Playing at home under the lights for the first time since 2006, football had its chances Friday to deliver a stunning upset. Instead, despite a breakout performance by sophomore quarterback Christian Cox, the Tigers fell just short in a respectable 28-25 loss.
A victory was never the most likely outcome. The Tigers, 4-6, had no answer all night for Needham’s Panepinto brothers—junior Nico and senior Mike—who combined to rack up over 300 yards of total offense and three of the Rockets’ four touchdowns. Equally evident was that Needham, which improved to 7-3 with the win, was on paper the superior squad.
And still the Tigers came three points away from pulling out a shocking comeback win at Dickinson Stadium.
Down 28-19 with 1:19 to play, Cox found senior Ryan Quinn for a 14-yard score, the last of his three passing TDs, to pull the Tigers within five after a missed extra point. Yet junior Jack Boucher’s subsequent onside kick rolled out of bounds, allowing Needham to run out the clock.
Though the Tigers posted their highest point total of the season in this game, they were not lacking in additional opportunities to pull ahead.
Twice the Tigers drove into the red zone in the second half and came away with no points. Trailing 21-13 midway through the third quarter, the Tigers wasted their first opportunity on Cox’s lone error of the evening, an ill-advised heave to the endzone picked off by Needham senior Rob Pisano. Their second chance to close the gap came with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, with the Tigers behind by the same margin. This time, Cox was stuffed on fourth-and-one at the goal-line by a resolute Rockets’ defensive unit.
“I honestly thought we scored on the one we didn’t get at the one-foot line, but that’s just the way the game goes,” Capodilupo said.
The Tigers did find paydirt on their next possession, which was jumpstarted by sophomore Garrett McMaster’s blocked punt late in the fourth quarter. Cox found Boucher for 17 yards over the middle to bring the Tigers to 21-19, but Cox fired the game-tying two-point conversion attempt out of bounds, preserving Needham’s lead.
From there it was the Mike Panepinto show. After the Rockets ran back the kickoff to near midfield, Panepinto needed only two carries to traverse 48 yards for the eventual game-winning score, silencing the crowd and killing the Tigers’ momentum.
“Their running back was very difficult, very tough to stop,” Capodilupo said. “He was the difference in the game—he bailed them out several times.”
Facing a bigger Needham defensive front, Tigers coach Peter Capodilupo elected to start Cox, who entered the season as the third-string signal-caller, and put his regular starting QB, Boucher, as their main wide receiver. The strategy, devised so that the Tigers could have the quicker Cox scramble out of the pocket, allowed Cox to deliver what may have been his best performance all year.
“I thought we gave pretty good protection for Christian, who threw the ball well,” Capodilupo said after the game. “We worked on it all week and we thought we could throw the ball against this defense. Jack Boucher as a wideout gave us an extra weapon.”
Trailing 7-0 early in the first quarter after a 27-yard touchdown catch by Needham junior Mike Elcock, the Tigers caught a break after Rockets junior quarterback Ryan Charter fumbled a handoff, recovered by senior Mike Sullivan at midfield. From there, Cox engineered a seven-play, 50-yard scoring drive, punctuated by Boucher’s leaping 18-yard touchdown grab on fourth-and-9 in the right corner of the endzone to knot the score at 7-7. Boucher’s spectacular catch with 3:17 left in the period woke up the packed Newton North crowd, which wore all-black in honor of the Tigers’ first night contest in six years.
After both teams next traded possessions, the Tigers were forced to punt to Nico Panepinto early in the second quarter, a mistake they would not repeat the rest of the evening. Panepinto fielded the punt at his 8-yard line, broke three tackles and flew down the left sideline 92 yards for the score. Fortunately for the Tigers an illegal block in the back keyed Panepinto’s run, negating the touchdown and returning the ball back to the Needham 8. The Rockets’ drive sputtered thereafter, and an 11-yard shanked punt set the Tigers up at the Needham 27-yard line. Two plays later, Cox found senior Ryan Quinn on a 22-yard post route to give the Tigers their only lead of the game. Boucher sliced the extra point, keeping the score at 13-7 with 7:13 left in the half.
But the Rockets responded. On the ensuing possession, Nico Panepinto carried Needham down to the Tigers’ 15, where on third down Charter found sophomore Dylan Murphy wide open for his second passing TD with 58 seconds left in the half. The extra point gave Needham a 14-13 lead at the break, an advantage they would never relinquish. Nico Panepinto went on to open the scoring in the second half with a 48-yard catch-and-run to provide momentary insurance.
“I was very proud of the kids and how hard they worked in this game,” Capodilupo said. “Unfortunately we just fell a little short. If we play this way we’ll be okay—a lot of our young kids played well.”