Senior running back Vasken Kebabjian ran for 251 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Watertown High football team at rival Belmont, 34-28, in the exciting Thanksgiving Day game on Nov. 24, 2016.
WHS coach John Cacace praised Kebabjian’s efforts in the historic matchup.
“He was unbelievable today,” Cacace said. “He’s been a great player for us all year and today was his opportunity to shine, and he got it done. I’m real proud of him and it was one of the best Thanksgiving Day efforts we’ve ever had.”
The Raiders (9-2) led the entire game, but had to survive a late comeback by the Marauders (4-7), who brought the game to within 3 points in the fourth quarter. A clutch field goal by junior Conor Kennelly, along with a timely interception made by senior Isaac Huff with less than two minutes to play secured the victory for the Raiders and Watertown fans.
Kebabjian started off the scoring two minutes into the game with an untouched 47-yard rush. Kennelly converted the extra point, putting the Raiders up 7-0 with 8:38 remaining in the first quarter.
While he was kept quiet in the air, Watertown senior quarterback Deon Smith did his part by extending the lead to 14-0 in the first quarter with a 27-yard touchdown run. Belmont quickly answered at the start of the second quarter. Marauder senior running back Ben Jones cut the lead in half with a 56-yard run to make it 14-7.
After a 21-yard pass from Smith to junior John Korte in the end zone was called incomplete to the disbelief of the raucous student section, the Raiders attempted a 41-yard field goal, which was drilled by Kennelly for a 17-7 lead.
They would not be done scoring in the second quarter, as Kebabjian broke loose for a 54-yard touchdown with 2:31 remaining. With the extra point, Watertown had a 24-7 lead that it would take into halftime.
But Belmont answered back swiftly. On the first play of the second half, Jones took the ball 71 yards for a Belmont touchdown. The Raiders managed to block the extra point, limiting the score to 24-13.
After a Watertown three-and-out, the Marauders once again marched down the field and capped off the drive with another Jones touchdown, this time for 5 yards. With the extra points, the Raiders lead was whittled down to 24-20.
Yet again Kebabjian gave the Raiders some breathing room with a 53-yard sprint down the middle of the field for a touchdown and 6 points. Kennelly had no trouble with the point after and the Raiders regained their two-score lead (31-20) with 1:04 remaining in the third quarter.
Belmont refused to go away. Driving in the fourth quarter, the hosts converted two huge fourth downs, including a fourth and goal from the 1-yard line for a touchdown by Jones. The senior also successfully ran in the 2-point conversion, bringing the score to 31-28 with 7:19 remaining in the game. Jones would finish with three touchdowns and 208 yards.
Cacace explained how the team dealt with Belmont’s flurry of scoring in the second half.
“[We] just kept playing,” he said. “You need to respond to adversity to life and in football. [Belmont] took the momentum there in the second half, and we just stayed calm with some great leadership and great composure and went right at them.”
The Raiders did exactly this. Knowing Belmont would have plenty of time to come back and score, Watertown needed a quality drive and the Raiders delivered. Kebabjian had another huge carry all the way to the Marauders’ 7. After draining the clock for almost two minutes, the Raiders were forced to settle for a short field goal by Kennelly, hoping their defense could come up with a crucial stop. Watertown’s lead was up to 6 points (34-28) with 3:15 to go in the game.
Belmont drove the ball down to the Watertown 42. With 1:41 remaining, Cal Christofori attempted a pass over the middle but wound up throwing his second interception of the game, with a diving Huff coming up with the ball at the WHS 34.
Watertown ran the clock out, and when the final whistle sounded, the players and coaches ran onto the field to celebrate. This was the fifth Thanksgiving win in a row for Cacace, who spoke of the effort and dedication of the seniors after the game.
“I told them it was going to be a battle, and it was going to be hard, and it was, but for these seniors it means a ton,” he said. “They’ve worked so hard for us, I love them to death, and their leadership has been unbelievable.
“Their work ethic and the time they’ve put into this program to be role models and show everyone the way you need to be and how much work you need to put in for four years to earn this and be successful by the time you’re a senior. They’re as good as any class we’ve ever had.”
To make the day even sweeter for these seniors and the whole team, after the game Cacace informed the players that Melrose had beaten Wakefield just minutes earlier, giving Watertown, Melrose, and Wakefield, a three-way tie for the Middlesex League Freedom title at 4-1. Watertown last took the title in 2014.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting end to the season and careers of these seniors, with a win over a lifelong rival, a trip to the Div. 3 North finals, and a share of the league championship. Cacace affirmed this.
“Going out on the last game and winning this means everything,” he said. “These guys had a tremendous season… These guys earned it, and I’m proud of them for earning it.”
–Nov. 29, 2016–