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No OT Needed : Gutsy Call Pays Off in Olympians’ Opening-Day Win

  • Oxbow running back Quinten Mahikoa stays on his feet while dragging through the WInooski defense during the Olympians' 15-14 win on Saturday in Bradford, Vt. Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>

    Oxbow running back Quinten Mahikoa stays on his feet while dragging through the WInooski defense during the Olympians' 15-14 win on Saturday in Bradford, Vt. Valley News - James M. Patterson
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  • Oxbow's Nathan Smith gets his punt away just before being tackled by Winooski's Kassian Prior. A penalty was called on Prior for roughing the kicker.<br/>

    Oxbow's Nathan Smith gets his punt away just before being tackled by Winooski's Kassian Prior. A penalty was called on Prior for roughing the kicker.
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  • Oxbow  coach Mark Palmieri fires up his team at halftime of Saturday's game against Winooski in Bradford, Vt.  The Olympians rallied  to pull off a 15-14 win with a 2-point conversion in the last two minutes of the game. Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Oxbow coach Mark Palmieri fires up his team at halftime of Saturday's game against Winooski in Bradford, Vt. The Olympians rallied to pull off a 15-14 win with a 2-point conversion in the last two minutes of the game. Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Oxbow running back Quinten Mahikoa stays on his feet while dragging through the WInooski defense during the Olympians' 15-14 win on Saturday in Bradford, Vt. Valley News - James M. Patterson<br/>
  • Oxbow's Nathan Smith gets his punt away just before being tackled by Winooski's Kassian Prior. A penalty was called on Prior for roughing the kicker.<br/>
  • Oxbow  coach Mark Palmieri fires up his team at halftime of Saturday's game against Winooski in Bradford, Vt.  The Olympians rallied  to pull off a 15-14 win with a 2-point conversion in the last two minutes of the game. Valley News - James M. Patterson

Bradford, Vt. — Oxbow High had just lost a fumble at the Winooski 2-yard line, keeping the Spartans ahead 14-7 entering the fourth quarter. Yet Olympians coach Mark Palmieri remained optimistic.

“We’re going to win this game,” he said quietly while marching down the sideline between quarters.

Thanks to the O’s guts — and their coach’s instincts — Palmieri was right.

Oxbow senior running back Quinten Mahikoa scored on a 17-yard scamper with 1 minute, 25 seconds left in regulation. Rather than settle for a Randy Snelling PAT attempt and a potential tie, Palmieri brought in a second tight end to block for Mahikoa, whose right-side plunge for the 2-point conversion made it 15-14 Olympians victory.

Snelling atoned for his earlier goal-line fumble on the next possession, when he recovered a fumbled snap by Winooski with 51 seconds left to clinch Oxbow’s third straight opening-day win and fifth win in a row over the Spartans.

“Most of the time, I’m going to go for the tie in that situation and maybe force overtime,” said Palmieri, whose team played in off-an-on rain. “But the kids wanted it bad and I knew we had to go for it. We’ve played (Winooski) a lot and (Spartans coach Josh Safran) knew we were going to come right at them for the 2-point conversion. We have some tough kids who made it happen.”

The O’s brought in junior tight end Sean Tillotson to join starter Nate Smith on the play. Both helped pave the way for Mahikoa’s winning 2-point plunge.

“For the touchdown, I had to stiff-arm a guy and leap my way in,” Mahikoa said. “For the 2-point conversion, it was a clear path. Just great blocking on that play, and that whole drive, by the line.”

Despite nursing a bruised left knee and missing part of the game with leg cramps, Mahikoa led the team with 16 carries and his 69 rushing yards was second on the team. Fellow senior Ethan Johnson had 74 yards on just eight carries for the Olympians, who did not attempt a pass and were out-gained by Winooski, 240-211.

Mahikoa also scored Oxbow’s first touchdown, picking up a botched punt attempt and racing 32 yards to pay dirt as the O’s took a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.

Winooski fullback Andrew Decarreau led all ball carriers with 129 yards on 19 carries (6.8-yard average), while halfback Austin Mayo (16 carries, 52 yards) had the Spartans’ lone rushing touchdown and caught their only pass — a nifty reception in the front corner of the end zone on a fourth-down halfback option throw from Kyle Bigelow as Winooski tied the game in the second quarter.

Oxbow opened the scoring in the first quarter after Winooski’s punter bobbled a high snap in the rain and had no time to line it up. Snelling forced the fumble, and Mahikoa picked it up for a 32-yard score and Oxbow’s first points of the season. Snelling’s extra point made it 7-0 with eight seconds left in the quarter.

Winooski responded with a 75-yard scoring drive that took up nearly two-thirds of the second quarter.

In the second quarter, the Spartans called timeout on fourth-and-long near the 20 and executed a brilliant halfback option out of the break. Bigelow was nearly swallowed up rolling out to the right side before he found a falling-down Decarreau in the front-right corner. Thomas Elston’s extra point made it 7-7 with 4:26 left in the half.

A’vry Ready had a 12-yard punt return to give Winooski a short field on its first drive of the second half, a seven-play, 54-yard march featuring a 15-yard run on third-and-14 by Bigelow. That put the Spartans in the O’s red zone before Mayo stuffed it in from 4 yards out to make it 14-7.

Oxbow appeared to receive the spark it needed on the ensuing kickoff as senior Chris Wells raced 66 yards down the left sideline to the 7. It was called back for a block in the back, pushing the O’s all the way back to their own 23.

“The game is hard enough without having those kinds of mental mistakes,” said Palmieri, whose team was flagged seven times. “It was opening day, but we still had too many penalties.”

Oxbow seemed to find a new gear despite the setback, getting a run of 14 yards from Johnson and 15- and 17-yard gains from Nick Grant. The latter gave Oxbow a first-and-10 at the Winooski 13, but the O’s wouldn’t get another first down or score. It was third-and-1 at the 4 when Snelling was stripped on his way into the end zone, with Spartans lineman Jared Burlingame falling on the loose ball .

Winooski appeared well on its way to making the Olympians pay for the miscue, chewing up clock and scratching its way to the Oxbow 32 before an offensive holding penalty.

The Spartans fumbled their next two snaps, their sixth and seventh fumbles of the day. None were lost until the seventh as Snelling pounced on it to set up Oxbow’s game-winning drive.

Johnson cut to the outside for 24 on a second-and-9 and Snelling gained seven on a third-and-1 to set up Mahikoa’s 17-yard rumble. Slanting away from defenders, he shook off a number of tackles inside the 10, taken down only as he crossed the goal line to make it 14-13.

Asked if they were surprised coach Palmieri elected to go for two, Oxbow’s Dylan Hatin, Mahikoa and Snelling answered an immediate and simultaneous, “No.”

“He has a lot of faith in us and we have a lot of faith in him,” said Hatin, a 6-foot-3, 349-pound lineman. “We have a lot of faith in each other. That’s why I think we’re going to be really good this year.”

Extra Points: Oxbow junior quarterback Hunter Page made few mistakes in his first start under center. ... Outgoing Olympians athletic director Rich Thornton was on hand. He originally resigned as of Aug. 1, but he has agreed to stay with the school until it’s able to hire a replacement. “It will probably be until the end of September,” said Thornton, who has been hired as an assistant boys basketball coach at private Buckingham, Browne & Nichols in Cambridge, Mass. ... Grant, a sophomore, ran for 34 yards on just four carries (8.5 ypc) and shook off a handful of tackles during a pair of long runs before leaving in the fourth quarter with an injury. ... Public address announcer Bill MacDonald, of Waits River, Vt., called the game with a portable microphone while pacing along the Oxbow sideline. ... The school unveiled a new mascot costume, a black ox with big eyes and a pierced nose. Oxbow student Jami Tuttle wore the suit yesterday.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.