The Vineyard's winning season ended on Saturday afternoon with a narrow 25-20 loss to Nantucket. The annual Island Cup match at Nantucket was a decisive game for the Vineyard, the last hurdle the team needed to clear in order to advance into post-season play.
In the first half, when winds gusted close to 30 knots, both teams managed one touchdown. Nantucket's extra point gave them a 7-6 lead at halftime. The wind factor was most apparent after the Vineyard's touchdown when Ben
Gunn's extra point kick sailed between the uprights and was rebuffed by the wind, falling back into the end zone. Incredibly, the kick was short.
"It was pretty windy. That changed our game plan a little," said Gunn, starting wide receiver. "We pass a lot and we could only pass with the wind. Eric [McCarthy] had a tough time getting the ball over Nantucket heads and working with the wind. I don't think people realize how the conditions affected us."
The wind was not the only factor pitted against McCarthy's passing game. Nantucket's defensive backfield consistently shut down the Vineyard air attack that had been its bread and butter all season.
"It seemed like they had 13 guys out there," Gunn said of the Nantucket defense. "I think they did a good job scouting and realizing where the ball was going. They knew us really well. They did a good job."
"They basically rushed three and had eight playing pass coverage," said Vineyard coach Don Herman. "We threw everything we could possibly come up with."
Both teams came out pumped after halftime and the tempo of the game quickened, with a total of 32 points scored in the second half. The half was highlighted by big pass plays and disciplined scoring drives by both offenses.
At the start of the emotionally charged fourth quarter, the Vineyard offense was able to cut the 13-point Nantucket lead with a 47-yard drive capped by a Ben Gunn touchdown. With 7:53 left on the clock the Vineyard team realized the opportunity they had, trailing by only seven points.
"It felt like our fans wanted it just as much as we did. That brings a great amount of confidence," said Gunn. "We feed off the fans just as much as they feed off us on a good drive."
Nantucket was also confident and had a lot more fans at the game. They pushed their way upfield after the kickoff and distanced themselves further from the Vineyard with a 47-yard touchdown pass from Matt Erisman to Ryan Sosebee.
With 4:14 left, Nantucket led 25-12.
The Vineyard started their next drive at midfield. A 34-yard completion from McCarthy to Gunn put the Vineyard in scoring position. After a five-yard penalty, they came back with a 15-yard completion to Nicholi Sullo, an eight-yard run by McCarthy and a goal-line touchdown by J.D. Wild. A roughing the kicker penalty on the first extra point attempt gave the Vineyard a second opportunity, and McCarthy capitalized with a two-point conversion.
With 3:11 remaining, the score was 25-20. It was clear that this was still either team's game to win.
"Even though we were down, we had a chance," said Coach Herman. "Once we got that two-point conversion, there wasn't any doubt we could pull it off."
With a comeback victory in reach, the Vineyard defense took the field with one purpose - getting the ball back into McCarthy's hands. The Vineyard defense succeeded while Nantucket took less than a minute off the game clock. They stopped up Nantucket's fullback, Aaron Riley, on a fourth-and-two rush attempt.
The Nantucket defense came out with just as much determination and shut down the Vineyard in a quick four downs, ending with an interception by Nantucket's Richie Hardy on their 20-yard line.
With 1:07 remaining, the Vineyard offense was back out on Nantucket's 40 yard line. McCarthy connected with Gunn on an eight-yard out pattern. Then McCarthy held the ball for two yards to secure the first down.
With first and 10 from the Nantucket 28 and 54 seconds on the clock, a false start by the Vineyard set them back five yards. Nothing could be heard over the Nantucket crowd chanting, "De-fense" and pounding their feet on the stands.
"Emotionally, it was almost overwhelming," said Gunn.
McCarthy completed a 13-yard pass to Gunn, setting the Vineyard just 20 yards from the end zone.
Three passing plays followed - each time the crowd held its breath, each time the Nantucket defense glued itself to the receivers. Three times, the Vineyard was unable to connect as the final seconds of the game ticked away.
"It was like a dream it went by so fast," said Gunn. "The quarters go by so quick. You wish you could just go back."
"When you have opportunities, you have to take advantage of them," Coach Herman said minutes after the game, standing in the middle of the field and looking a bit shell-shocked. "We had two opportunities with three minutes left. We couldn't put it away."
"I'm a little disappointed that we did not," he said later. "Eric didn't get sacked the whole game. The protection was there. Ben Gunn had the ball in his hands on the one-yard line. It got knocked out on his way down.
"They made more big plays than we did. That was the bottom line. They made more than we did. They won the game."
"Everyone's upset," Ben Gunn said, "but we've got to be proud. We had a really good season."