READING — As he lay on the ground in obvious pain, about to be taken off the field in a cart, Haverhill star Samie Al-Ziab signaled for fellow captain Phil Panici to come to his side for one message.
Block this kick!
“I saw one of my best friends in the whole world go down with an injury and I knew I just had to make a play,” said Panici. “I had a new fire in my eyes. I knew something had to happen.”
With Haverhill trailing by six points and just three minutes left in the game, Panici burst through the line and blocked the punt. The ball then bounced to Albert Maldonado, who picked it up and ran it 32 yards in for the touchdown.
Quad-captain Patrick Yale then booted through the extra point, and Haverhill clinched a 14-13 comeback victory over Reading in the Division 2 North semifinals.
The victory sends the Hillies to the Division 2 North finals, for a rematch against the team that dealt them their last loss, North Andover. The game is Friday at North Andover at 7 p.m.
“This was a miracle,” said Maldonado. “To see this team, my family, so happy is just incredible. We were nervous when we were down, but we looked at each other and said, ‘Great teams don’t lose big games like this’ and we made it happen in the end.”
Haverhill appeared to be facing elimination, as Reading took a 13-0 lead late in the third quarter and had twice turned the Hillies away without points inside the Rocket 20-yard line.
But sophomore quarterback Broghean McGovern then turned in the biggest play so far in his varsity career, capping off a 78-yard drive with a 17-yard touchdown pass to 260-pound senior tight end Trevor Ferguson, for the first TD grab of his career.
“I thought Broghean was going to check down to one of the fast guys,” said Ferguson. “The defenders broke off of me and Broghean threw a perfect pass. I knew I had to catch it. I knew it could decide the game, I had my opportunity and I had to take it. It was the best feeling in the world.”
Following a defensive stand, Haverhill drove to the Reading 17, but was again turned away without points.
The Hilles then forced another three-and-out, but the clock had ticked down to just over three minutes left and dual-threat Al-Ziab had just been carted off the field with a leg injury.
As Reading set up to punt, Maldonado had a feeling.
“I wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the ball,” he said. “For some reason I asked another guy to switch positions with me for the kick. Then I see Phil ‘The Animal’ Panici block the punt. I picked it up and I knew I needed to score the touchdown for the team. I looked to my left and to my right and I didn’t see anyone. Then I just ran as fast as I could.”
Yale, a senior with a knack for the clutch, then kicked through the extra point to give the Hillies the lead.
The Rockets responded with a quick drive to the Haverhill 18-yard line. But with just 1:05 left, Hillie sophomore Aaron Brooks jumped in front of the receiver and picked off a pass to all but lock down the win.
“Brooksy’s pick was huge,” said Panici. “We always make fun of him that he doesn’t have great hands, but he made a terrific play to jump that route and make that interception.”
The Hillies then needed to run just three more plays to run out the clock and earn their trip to the North finals.
“It is just so awesome to earn another shot at North Andover,” said Panici. “It is great to be playing football in November that matters. North finals, here we come.”
Haverhill 14, Reading 13
Haverhill (7-2): 0 0 0 14 — 14
Reading (6-3): 0 7 6 0 — 13
Division 2 North Semifinals
R — Will Connery 60 run (Sean Naughton kick), 0:00
R — Connery 4 pass from Corey DiLoreto (kick blocked), 1:21
H— Trevor Ferguson 17 pass from Broghean McGovern (Patrick Yale kick), 9:54
H — Albert Maldonado 32 blocked punt return (Yale kick), 2:56
RUSHING: Haverhill (52-223) — Pedro Santiago 13-92, Samie Al-Ziab 16-59, Ian Kessel 16-42, Broghean McGovern 7-30; Reading (22-108) — Will Connery 2-60, D’Aundary Burcy 10-15, Corey DiLoreto 10-33
PASSING: Haverhill — McGovern 2-6-1, 29; Reading — DiLoreto 14-25-1, 177
RECEIVING: Haverhill — Trevor Ferguson 1-17, Santiago 1-12; Reading — Connery 4-70, Matt Pustizzi 1-40, Alec Bergeron 2-16, Sam Patterson 4-27, Joe Pappalardo 2-22, Burcy 1-2
David Willis is a sportswriter/videographer for The Eagle-Tribune. Reach him on twitter at @DWillisET