Thursday’s Thanksgiving game between Toll Gate and Pilgrim further intensified an already-intense rivalry.
Down seven and inside the Toll Gate 10-yard line with just seconds remaining, Pilgrim quarterback James Baldwin threw right looking to tie the game, but Toll Gate’s Michael Negri stepped in front of the pass for an interception. It looked as though Negri ran it back for a touchdown, but the referee ruled that he stepped out at the Pilgrim 20, securing a one-score victory for the Titans, 39-32, while giving his team its second straight Turkey Day win over the Pats.
Tempers reached a boiling point after the final buzzer, as a scrum ensued between the two teams in the middle of the field, providing an unfortunate ending to a tremendous football game.
Nonetheless, once cooler heads prevailed, Toll Gate was able to celebrate its victory, which was sparked by five rushing touchdowns from senior quarterback Anthony Vann, scoring three in the first half and two in the second half. Vann’s performance from last year’s Thanksgiving game was going to be tough to top after scoring four touchdowns as a junior, but he found a way to upstage that showing with five scores in his high school finale.
“Jack Paliotte, after watching film on Pilgrim, he came up with a huge offensive play scheme for this game,” Toll Gate head coach Jim Stringfellow said. “At practice, he pulled the coaches aside and said that Vann would rush for over 200 yards on Thursday, and he ran for 250.”
“I feel pretty good right now,” Vann said after his performance. “We came in and had a game plan, reading the D ends and stuff like that, and it was wide open just like my coach said. I just read it and was able to have some good gains and some good runs.”
Pilgrim battled back after Toll Gate raced out to an 18-point lead by halftime.
The Titans took the opening kickoff and marched down the field, capping the drive that took less than three minutes with a 4-yard touchdown run from Vann to give the Titans an early 6-0 lead.
Pilgrim answered right back on a 15-yard strike from Baldwin to Steven Rosa to tie the game at 6 just minutes later.
However, the rest of the half would belong to Toll Gate.
Vann scored his second touchdown on a 7-yard rush with 1:21 to go in the first quarter. And, the Titans kept that momentum going when they recovered a botched snap by Pilgrim at the Pats’ 37-yard line. A couple plays later, Toll Gate turned that miscue into points when Kenny Morel scored on a 31-yard run, pushing the Toll Gate lead to 18-6.
Vann capped Toll Gate’s strong half with a 3-yard rush to pay dirt with 1:13 left before halftime to give the Titans a 24-6 edge at the break.
Pilgrim began its comeback effort with a 30-yard touchdown pass from Baldwin to Jaron Petrozzi just over three minutes into the third quarter to trim Pilgrim’s deficit to 24-12.
Just north of a minute later, Vann ran past everyone for an 84-yard touchdown to give the Titans a 31-12 lead.
But, the Pats continued to play hard. Their offense marched right back down the field, with the drive ending with a 1-yard touchdown run from Simon Davis to minimize Toll Gate’s lead to 31-18 at the end of three quarters.
After strong defensive play from both teams for the majority of the fourth quarter, Pilgrim was able to make it a one-score game with 3:55 remaining, as Baldwin connected with Petrozzi again for a 3-yard touchdown. Baldwin then rushed in the 2-point conversion to make it 31-26.
Vann came up big once again for his fifth touchdown of the game, this time from 34 yards out, to give Toll Gate a much-needed score.
But, the Pats responded once again, with Baldwin finding Petrozzi in the end zone for the third time in the half, this time covering 15 yards, to trim the Pilgrim deficit to 39-32.
With 55 seconds remaining, Pilgrim attempted an onside kick and recovered at midfield. Baldwin then led his team deep into Toll Gate territory with just seconds remaining, before Negri intercepted a pass to seal the win for the Titans.
Baldwin played outstanding in his final game for Pilgrim, tossing for 231 yards and four touchdowns. Petrozzi, a junior wideout, was equally impressive, hauling in six catches for 108 yards and three touchdowns.
“Because we got down early, we had to hop on his back,” Pilgrim head coach Rob Pacifico said of Baldwin. “I told him after the game that there was no one in the state I’d rather give the ball to.”
However, in the end, Pilgrim’s inspiring comeback bid fell a couple of yards short.
“They just kept fighting,” Pacifico said of his team. “They did that for us all year. The difference in the game was Toll Gate’s offensive line. They just beat us up.”
“The kids and coaches prepared and they knew this game was going to be huge,” Stringfellow said. “Regardless of the record, anyone can win on Thanksgiving. Pilgrim battled back and played a great game.”