By Conor Walsh Correspondent
Gloucester Daily Times
---- — HAMILTON – The game plan for the Manchester Essex football team for Saturday’s conference-opener was simple: stop, or at least contain, Trevor Lyons.
As the Hornets found out Saturday, that’s no easy task.
The reigning Division 3A Player of the Year and senior quarterback for Hamilton-Wenham shredded the Manchester Essex defense from the opening kickoff, piling up 202 total yards and five touchdowns to pace a 43-13 blowout win for the Generals.
“You’ve got to play a mistake-free game against those guys,” Manchester Essex coach Mike Athanas said. “We did some good things, but it’s just a matter of not being able to keep up with it and a couple key mistakes that turned the game around.
“They’re going to score. That kid’s a dynamic player and he makes plays. You just try to contain him.”
That containment plan paid immediate dividends for the Hornets. In an attempt to keep the ball out of Lyons’ hands on the opening kickoff, Manchester Essex opted for a low squib kick.
Cory Burnham’s kick clanged off a member of the Generals’ frontline and the Hornets recovered, and five plays later, Burnham hit Brian McAuliff for a 29-yard touchdown strike to put the Hornets up 7-0 just three minutes into the game.
That was about all the luck the Hornets would get in their attempts to stifle Lyons. The star signal-caller found the end zone on each of the Generals’ first five possessions, dancing through holes and breaking tackles to pile up 157 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.
Lyons, who’s among the North Shore’s leaders in passing yards on the year, only dropped back six times. The Generals (4-2) were content keeping the ball on the ground.
And by the time Generals’ coach Andrew Morency pulled his offensive starters at the start of the fourth quarter, it was clear that that strategy worked just fine.
The Generals plowed through a Hornets defense depleted by injuries and piled up nearly 300 rushing yards.
“We’re missing so many guys here,” Athanas said, alluding to the slew of injured players on the Hornets’ sideline Saturday. “We’ve got 12, 13 guys playing, and it’s tough for them, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You’ve got to be able to finish games. We have to work on that in practice and try to get in better shape.”
As Manchester’s defense wore down, its offense lost its rhythm. After finishing two of the first three possessions with Burnham touchdown passes, the Hornets were unable to find the end zone for the game’s final 26:50.
Two of those failed possessions stood out in Hornets’ loss. At the end of the first half, Athanas gambled on fourth down at their own 44-yard line.
That gamble failed, as a botched play ended in Burnham being swallowed up by the Generals’ defense, which played fast and physical throughout the game.
It took Lyons just four plays to find the end zone again, the score giving the Generals a 30-13 halftime lead.
“If we could have stopped them there, it wouldn’t have been that bad,” Athanas said. “It’s fourth down and it’s just poor execution on our part. We didn’t make the play. Just a mental breakdown, but we can’t afford those.”
Then, coming out of the half, things only got worse when a sustained drive was cut short one yard short of the end zone by a Hornets’ fumble. After the Generals’ recovered, Hamilton-Wenham marched 99 yards on seven plays to effectively stifle any comeback hopes on the Hornets’ sideline.
“It’s 30-13 at the half, we drive down to the one-yard line and fumble,” Athanas said. “We score there, it’s 30-20, 30-21. Still a game. It’s just us not executing, not having that killer instinct.”
With the loss, the Hornets (1-6) have dug themselves a hole in Tier 4 of the NEC/CAL, while the defending conference champion Generals regain their spot atop the division.
And for a team that had hoped the clean offered by conference play might help right the ship, the first of their five conference games instead bore striking similarities to the Hornets’ early-season struggles.