WATERTOWN — An unfavorable start to the game as well as to open the second half ultimately doomed the Watertown Red and Black in a playoff loss to the Mohawk Valley Nighthawks on Saturday night.
Without their intrepid leader in head coach George Ashcraft on the sideline, the Red and Black tried to carry on, but self-inflicted mistakes proved too much to overcome.
Mohawk Valley cashed in on several crucial turnovers en route to outlasting Watertown in a 34-28 win in an Empire Football League semifinal on a rainy evening at the Alex T. Duffy Fairgrounds.
“We just hurt ourselves, we made our own mistakes, basically,” Red and Black veteran wide receiver Chris Furr said.
In all, the Red and Black committed four turnovers, with three of them leading to Nighthawks scores.
“It’s really tough to go out like that,” said Watertown quarterback Jared Hendricks, who threw an interception on the team’s very first play from scrimmage. “Especially with me being a military guy, I can’t guarantee that I’m always going to be around. So I wanted to do better in this game and not just for me, but for the players on this team. They deserved better tonight.”
For the first time in 30 years, the Red and Black were without Ashcraft, who was at home.
The longtime Watertown coach was hospitalized last weekend with an undisclosed medical condition and was released from the hospital earlier in the week.
“The atmosphere was a little different,” Hendricks said of Ashcraft’s absence. “It gave us something to play for out there. We came out flat and that hurt us. But the mood of the game was up.”
“I feel like that had a big part,” Furr said. “He hadn’t missed a game in over 30 years and I think we missed him on the sideline. I think his absence made it different.”
Quarterback Shawn Johnson threw for three touchdown passes and ran for another score, and Al Heath returned a kickoff for a touchdown to spark Mohawk Valley (6-5) against Watertown (7-4).
“This is a good win, because we had a lot of adversity on our side,” Johnson said. “But we fought through, we stay together and that’s the most important part of being a team.”
“Very disappointing, we came out flat and they came out ready to play,” Furr said. “They wanted it more than we did.”
After the interception to open the game led to a 2-yard scoring run by Johnson to cap a 10-play, 50-yard drive, the Red and Black pulled within 7-6 on the following possession on Keegan Queior’s 23-yard touchdown reception later in the first quarter.
On the next drive, Mohawk Valley took a 14-6 advantage as Tim Webber hauled in a 13-yard scoring pass from Johnson one minute into the second quarter.
Then late in the period and following an 11-yard Nighthawks’ punt, Watertown was in prime position to tie the score, but fumbled the ball away on the Mohawk Valley one-yard line with nine seconds left in the first half.
“I think the biggest part of the game was in the second quarter,” Watertown assistant coach Jerry Levine said. “We got ourselves back in the game and we were ready to go in and possibly tie it up from the one-yard line and we fumbled the ball on the center and quarterback exchange. That was a killer.”
Then, Heath returned the second half kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown and a 21-6 Mohawk Valley advantage.
“Huge,” Mohawk Valley coach Ken Maryon said of the play. “That’s why we have veterans here who have been busting their tails for 10 years. Every single one of them stepped up today.”
“Momentum wise, they ran that second-half kickoff back for a touchdown,” Levine said. “So you’re talking about a 14-point swing there in two plays.”
Following a Watertown punt, the Nighthawks drove 74 yards on nine plays, capped by a one-yard scoring catch by Webber for a 27-6 lead with 6:55 left in the third quarter.
The Red and Black responded with a 58-yard scoring march of their own, with Queior scoring on a 28-yard pass from Hendricks and, along with a Curtis Dukes conversion run, drew within 27-14 with 5:17 remaining in the period.
After recovering a fumble on the Mohawk Valley 14-yard line, Queior caught his third TD of the night on a 3-yard pass from Hendricks, and Watertown trailed 27-21 with 14:51 left in regulation.
Derrek Dalton then intercepted a Johnson pass, but Watertown couldn’t capitalize as it went three-and-out and again committed a costly turnover as it fumbled the ball away on a botched punt snap with 12:51 left.
“We just never seemed to get in a rhythm,” Levine said. “We had a little momentum offensively in the third quarter and got back in the game and we had that interception, but we didn’t capitalize on the momentum.”
Only two plays later, Jerome Brahham scored on a four-yard pass from Johnson for a 34-21 Mohawk Valley lead with 11:48 left.
“We did not cover kicks very well today,” Levine said. “But Mohawk Valley, you have to give them a lot of credit. We knew coming in they were a good team and they played well. Their big receiver (Jerome Brahham) had a monster game against us, he made big plays all the time and got behind us.”
Later, the Red and Black would cash in on a turnover as Elijah Coleman recovered a Mohawk Valley fumble in the end zone to draw within 34-28 with 1:56 left, but Watertown would not get the ball back.
The Nighthawks came away with the win on the road after they were beaten twice by the Red and Black in the regular season.
After starting the season 0-3, the Red and Black responded with a seven-game winning streak, including two wins via forfeits, to earn a home playoff game. A 14-7 win at Mohawk Valley on Aug. 10 sparked this run by Watertown, but Levine knew the Knighthawks were a dangerous team on both sides of the ball and proved this again on Saturday night.
“A tough loss, a very tough loss for us,” Levine added. “I think we could have played better.”
Third-seeded Mohawk Valley advances to next Saturday’s league title game at Tri-City, which defeated Plattsburgh, 35-21, in a semifinal on Saturday.