Chieftains Head to the Super Bowl…Nov. 25, 2015
By Jordana Bieze Foster
Yet another football team learned on Saturday what it’s like to think you’ve got Nashoba Regional on the ropes, only to end up being knocked out on the game’s final play. And on Dec. 5, a new generation of Chieftains will learn what it’s like to play in a Super Bowl game at Gillette Stadium.
The waning seconds of Saturday’s state semifinal game at Westfield State University saw the undefeated Chieftains once again clinging tenuously to a lead as their opponent took aim at the end zone from close range. This time it was Division 2 West champs, Springfield Central, closing in on Nashoba’s 28-21 lead with five seconds left and the ball at the 8 yard line.
But Golden Eagles senior quarterback Tank Walker’s eight yard pass, intended for senior Tyreque Estrada-Crapps in the end zone, was instead batted away by Chieftain junior Nate Mansour as time expired.
“That’s what this team is all about,” said Nashoba head coach Jamie Tucker. “You get to those big moments and they’re not nervous. They just make big plays.”
In fact, the Chieftain defense had made an impressive goal-line stand less than a minute earlier, when Central had the ball on the 1-yard line with 47 seconds left in the game. A running play on third and goal went nowhere, stifled by senior Will Phaneuf and Stow senior Egan Bachtell, and on fourth and goal the Golden Eagles fumbled the snap, turning the ball over on downs.
“I was confident in everyone on our defense,” said Bolton senior co-captain Jake Benjamin. “I knew we’d pull through. It’s been that way all year. Even when the other team makes a big play, we always come right back.”
Thanks to Central’s judicious use of timeouts, when Nashoba was then unable to move the ball and the ensuing short punt put the Golden Eagles back in striking distance at the Nashoba 22 yard line, the Chieftain defense was feeling the heat once again. But it was a familiar situation, echoing the Chieftains’ dramatic defensive showings in wins over Leominster and St. John’s of Shrewsbury, and the result was just as rewarding.
“Having been there in that situation before, it does make you feel more confident the second time around—or the third time,” Tucker said.
But the Nashoba highlight reel from Saturday’s game wasn’t all about defense. The Chieftain offensive line—including Phaneuf, Bachtell, Bolton senior co-captain Mike Curtin, Stow senior Jake Hicks, and Stow junior Bobby Denaro—was as dominant as it’s been all season, fueling the running game with one hole after another. Bolton senior co-captain Jake Benjamin was the primary beneficiary, finishing with 175 yards and two rushing touchdowns, but timely carries by junior Jake Fire, Mansour, and junior Nick Rodgers helped to keep the Golden Eagles defenders guessing.
“Our offensive line’s been great all year, but I think we really matched up well in this game,” Benjamin said.
Central got on the scoreboard first, on a 3-yard run by senior Antoine Williams just over four minutes into the game. Senior Norman Carroll’s point-after kick was good, and the Golden Eagles led 7-0. Nashoba came right back with a 72-yard drive punctuated by a 2-yard touchdown run by Benjamin with two minutes remaining in the quarter. But the extra point kick was unsuccessful, and Stow senior kicker Matt Allaire was hurt on the play and missed the rest of the game—forcing the Chieftains to be more reliant on 2-point conversions than they would have liked.
“That was scary,” Benjamin said. “Matt’s been our go-to guy for extra points. He never misses.”
Any loss of momentum the Chieftains might have been feeling at that point was quickly reversed, however, when the Golden Eagles mishandled the bouncing kickoff and Bolton senior Max Drugge recovered the ball for Nashoba at the Central 39 yard line. Six plays later, Bolton senior quarterback Robby Atwood took the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line, and a successful 2-point conversion run by Benjamin gave the Chieftains a 14-7 lead less than a minute into the second quarter.
Central, however, came right back with a quick score of its own when Walker broke free for a 37-yard touchdown run. A successful extra point tied the score at 14 with less than eight minutes left in the half.
Nashoba regained the lead on its next possession, a 96-yard drive capped by a 3-yard scoring run by Benjamin with less than two minutes remaining in the quarter. Despite a failed 2-point conversion try, the Chieftains led at 20-14 halftime.
Both teams struggled to get their offenses going at the start of the second half, but a fumble recovery and a trick play by the Golden Eagles set up a 2-yard scoring run by Walker with five minutes left in the quarter. Carroll’s extra point kick gave Central a 21-20 lead.
That score held until midway through the fourth quarter, when Rodgers took the ball in from the 9-yard line for what would end up being the winning touchdown, and a run by Atwood secured the 2-point conversion to give the Chieftains a 28-21 lead.
In the Super Bowl, Nashoba will face 9-2 Reading, which upset defending Division 2 champion Marshfield 21-14 in Saturday’s other state semifinal game. Prior to that, the 12-0 Chieftains will play their traditional Thanksgiving Day game in Bolton against 2-8 North Middlesex; kickoff is scheduled for 10 am.