SEYMOUR — A defense that has had a knack for coming up with big stops in late-game situations did it in the biggest spot yet.
With Woodland holding a 22-19 lead and Seymour driving at the Hawks’ 25-yard line inside the final minute, linebacker Chris Slavin forced a fumble recovered by Chris McDonald that allowed Woodland to pull out its fifth straight victory over the Wildcats.
“I just saw Slavin hit the guy so hard,” McDonald said. “I just found the ball on the ground and picked it up.”
Woodland earned the No. 4 seed with the victory and a home game versus Morgan Tuesday in the Class S playoffs. The Hawks defeated Morgan 47-21.
For most of last Friday morning, though, it looked like Seymour (6-5) was going to force the Hawks into a playoff road game.
The Wildcats scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second quarter — a 6-yard run by Joey Salemme and a pair of 38-yard touchdown passes by Salemme to Julian Falcioni and Nick D’Agostino — to take a 19-6 lead into halftime.
Seymour’s defense held Woodland to just 104 first-half yards, sacked Tanner Kingsley four times and turned a Sean McAllen fumble into a touchdown. Salemme, by his legs and right arm, accounted for all but a dozen of the Wildcats’ 223 first-half yards.
None of it sat well with Woodland coach Tim Shea and his staff.
“We straight-up challenged them,” said Shea, who has led the Hawks to the playoffs in three of the last four years. “We called out the team and laid out the challenge: ‘Is this how you want to go out?’ That’s the polite version. I wanted to see what they had inside them, and they showed it in the second half.”
The teams traded stops to start the third quarter, and Woodland faced a third-and-8 at its own 27 with 6 minutes left in the period. Kingsley, just 5-of-14 passing to that point, scrambled and looked over the middle for McAllen, who picked up 35 yards to the Seymour 38.
“After that play, we gained a lot of confidence,” Kingsley said.
Two plays later, Kingsley heaved a pass into the front left corner of the end zone for Mike Kenney, who out-battled D’Agostino for a 31-yard touchdown. Kenney also caught the two-point conversion pass in the same spot to make it a 19-14 game with 5:10 left in the third.
Seymour mounted a drive on the next series with Salemme running the Wildcat offense, but on a third-and-5 at the Hawks’ 15, McDonald stripped Salemme and Levi Fancher recovered to end the threat.
Fancher, McDonald and Slavin were involved in all three of the Hawks’ takeaways. They combined for 30 tackles, six tackles for loss and 3 ½ sacks, and Fancher became the school’s all-time leading tackler and sacker.
“That wasn’t ever the goal,” Fancher said of his defense forcing three turnovers. “We just wanted to shut them down. We just refused to lose.”
On the ensuing drive, Jack Osiecki picked off Kingsley at the Seymour 5-yard line but the Hawks succeeded in reversing field position. Salemme suffered a leg injury on the Wildcats’ next offensive play and left the game after running for 149 yards — 139 yards shy of breaking Edwin Esson’s single-season school record.
“We had a goal set all week of keeping Salemme under the record he was trying to break,” Slavin said. “We came out ready to go.”
Woodland forced a punt and mounted a nine-play, 55-yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown. Taylor Tucciarone’s 20-yard shoestring reception on third-and-long kept the drive alive, Coby Vaccarelli’s 11-yard surge gave the Hawks a first-and-goal at the 2 and Kingsley’s 1-yard sneak put Woodland back in front. McAllen added the two-point conversion run.
“There was nothing I wanted to do more than to lead my team to victory today,” said Kingsley, who finished with 166 yards passing. “I left everything I had on the field today. This was a team effort today.”