NATICK — The community at Natick High School has been grieving for the last month, after junior Giovanni Taboh was tragically killed in a car accident back on March 6.
Shortly after that fateful night three weeks back, Jalyn Aponte approached his coaches, and asked to switch his jersey number from No. 4 to No. 7, as a way to honor his friend’s memory. Since then, the senior running back has been on a mission.
Aponte finished with 30 carries for 155 yards and four touchdowns Thursday night, as Natick (2-0) pulled away late for a thrilling 48-26 victory over Milton in a Bay State Conference tilt.
“I was thinking about what I could do to use (that moment) as motivation,” Aponte said afterward. “I know (Taboh) is my boy. He always believed in me in football. He always told me I was going to make it.”
Prior to kickoff Thursday, the school held a moment of silence for Taboh, who participated in soccer as well as track and field at Natick.
Once the game got started, the first quarter featured virtually no action whatsoever. However, the Redhawks would open the second with the ball in the red zone, and they quickly turned to Aponte. The senior took a handoff, then scampered four yards for a touchdown, as Natick took a 6-0 lead with 11:54 to play in the first half.
What followed was pure chaos. Milton (2-1) responded almost instantly, driving all the way down to the Natick 7. Then, junior Chase Vaughan fired a 7-yard touchdown pass to Cassius Toussaint. Sam Diani converted the extra point, and the Wildcats were ahead, 7-6.
Moments later, Milton attempted an onside kick and managed to come away with the recovery, stunning the crowd on hand at Memorial Field. Vaughan proceeded to take a shot downfield to Malcolm Samuels, who hauled in the reception and took it to the house for a 52-yard touchdown connection. In a span lasting only 13 seconds, Milton had made it a 14-6 contest.
The two schools traded scores leading into the half. Over the next 7:35, Natick tacked on three more touchdowns, all of which were scored by Aponte, as the Redhawks took a 28-20 lead at intermission.
Milton opened the third quarter with a prolonged drive lasting 7:05, with Vaughan adding the exclamation point on a 3-yard touchdown run off a quarterback keeper. While the two-point try would ultimately fail, the Wildcats were back in it, only trailing 28-26.
“We weren’t feeling great after that long drive to start the third quarter,” said Natick coach Mark Mortarelli. “Our guys just didn’t give up. Our senior captains made some big plays, and we just kept chipping away.”
Facing third down on the following drive, Natick senior quarterback Will Lederman fired a prayer down the sideline to his classmate, Jake Dunlap. The senior captain corralled the pass, then sprinted all the way home for a 60-yard touchdown, as Natick took a 34-26 lead heading into the final quarter.
From that point on, the Redhawks coasted, as Lederman ran for a 5-yard touchdown, then capped the night with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Nick Ofodile. When all was said and done, Natick had scored 20 unanswered points to clinch the win.
Vaughan finished 13-of-26 passing for 264 yards to carry Milton, racking up four total touchdowns.
As his teammates celebrated, Aponte briefly glanced at the night sky, then smiled.
“I know he is up there looking at me,” Aponte said of Taboh. “Telling me to be better. Get better. Every time I mess up, I turn that pain into a drive in my mind, as motivation.”