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STURBRIDGE — Ask any expert what the key element of a football game is and they will probably answer, turnovers. On Friday night, turnovers were clearly the difference in Groton-Dunstable’s 34-7 victory over Tantasqua. On a night when Tantasqua owned a 284-225 edge in total yards, the Warriors committed all five turnovers in the contest as it suffered its fifth consecutive defeat of the season.

The Crusaders, who improved to 3-2 with the win got two interceptions each by Riley Baxter and Shane Penney, and a fumble recovery by Jim DiCesare. The defense was able to come up with the big play when needed.

The score doesn’t indicate the tone of the game as Tantasqua hung tough after spotting the Crusaders an early 14-0 lead. The Warriors closed to within 14-7 and continued to threaten, but never found the end zone again, before the Crusaders sealed the deal with three touchdowns in the final 4:10 of the game.

“Give the Tantasqua kids a lot of credit, they fought hard tonight,” said Groton-Dunstable head coach Derek Asadoorian. “They mixed up their offensive plays and moved the ball, but our defense bent but didn’t break. Riley Baxter’s punt return was big and our defense came up with some big turnovers. Matt Manning made a great season debut for us, Shane Penney was outstanding on both sides of the ball and Ryan Vultaggio came up big at the end.”

Things started on a high note for the Crusaders when Baxter outhustled the Tantasqua kickoff receiving team and pounced on the opening kickoff of the game, to set the Groton-Dunstable offense up at the Tantasqua 25-yard line. Seven plays later, Penney sliced into the end zone from four yards out on fourth-and-one for a quick 6-0 lead.

On the ensuing possession, the Warriors picked up a pair of first downs, but a key stop by Manning and DiCesare on second down, dropping quarterback Alex Lucas for a four-yard loss, forced a punt. Baxter fielded the punt and broke loose, not stopping his 65-yard journey until he was in the end zone. Penney added the conversion rush to make it 14-0 with 57 seconds left in the first quarter.

Tantasqua bounced right back to climb back into the game. Keyed by a 61-yard completion from Lucas to Joseph Sciaraffa, the Warriors drove 77 yards in six plays, capped by Lucas’ 1-yard sneak to get on the board. Jon Beaudry added the conversion kick to make it 14-7.

The Crusaders struggled to move the ball over the remainder of the second quarter, but Groton-Dunstable’s defense and special teams came up big on the next three Tantasqua possessions to keep the seven-point lead intact. Penney blocked a punt, before Baxter came up with interceptions the next two times the Warriors had the ball and the Crusaders took the 14-7 lead to intermission.

Groton-Dunstable had the first shot offensively in the second half, but Tantasqua forced a punt after a three-and-out. The Warriors picked up a pair of first downs on a pass completion from Lucas to Timothy Santilli, and a 12-yard run by Lucas, but the Warriors coughed up the ball and DiCesare pounced on it to blunt the threat.

After another three-and-out by the Crusaders’ offense, the Warriors marched down the field. A 46-yard hook-up from Lucas to Shawn McCleary was good for a first down at the Groton-Dunstable 14-yard line. The Groton-Dunstable defense stiffened, getting a strong play from Penney and James Gresock on first down, a solid stop by Brad Ursprung on second down, and an incompletion on third down, setting up a field goal attempt, which was blocked six plays into the fourth quarter.

Groton-Dunstable fumbled on its next possession, but Penney immediately got the ball back with an interception. With 6:10 remaining in the game, the Crusaders were clinging to the lead, despite being outgained 241 to 89 to that point.

But the momentum quickly turned around. Vultaggio connected with Penney for a 21-yard gain on a screen pass and back-to-back 21-yard runs by Vultaggio, the second into the end zone on an option to the left, provided much-needed breathing room. Penney tacked on the conversion kick to make it 21-7 with 4:10 left.

Tantasqua continued filling the air with footballs. Lucas hit McCleary for a 16-yard gain, but left the game and was replaced at quarterback by Randy Harrington, who connected on two passes for first downs to advance the ball to the Groton-Dunstable 26-yard line. After three consecutive incompletions, Manning sacked Harrington for a seven-yard loss to put the ball in the hands of the Crusader offense. On the fourth play, Vultaggio broke loose on a 50-yard scoring jaunt to make it 27-7 with 1:22 left.

Penney put the cherry on top of the cake on the final play of the game, picking off a Harrington pass and returning it 38 yards for a touchdown. Penney toed the conversion kick for the 34-7 final.

Vultaggio paced the Groton-Dunstable offense with 137 yards on 13 carries, while Penney added 55 yards on 13 carries, in addition to outstanding defense and special teams play.

Lucas completed 15 of 23 passes for the Warriors for 225 yards, but tossed three of the four interceptions. McCleary caught six passes for 83 yards while Sciaraffa (five catches, 81 yards) and Santilli (four catches, 71 yards) also enjoyed productive games.

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