By Jordana Bieze Foster
Cast as the underdog in every big game this season, the Nashoba Regional football team traded that label for the Division 2 state championship trophy on Saturday night at Gillette Stadium with a 27-13 win over heavily favored Reading.
“It’s surreal,” said Bolton senior co-captain and standout running back Jake Benjamin. “We’re at the top of division 2, the best team. It hasn’t really kicked in yet.”
The Super Bowl win clinched a perfect season for 13-0 Nashoba, the third in school history and the first under head coach Jamie Tucker. Reading, which defeated defending D2 champ Marshfield to qualify for the 2015 title game, finished the season 11-2.
Despite Nashoba’s impressive record heading into Saturday’s game, the media buzz outside of central Mass. suggested the high-powered Rockets—who averaged 35 points scored per game during the season and just 6.5 points against—would finally bring the Chieftains down to earth. One pundit opined that the Chieftains were “just glad to be here” and predicted that Reading would win 28-0.
All of that is just fine with Tucker.
“I don’t think anyone’s given us a chance all year,” he said. “We’ve been the underdog all year, and that’s the way we like it.”
To be sure, a disastrous first play of the game for Nashoba seemed destined to prove the naysayers correct. The Chieftains mishandled the opening kickoff deep in their own territory, and two senior Reading co-captains were quick to capitalize: Will Connery knocked the ball free, and Carl Gillies fell on the loose ball in the end zone. Although the Rockets missed the extra point attempt, they led 6-0 just eight seconds into the game.
But if the Chieftains’ critics were expecting that setback to fuel a complete collapse, they were disappointed. The 6-0 score held for the rest of the first quarter and into the second, as each offense struggled to gain momentum. And then things changed in a big way.
Benjamin torched the Rockets for 18 and 44 yards on back-to-back runs, ultimately streaking past senior defensive lineman and co-captain Sean Valente into the end zone. Stow senior Matt Allaire’s point-after kick was good, and in the span of 15 seconds Nashoba had taken a 7-6 lead with eight minutes remaining in the half.
“I knew we would get back to the way we play,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin would finish the game with 135 yards on 22 carries, and the Chieftains would never trail again.
“The kids did a great job responding to adversity, just like they have all year,” Tucker said.
Things only got worse for the Rockets, who put together a solid drive into Chieftain territory only to be turned back by Nashoba’s “bend but don’t break” defense with just over four minutes left in the half. Four plays later, Bolton senior quarterback Robby Atwood found junior Nate Mansour for a 64 yard touchdown. Another successful Allaire kick extended Nashoba’s lead to 14-6.
“I don’t throw a lot,” said Atwood, who was 3-for-6 with 146 passing yards and two touchdowns in the game. “But when I do, it’s usually effective, because coach puts us in a position to succeed.”
But the half wasn’t over yet, and neither were the Chieftains. This time it was the defense’s turn to make a bid for the game’s highlight reel, as Stow senior defensive lineman Egan Bachtell sacked junior quarterback Corey DiLoreto, forcing a fumble, and then recovered the fumble at the Nashoba 28 yard line with less than two minutes remaining in the half. A last-ditch, multiple-pass trick play by the Rockets nearly led to a touchdown with time expiring, but senior defensive back Harrison Ashline brought down senior running back D’Aundray Burcy short of the end zone to preserve Nashoba’s 14-6 lead.
“You’ve got to make big plays in big games, and our kids did that today,” Tucker said.
Nashoba returned to its familiar ground-and-pound offense after the half, using most of the third quarter to complete a 62-yard drive that ended with a four-yard touchdown run by junior back Nick Rodgers. The extra point attempt failed, but the Chieftains had extended their lead to 20-6.
To their credit, the Rockets fought back, compiling an 84-yard scoring drive of their own, punctuated by a 3-yard touchdown scamper by Burcy. A successful extra point kick closed the gap to 20-13 with just over seven minutes remaining in the game.
But that was where Reading’s luck ran out. Three plays later, Atwood connected with senior wide receiver Tony Kennon for an 82-yard touchdown, and Allaire’s kick brought the score to what would be its final 27-13 margin.
“Teams have to respect our running game, so we surprise a team when we do a play-action pass,” Benjamin said.
The Rockets threatened twice more, driving to the Nashoba 2 yard line on their next possession and to the Nashoba 8 yard line with less than three minutes left in the game. But on both occasions, the Chieftain defense—you guessed it—bent but did not break.
In the end, ironically, Nashoba’s biggest playoff game of the season was the only one in which the outcome didn’t come down to the final play. That meant the Chieftains had just a little extra time to savor the moment and reflect on their perfect season.
“I love these guys. They’re all my brothers,” Benjamin said. “It sucks that it has to be over, but it couldn’t have had a better ending.”