WATERTOWN — Teely Rhyne wasn’t pleased with his performance in Taft School’s crushing loss to Brunswick last week.
The tailback gained a mere 30 yards on 12 carries and Brunswick made a goal-line stand as time expired to hand the Rhinos their first loss of the season.
With Taft in danger of losing their second-consecutive game, virtually guaranteeing them a quiet postseason, Rhyne showed up to save the Rhinos’ season.
Rhyne ran for 145 yards and scored two, unanswered touchdowns in the fourth quarter as Taft stunned defending Erickson League champion Avon Old Farms, 35-31, Saturday.
The victory put Taft back in the mix for an Erickson League title at 5-1. Avon Old Farms fell to 4-1 with a suddenly massive game vs. unbeaten Brunswick coming up. The Bruins rallied to defeat Salisbury 30-29 at home Saturday.
“Teely’s a baller,” Taft senior quarterback Nolan Grooms said. “He’s a special dude. He makes plays for us when we need it. He’s a hard runner. He ain’t afraid to do the dirty work. That’s what I love about him.”
Rhyne scored on runs of 19 and 30 yards to rally the Rhinos from a 10-point deficit.
“Coming out of last week was crushing,” said Rhyne, a 6-foot-2, 193-pound postgraduate back from Gary, Ind., who lists Fordham, Lehigh and UConn as potential college choices. “I didn’t have my best game. My coaches and teammates still believed in me. They helped me out because I was down all week.”
The entire team, actually, left Greenwich crestfallen, especially since the Rhinos felt they had scored on a 1-yard run by Grooms, but were ruled short. A final play lost three yards and time expired before Taft could run another.
“I thought I crossed. I thought I crossed,” Groom, a senior from South Carolina who is committed to Yale, lamented Saturday. “At the beginning of every week we have a team meeting and watch film and coach (Tyler) Whitley looked as us and said: What happened at Brunswick stays at Brunswick.
“This was a new week and we were playing a really good team in Avon. They’re an outstanding team and we just put all our our attention on Avon and making plays and this is the result.”
Grooms threw for 223 yards and two touchdowns, one to Diante Vines the other to Michael Yamin, but Taft still found itself trailing for most of the game.
Westport native and lineman Benny Berggren jumped on a fumbled punt snap in the end zone for a score. Taisun Phommachanh, the Stratford native who played two years at Harding and is committed to play at Clemson, threw a pair of long touchdown passes to Graham Walker and Bridgeport native Josh Tracey (formerly of Notre Dame-Fairfield) in the second and third quarters to help stake the Winged Beavers to a 31-21 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Avon Old Farms’ final points, a 27-yard field goal by Notre Dame commit Harrison Leonard, came right after a muffed Taft punt return gave the Winged Beavers great field position.
Though some of the demons of the previous week seemed to be rearing their heads, Taft didn’t panic. “We just stayed the course,” seventh-year coach Tyler Whitley said. “Our kids have been pretty resilient all year. We’ve made those mistakes and we’ve kind of had guys rise to the occasion.”
Taft immediately rallied. Rhyne capped a strong drive with a 19-yard touchdown run and then Whitley decided to have kicker Peter Kenerson squib the ensuing kickoff. Avon Old Farms couldn’t handle it and Mac Culbertson pounced on the loose ball.
“We do have what we call a ‘mob kickoff’ where we put the ball on the ground and we see if we can go get it and make a play and our kids did that,” Whitley said.
“That kick, when we got it, you had that feeling that this was something special,” Grooms said. “You had that feeling that something was going to happen.”
Indeed, on the first play after the recovery, Rhyne bolted 30 yards for the go-ahead score with just over eight minutes remaining.
“(The kick) was something we saw on film and I think we’ve got to own that as coaches not getting the guys in there that could handle that,” first-year Avon Old Farms coach Pierce Brennan said.
Behind Phommachanh, Avon Old Farms drove the length of the field in an attempt to snatch the lead back. But a fourth-down pass went uncaught with 4:25 remaining. After Vines (8 catches, 58 yards, TD) caught a first-down pass, Grooms, who was playing through an injured ankle, ran 20 yards for the deciding first down.
“Beat a quality team of that quality is definitely up there with some of the best (wins) we’ve had,” Whitley said.
Yamin had four catches for 72 yards. Ayinde Johnson returned a kickoff 95 yards to set up a third-quarter score and Mashod Harrison had 10 tackles, including two for a loss for Taft.
Avon Old Farms, which needed to rally to win its two previous games vs. Willston Northampton (Mass.) and Hotchkiss, now looks to keep things interesting when they face Brunswick at home Saturday.
“It’s tough,” Brennan said. “A big one next week. I think the good thing is we’ve done enough to this point control our own destiny to a point. A win next week will have us and Taft and Brunswick with one loss… Yeah, just got to win out. Keep winning.”
Taft, meanwhile, has rivals Kent (Saturday) and Hotchkiss (Nov. 10) to finish out the year.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” Groom said.
TAFT 35, AVON OLD FARMS 31
AVON OLD FARMS 7 14 10 0 — 31
TAFT SCHOOL 7 7 7 14 — 35
AOF–Jamel Smith 2 run (Harrison Leonard kick)
T–Diante Vines 4 pass from Nolan Grooms (Peter Kenerson kick)
AOF–Benny Berggren 1 fumble return (Leonard kick)
T–Michael Yamin 29 pass from Grooms (Kenerson kick)
AOF–Graham Walker 41 pass from Taisun Phommachanh (Leonard kick)
AOF–Josh Tracey 30 pass from Phommachanh (Leonard kick)
T–Grooms 1 run (Kenerson kick)
AOF–Leonard 27 field goal
T–Teely Rhyne 19 run (Kenerson kick)
T–Teely Rhyne 30 run (Kenerson kick)