NORTHBRIDGE, Mass. - Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari coined the phrase “Refuse to Lose” when he was patrolling the sidelines of the University of Massachusetts. Perhaps the Northbridge High School football team can come up with their own motto to market, because what happened Friday Night at brisk Lasell Field was simply surreal.
For much of Friday's matchup with the physical, and much improved Tantasqua Warriors, Northbridge was uncharacteristically sloppy. Turnovers, dropped passes, and clock mismanagement were just some of the bugaboos that plagued the Rams. However, with their backs against the wall, and given last rites on a few occasions, Northbridge emerged with an incredible 27-21 overtime victory over Tantasqua, the 299th career victory for legendary coach Ken LaChapelle, perhaps none more exciting than this one.
The Warriors let it be known from the opening kick that they were not intimidated by the Rams. Northbridge would open their initial series from their own 21. The Rams would hold the ball for eight plays and over three and a half minutes, yet advanced a mere 20 yards against the punishing Tantasqua defensive front. On 2nd and 11 from the Ram 41, Northbridge quarterback Matt Phelan’s pass intended for Ben O'Donnell was deflected and intercepted by Jeremiah Sciaraffa at the Warrior 40.
Tantasqua would cash in on the turnover as they marched 60 yards in seven plays capped by a 4-yard touchdown sweep by Spencer Duncan. Two long runs of 26 and 18 yards by Warrior running back Dom Cruz helped set up the score. Jon Beaudry added the point after, and Northbridge found themselves trailing for the first time in the young 2012 season, 7-0.
It did not take long for the Rams to get onto the scoreboard. On 1st and 10 from their own 20, Phelan hit Dan Clasby on a shovel pass for 13 yards. Consecutive connections from Phelan to O'Donnell moved the ball to midfield. The Rams then reached into their bad of tricks with a well executed hook and lateral play with Phelan hitting Tanner Ropiak who pitched the ball back to Clasby to set up Northbridge with a 1st down at the Tantasqua 30. Two plays later, Phelan would rumble 23 yards on a keeper for the first Ram touchdown of the night. Unfortunately for Northbridge, Jake Ryan's point after attempt hit the crossbar, and Tantasqua maintained a 7-6 advantage.
Northbridge appeared to catch a break on Tantasqua's next possession. On 1st and 10 from their own 40, a potential double reverse-flea flicker was fumbled. Tantasqua recovered, but faced 2nd and 18 from their 32. However, quarterback Randall Harrington scampered 39 yards on a keeper to the Northbridge 39. After a 12 yard jaunt by Eric Fleshman, Duncan would add his second score of the day from 27 yards out to make it 14-6.
Disaster would strike for Northbridge on their next possession. After a Warrior personal foul gave the Rams a 1st and 10 at the Tantasqua 47, Phelan dropped back to pass. After rolling out to the right, he tried to throw the ball away to avoid a deep sack. Unfortunately, his pass fell into the arms of Duncan who would take it in from 55-yards out, and a surprising 21-6 Warrior advantage.
Phelan would atone for the interception on the next Ram drive. From the Northbridge 31, Phelan hit O'Donnell for 15 yards. Two plays later, he would keep it himself for an 11-yard gain. After an incomplete pass, he connected with Clasby on a well-executed screen pass setting up a 1st down at the Warrior 16. On the ensuing play, Phelan called his own number, striking paydirt. Ryan's point after made it 21-13.
After a Tantasqua punt, Northbridge took over on their own 29 with 2:52 remaining in the half. The Rams would execute an 11-play drive deep into Warrior territory. Unfortunately, the Rams would come up empty on the drive as Sciaraffa made a tremendous open field tackle following a Phelan to Ryan swing pass three yards short of the end zone as time expired in the half.
All five third quarter possessions ended in punts as the defenses staked their claim in the second half. Early in the fourth, it appeared that Tantasqua may have caught the break needed to complete the upset. After a brief injury to Phelan forced him to miss a play, backup quarterback Rob Fraser faced a 1st and 10 at the Ram 23. An overthrown swing pass intended for Ryan was ruled a lateral which was recovered by Tantasqua at the Northbridge 22 with only 8:24 remaining and the Warriors nursing an 8-point lead.
The Northbridge defense would rise to the challenge. After two running plays netted only one yard, a key holding call pushed Tantasqua back to the Ram 31. On third and long, Harrington's pass intended for Cruz fell incomplete forcing a Warrior punt.
Taking over on their own 20, the Rams would march 48 yards on seven plays highlighted by three Phelan runs totaling 37 yards. On 2nd and 8 from the Warrior 32, Phelan's pass was deflected and intercepted, and it appeared that the Northbridge hopes were dashed.
However, the stout Ram defense once again came up big, forcing a quick three and out, and Phelan would set Northbridge up with tremendous field position thanks to a 50-yard punt return to the Tantasqua 26. Consecutive Clasby runs netted a 1st and 10 at the 16. Phelan would hit Dalton LaChapelle for five yards before keeping it himself for nine setting up first a goal. Two Phelan quarterback dives drove the ball past the goal line with 49.7 seconds remaining. A fancy double-reverse set up a conversion pass from O'Donnell to a wide open LaChapelle to tie the game bringing the crowd to a frenzy.
It appeared that Tantasqua would break the hearts of the Ram faithful in the final moments of regulation. Taking over on their own 30 with 43.8 seconds remaining, Harrington hit Beaudry for a 5-yard connection before Cruz broke off an impressive 23-yard jaunt to the Northbridge 46. After a quarterback spike stopped the clock, Harrington hit Beaudry for 14 yards before a quick 6-yard quarterback dive set Beaudry up for a potential game-winning 43-yard field goal. Unfortunately for the Warriors, the well-struck kick sailed wide left, forcing the game into overtime.
Northbridge's valiant defensive performance carried over into the extra session. In overtime, each team gets the ball on the opponent's 10-yard line with a full set of downs to score. On 1st down, Cruz was stacked up for a 1-yard loss. Two Harrington passes into the end zone would fall incomplete. On 4th down, the Rams' Jason Hanna came up with a key block of Beaudry's field goal attempt keeping Tantasqua off the board.
Needing only a field goal to secure the win, the Rams would get the six instead with three straight Phelan runs, the final from two yards out, and the celebration was on in Whitinsville.
Coach Ken LaChapelle goes for his 300th career victory next Friday Night as the Rams visit Southbridge while Tantasqua returns home to host Bartlett next Friday.