READING - The idea of a close game had been foreign to Melrose and Reading all season.
Disposing of opponents with ease throughout their seasons, these exercises in offensive supremacy came to a predictable screeching halt last night at Birch Meadow.
The Rockets prevailed, 14-7, but not before a smorgasbord of wild turnovers and gutsy drives. Such was the prescription for a battle of undefeated heavyweights. Reading (10-0, 7-0) secured at least a share of the Middlesex League title and a berth in the MIAA playoffs, its first since 2000.
"We just shut down the best player in the league [Melrose quarterback Jack Pizzotti] and the best staff in the league," said Reading coach John Fiore, whose team will play at Stoneham (1-8, 0-6) on Thanksgiving, and then against Bay State Herget winner Walpole in the Division 2 playoffs. "We're just thrilled and can't say enough about the effort our kids put in. Melrose is a great team. They were as advertised."
Reading carried a 14-0 lead deep into the fourth quarter, but had trouble sending Melrose (8-1, 6-1) home. The Red Raiders wouldn't go down without a fight, following Pizzotti's lead down the field with less than two minutes to go. Melrose tricaptain Tim Morris finished the job on a 15-yard rush up the middle with 1:46 to play.
After a three-and-out from Reading, Melrose had one last try with 23 seconds to go, but Reading's Philmore Phillip grabbed his third interception of the contest with nine seconds to go to clinch the victory.
"He was a real hero there on D," Fiore said.
The tandem of tailback Ryan Pollock (two touchdowns) and quarterback Stanley Andre secured the points and killed the clock for the Rockets. After a fumble recovery by Reading's Larry Gilligan on his team's first punt of the contest, Reading needed just 17 yards and four plays before Pollock barged in for a touchdown on a second effort. His extra point made it 7-0 with 6:33 to play in the first quarter.
Reading recovered its short kick at the start of the second half, as the Rockets hoped to prevent a return by Pizzotti. Pollock finished off the drive. breaking tackles and diving multiple yards for the two-touchdown lead.
Reading received an emotional boost before the game when Tino Perrina suited up. One of EMass's leading scorers and a constant threat all year, the tailback was questionable after he tore a tendon in a finger on his left hand.
At free safety, Perrina was a big factor on defense, singlehandedly preventing a Pizzotti touchdown run in the second quarter when he pushed the quarterback out of bounds at Reading's 10. The last-gasp effort by Perrina proved decisive, as a goal-line stand by the Rockets on the same drive kept Pizzotti out of the end zone on fourth and inches with 2:51 left in the half.
"We weren't surprised to see Tino," Fiore said. "He got some great news from the doctor. They were able to cast [his hand] and he was able to play. We'll see - we'll take that one day by day."