Thursday, May 1, 2008

Divas dominant in home opener

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On a night when heavy thunderstorms that were expected prior to kickoff arrived well after the game, diminutive D.C. Divas’ special teams’ specialist Kathryn Hemlock provided all of the lightning as she returned two punts for touchdowns en route to a 35-6 victory Saturday over the visiting Baltimore Nighthawks.

The Divas (1-1) were looking to rebound from a rare regular season loss at Boston two weeks earlier — their first such setback in 33 games — and their offense had stalled on two drives deep into Baltimore territory. But after nearly returning the first Nighthawks’ punt for a score, Hemlock returned the next one 56 yards for a touchdown to give the Divas an 8-0 lead. Early in the fourth quarter, she returned another short punt 38 yards for another score to help send Baltimore to its second loss in three games.

‘‘I’ve had two in a game before,” Hemlock said. ‘‘But it’s always fun to get one in a game. Defensively, I thought we had played really well. But on those two returns my blocking was excellent. The punts were short, so I had to run in and field them, but I picked up the ball and then found my blocks and that was all I needed. This was a good win for us, especially after the way we played in Boston. We’ve got a tough road game next week in Pittsburgh. They’re always a really strong team.”

Hemlock concluded the night with five punt returns for 143 yards and two scores and her play in the secondary helped anchor a defense that had a shutout through the first 58 minutes. Baltimore got on the board with 2 minutes, 1 second remaining thanks largely to two roughing-the-quarterback penalties that kept alive Nighthawks’ drives. Tiffany Matthews led a methodical offense with 117 yards and one touchdown on 13 carries, while quarterback Allyson Hamlin added two touchdown tosses, one each to Tara Stephenson and Shara McNeill.

‘‘What can you say about Kathryn Hemlock?” said Divas’ coach Ezra Cooper. ‘‘She’s amazing. Anytime she goes back to receive a punt, you know there’s a chance she’s going to break it. [Saturday] was a better effort than we gave last week in Boston. But we still have to limit the mistakes and the penalties. That’s something that will have to be addressed. We’re going up to Pittsburgh to play against probably the best quarterback [Lisa Horton] in the league, so we can’t make those mental mistakes.”

Hemlock got the Divas on the board first and then Hamlin connected with Stephenson on a 32-yard scoring strike on the second play of the second quarter to make it 14-0. On the first play of the Divas’ next possession, Matthews burst through a huge hole up the middle and scampered 53 yards for another score that made it 21-0. On the next drive, Hamlin connected with McNeill from 31 yards out and the wide receiver also added her second of three extra-point attempts to make it 28-0.

When the Divas kept Baltimore pinned deep in its own territory to start the fourth quarter, Hemlock cemented the victory when she returned another short punt 38 yards to make it 35-0. The Nighthawks started the next drive at the 33 with 10:48 remaining and marched 67 yards on 15 plays — and two personal fouls — to score when Pekeetia Langston connected with Tenika Freeman on a 12-yard toss that ended the Divas’ hopes for a shutout.

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