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Merrimack Valley football team excels on both sides of ball in 26-7 victory

Kingswood threatened to pull itself back into the game three times in the second half. But every time the Knights neared the goal line, the Merrimack Valley defense slammed the door.

“We just get furious enough and fight through,” Pride linebacker and senior captain Buddy Hughes said. “That’s what we have to do.”

That second-half defensive ferocity complemented MV’s first-half offensive fireworks, and the end result was a 26-7 win for the Pride (3-1).

“It’s nice to be able to do both,” Merrimack Valley Coach David Jackson said.

The Pride’s no-huddle, spread-option offense scored all of its points and gained 316 of its 425 total yards in the first half. Quarterback Ivan Niyamugabo was nearly flawless in those opening 24 minutes, completing his first five passes and 10 of his first 11 before finishing the half 10-for-13 for 287 yards and three touchdowns.

“We came out strong and just had things clicking,” said Niyamugabo, who finished the game 14-for-24 for 340 yards. “We had some trouble in the second half, but it was just little things that we can fix.”

Not much needed fixing in the first half. Kingswood (1-3) did come up with a goal-line stand of its own on the Pride’s first drive, but the MV defense kept the Knights pinned in their own end, and Niyamugabo found a wide open Cole Martin (three catches, 140 yards, two touchdowns) for a 31-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the Pride’s next possession for a 6-0 lead with 5:36 left in the first quarter.

An interception from Martin ended the Knights’ ensuing drive, and Niyamugabo put the Pride up 14-0 when he hit Tucker Burt (three catches, 55 yards) with a 21-yard scoring pass and ran in the two-point conversion himself with 10:58 remaining in the second quarter. That advantage ballooned to 20-0 less than three minutes later when Niyamugabo (12 carries, 61 yards) rushed in from 2 yards out.

Kingswood answered with a 13-play, 70-yard drive that chewed up 5:37 of the second quarter and ended with a 1-yard touchdown run from John Lemay to make it 20-7 with 2:40 left in the half. But it took less than a minute for MV to steal back the momentum as Martin outfought a taller defender and hauled in a 68-yard touchdown pass from Niyamugabo and put the Pride on top, 26-7.

“I just went up and got it,” Martin said. “I wasn’t really thinking about anything, it’s like I’m in a different zone. Me and Ivan have a certain connection out there.”

But when the Pride’s offensive connections stopped clicking in the second half, the defense came to the rescue. The first goal-line stand came on Kingswood’s first possession of the second half when Hughes (four tackles) forced a fumble on the MV 4-yard line and Jacob Davidson recovered it.

The Knights moved the ball back to the MV 10 on their next drive, but Burt and Tristan McNeel (team-high 12 tackles) each came up with a tackle for a loss, Kingswood quarterback Dan Eldridge (7-for-24, 132 yards, four interceptions) threw two incompletions, and the Pride had its second stand.

“We just kept pushing and kept fighting,” said defensive lineman Taylor Blanchette, who finished with five tackles, including two for a loss. “(Getting the first stop) definitely helps with motivation for the next one.”

An interception from Devon McGrath ended the Knights’ next drive, but Kingswood’s Thomas McCullough came up with a fumble recovery two plays later, and then came down with a 51-yard reception to push his team to the MV 9. The Knights ran it four times from there, and four times the Pride came up with stops, the final one from McNeel, Davidson and Steve Holmes.

Not only was the win a nice rebound from last week’s 48-14 loss at Portsmouth, but MV now has one more win this season than it did in the last three years combined.

“Honestly, it’s a great feeling,” Hughes said. “After only winning two games in the past three years, I’m glad we can finally win some.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)

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