14 victory. The halftime score was 14-14.
Junior James Sacco has filled in at middle linebacker nicely with his 6-foot, 200-pound frame. He recovered a fumble, recorded one sack, and made nine tackles, two for losses, in his first career game at the position.
The offense, with junior Maurice Blake providing big-play talent at wide receiver, figures to improve.
“We weren’t satisfied, but it’s something we can build on,” McHugh said.
Lincoln-Sudbury gets off to passable start
With last year’s star running back. Chris Giorgio , lost to graduation, Lincoln-Sudbury Regional may not have the inside running presence that allowed the Warriors to do so much damage on the ground last year.
However, quarterback Ben Colello was steady in his first career start last Friday, when the former track and field star threw for 101 yards and two touchdowns while picking up 77 yards on the ground as Lincoln-Sudbury defeated Somerset Berkley, 21-12.
Jason Mastrodonato can be reached at email@example.com.