Menaul’s perfect football season came crashing down on Friday night.
The Panthers, by the end of their 62-40 state semifinal 8-Man loss to visiting Melrose, were down to just eight healthy bodies as the Buffaloes (10-1) put on a very physical performance in advancing to next week’s state title game against Tatum.
“They were very physical,” Menaul coach Josh Baca said. “We had a hard time stopping them on defense.”
Melrose’s fifth-year starting tailback, Tristan Sena, had a big night for the Buffaloes.
Sena had three first-half touchdowns as Melrose led 30-22 at halftime, and Sena added three more rushing scores – and a passing TD – after halftime as the Buffaloes pulled away from a depleted Menaul roster.
Late in the third quarter, Sena capped a long scoring drive with a 2-yard run for a 46-28 lead, and following a long kickoff return for a TD by Menaul’s Santiago Henry that cut the deficit to 46-34, Sena came back and scored on Melrose’s next snap, a 60-yard run and a 54-34 lead.
“We came in and we knew they were big and physical and had a good quarterback, and we wanted to make sure we did a good job blocking them and try to keep their D-line from rushing us,” Melrose coach Caleb King said.
The Panthers were trying to get into their first football championship game since 1999, but their chances took a massive hit when star senior running back Benji Morales suffered what was believed to be a broken collarbone in the first half.
He was injured while playing defense. When he departed, Menaul’s original game plan was chucked.
“It really limited our playbook,” Baca said. “We only used a quarter of the plays we (usually) run.”
The game was tied early at 6-6 and 14-14. Morales’ absence changed the game quickly as Melrose put up two quick scores to go in front 30-14.
“For us,” King said, “it allowed us to be a little bit more aggressive, and come at them a little bit more.”
The Buffaloes were the more physical team on both sides of the ball, and several Menaul players were injured by the end. Menaul, which started the game with only 11, finished with eight.
“Melrose football is all about hitting ’em, sticking ’em,” Sena said. “That was the main point we made before the game. … We came out and we got a bunch of good licks on them.”
Sena ran behind an effective offensive line, and was patient as he waited for holes to develop. Which is what you would expect from someone who’s had five varsity football seasons.
“I guess you could say I’m decently experienced,” he said with a smile.
The 8-Man title game will be in Melrose, King said. Menaul was just the right preparation, Sena said.
“They were a good team, and we knew they were gonna give us a challenge,” Sena said. “And honestly, we were ready for it. We wanted a challenge.”