Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Northbridge and Nashoba Capture State Championships at Gillette

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

It was an unseasonably beautiful day (and night) at Gillette Stadium in Foxoboro Saturday, and a pair of Central Mass teams were able to achieve their ultimate goals on the Patriots' home turf.

In the day's early game, beginning at 9 am, the Northbridge Rams found redemption after back-to-back disappointing trips to Foxoboro, topping East Bridgewater in an instant classic to win the Division 5 state championship.

Then, after the sun went down, Nashoba physically dominated heavily favored Reading in the Division 2 title game. The Chieftains completed an undefeated season, and will no doubt be in line for some postseason accolades, while Northbridge's historic group of seniors got the poetic end it seemed they deserved.

Here is your reminder that this is not a complete recap of any of the games at Gillette Stadium. You should head to ESPN Boston High Schools for extensive coverage of all six games, including my highlights from Nashoba and Northbridge's historic victories.

Northbridge Fights Through Adversity

The Rams stunned everyone when they came out and built a quick 13-0 lead out of the gate against the Vikings. A member of the Boston media that arrived a bit late to the game was absolutely shocked to see East Bridgewater by two scores losing so quickly. But the Rams knew this wouldn't be easy, and when star quarterback/safety Koby Schofer came up limping after a second quarter pass, Northbridge had to dig deep to gut out the win.

After a pair of great plays by EB quarterback Ryan Graham, who threw and ran for a touchdown, Northbridge clung to a 16-14 lead with a hobbled quarterback.

But as he's done throughout his career, Schofer answered. After hobbling and missing an open touchdown pass to Chandler Brooks on the previous drive (which would have been Brooks' second touchdown grab of the day), Schofer delivered a 72 touchdown pass to Jake Wood to give the Rams life again.
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Speaking of Wood, the fellow senior had himself a day, rushing for 58 yards and a pair of scores, along with the aforementioned touchdown catch. Classmate Mike Quinn also enjoyed a great day on the ground, pounding away for over 50 yards and a score, and Brooks, another senior playing in his final game, scored a receiving touchdown, and snagged a high snap with one hand while punting.

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His punt would eventually pin the Vikings deep to set up his own first quarter touchdown catch.

If it sounds like a total team effort, that's because it was. While Schofer played through pain to deliver over 250 yards passing and a pair of scores, this was about the entire group of kids, many of whom had already tasted disappointment at Gillette the last two seasons.

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And it was a poetic finish, as Wood scored a touchdown to give the Rams their final lead, and Schofer picked off the Vikings to seal the game late in the fourth.

For this group of seniors, and longtime coach Ken LaChapelle, who already owns the Massachusetts record for career wins, it was a long time coming. And, for the historic Northbridge football program, which owned 10 Super Bowl wins coming into Saturday, a satisfying first statewide championship.

Nashoba Gets Physical

Nashoba came into the Division 2 Super Bowl confident it had the best offensive line in Central Mass, but the Chieftains were eager to prove that their big boys in both trenches could play with anyone in the state.

Seniors Mike Curtin, Will Phaneuf, and junior Bobby Denaro dominated on both sides of the ball for the Chieftains, and senior defensive end Egan Bachtell came up with a huge strip sack late when Reading was driving. Senior Derek Pasquale had a big day pulling and clearing room for the Chieftain backs, and senior center Jake Hicks helped tie it all together for the powerful Nashoba offensive line.

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Basically, Nashoba bullied the team that was supposed to bully them.

This led to plenty of running room for senior Jake Benjamin, who rushed for over 130 yards and a touchdown. Benjamin refused to go down on first contact all game long, and even hurdled a Reading defender for good measure in the second quarter.

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Nashoba also got a nice boost from junior running back Nick Rodgers, whose speed and shiftiness served as the perfect complement to Benjamin's bruising style.

But, as good as Nashoba was up front on both sides, it wouldn't have made this run without senior quarterback Robby Atwood and his play making receivers. Atwood only attempted six passes Saturday, but boy did he make them count, completing three of them, two of which went for 60+ yard touchdowns.

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A master of play action and bootleg passing, Atwood found junior Nate Mansour for a long touchdown early as the Reading defense creeped up, then delivered a dart to senior Tony Kennon in the second half, which would result in Kennon shedding a tackle and taking it 72 yards for a score. Kennon's touchdown required some after the catch brilliance, while Mansour's catch was a show in itself. The junior made a spectacular one-handed grab, pictured below.
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Many of those same players (Atwood, Mansour and Kennon play in the Nashoba secondary, as does Benjamin), were also responsible for some fantastic coverage down the stretch. In the game's closing moments, Reading twice faced 1st and goal inside the Chieftain 10, and twice they were turned away by the Chieftains, largely because there was just nobody open.

Much like Northbridge, Nashoba won as a team all year, and Saturday both those teams overcame the odds to become state champions. The doubters can doubt no more.

Some credit also needs to be given to St. Bernard's, a Division 6 underdog that advanced to Gillette, but fell to Mashpee 28-8. The Bernardians were tied with Mashpee 8-8 in the fourth quarter before Falcons running back Deshain Dias took the game over.

It was a showcase day for Central Mass, which went 2-1 against Eastern Mass, pushing its record to 4-5 against EMass since the new state-wide playoff format was introduced in 2013.

Not bad for a region that everyone thought would be dominated.

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