By Jordana Bieze Foster
The Nashoba Regional football team pushed its “bend but don’t break” philosophy to the limit on Saturday but escaped with a 32-27 decision over St. John’s of Shrewsbury, as the last-second play that seemed sure to seal a victory for the Pioneers was dramatically dismantled by the Chieftain defense.
The neutral-field win at Foley Stadium in Worcester earned the 10-0 Chieftains the MIAA Division 2 Central title and a ticket to the state semifinal this Saturday against 9-1 Springfield Central, which clinched the Division 2 West championship by defeating Longmeadow 36-29 on Friday. The state semifinal game will be at Westfield State University; kickoff is scheduled for 2 pm.
“Our motto the whole season has been, ‘Bend but don’t break,’” said Bolton senior co-captain Jake Benjamin, who had two running touchdowns in the game. “It came down to the wire, and we just executed.”
The Pioneers, and in particular senior quarterback Tim Cassidy, had been running the ball successfully on the Chieftains throughout the second half. They had run more than four minutes off the clock on their final drive, ensuring that if St. John’s took the lead, Nashoba would not have time to take it back.
But with the ball on the Nashoba 3 yard line, the final seconds ticking off the clock, and no time outs remaining, the Pioneers improbably chose to rely on Cassidy’s arm rather than his legs. With Chieftain defenders smothering all Pioneer receivers in the end zone, Cassidy was still searching for a target when Chieftain senior defensive back Harry Ashline came barreling in from the quarterback’s blind side for the game-clinching sack.
“We had to play man-to-man because they were at the goal line, and Cassidy was running down the chute on us. We had to play Cassidy and then play off of that,” said Nashoba head coach Jamie Tucker. “It looked like he was going to run there for a second, but then he pulled up at the last moment. Harry made a great play.”
The Chieftains set the tone early in the game, forcing the Pioneers to punt into the wind and capitalizing on the short field position to score first on an 11-yard run by Benjamin. The momentum shifted with four minutes remaining in the first quarter as the Pioneers recovered a Nashoba fumble, then drove 42 yards for a touchdown on a 15-yard Cassidy run. St. John’s junior kicker Nick Barton had better luck with the wind than Nashoba’s Matt Allaire had on his first extra-point try, and the Pioneers led 7-6.
But in the second quarter, all the scoring belonged to the Chieftains. Junior Nick Mansour ran the ball in from the 5-yard line with 7:53 left to play for Nashoba’s second score; despite a failed 2-point conversion, the Chieftains had regained a 12-7 lead.
Mansour nearly scored again with two minutes remaining in the half, this time through the air on a trick play, but his
pass to senior Tony Kennon in the end zone was picked off. Four plays later, the Pioneers ran a trick play of their own, a fake punt on fourth and long that resulted in a 12-yard gain and a first down on the Chieftain 45-yard line with less than a minute left in the half.
Nashoba’s defense had been bent, but it definitely had not been broken. On the next play, Stow senior Egan Bachtell and Bolton senior co-captain Mike Curtin came flying at Cassidy, whose ill-advised throw sailed into the opportunistic hands of Stow junior defensive lineman Bobby Denaro.
“I saw an opportunity, and as a defensive lineman you don’t get many of those, so I grabbed it,” Denaro said.
The 6’5”, 290-lb Denaro, who played fullback as a freshman, churned nearly 30 yards downfield and deep into Pioneer territory. That set up a 16-yard throw from Bolton senior quarterback Robby Atwood to Kennon, who made an impressive leap to snatch the ball away from two Pioneer defenders in the end zone for the Chieftains’ third touchdown. Stow senior Allaire converted the extra point kick, and Nashoba led 19-7 at halftime.
Nashoba scored again on the opening drive of the third quarter, on a 14-yard touchdown run by Bolton senior co-captain Adam Chiodo, and Allaire’s successful kick gave the Chieftains a 26-7 lead that under different circumstances might have seemed insurmountable. But it was no secret that the Pioneers could score points in a hurry if needed, and that’s exactly what they proceeded to do.
A 1-yard run by Cassidy and a successful extra point kick closed the gap to 26-14 with four minutes left in the third quarter. After recovering an onside kick at midfield, St. John’s scored again less than two minutes later, this time on a 33-yard pass from Cassidy to junior Khamal Saunders. Another extra point kick made it 26-21.
Moments into the fourth quarter, the Chieftains turned the ball over on downs near midfield, and St. John’s again wasted no time converting the turnover into a touchdown, on an 8-yard run by Cassidy. The Pioneers’ 2-point conversion attempt failed, but they had retaken the lead 27-26 with nearly 10 minutes left in the game.
The Chieftains’ offense found its groove again on the next possession, and Benjamin took the ball in from the 1-yard line for what proved to be the winning touchdown with 4:30 left in the game. After a failed 2-point conversion attempt, Nashoba’s 32-27 lead was left in the hands of its defense—a strategy that, not for the first time this season, paid off.