Sam Feeley

Jan 262015

The Groton-Dunstable Crusaders “ran out of gas,” according to head coach Phil Rowley, as a five-goal third period by the Wachusett Mountaineers let Wachusett skate away with a 7-4 victory at the Groton School rink Wednesday evening.

After trailing 3-2 for two periods, the Mountaineers took the lead for good with two goals in fifteen seconds about four minutes in. First, Joe Rinaldo fanned on an initial shot, but recovered and beat Crusader goalie Nevin Tardiff stick side. Then Brian Boulette, who registered a hat trick, took the puck from a faceoff win in his own zone and sprinted up ice to deliver a slap shot for the go-ahead goal.

The Mountaineers would extend their lead to 5-3 before the Crusaders made a last-ditch effort with the goalie pulled. Patrick Keating let loose a wrist shot from the right side circle after the entire offense set up on the right side of the dot for an offensive zone faceoff. But Boulette sealed his hat trick at 13:14 as Tardiff was forced to stay in his net, and was caught out of position off a rebound. Rinaldo got his second goal on an empty-netter with 24 seconds left, and that was that.

The Crusaders had a legitimate reason for running on empty — flu-like symptoms caused two defensemen to miss the game entirely and another to head back to the locker room partway through the game. By the end of the game, they were down to three healthy defensemen.

“I’m not making any excuses,” Rowley said, though he did point out that “the effort was great” given the circumstances. “Hopefully we’ll get some rest and come back healthier for Saturday’s game … they tried hard, and I was proud of them for that.”

The Crusaders started out well enough — after a slow start offensively by both teams in the first period, they started to get more shots on goal and eventually broke the ice at 7:57 when Harry Perrault put in a backhand from an impossible angle, straddling the goal line and with his back almost completely turned to the net. Just over two minutes later, they scored again when Ben Strauss rifled home a rebound that bounced far out into the slot.

The Mountaineers came back to tie it with back-to-back goals in the second period. First, Andrew Iacaboni stripped Kam Strong of the puck as he was setting up at the offensive blue line, then took it all the way uncontested. Then Boulette got his first goal of the game when Iacaboni fed him through the crease after collecting a rebound off a shot from Rinaldo.

The Mountaineers nearly took the lead in the final minute of the third period when a shot appeared to go into the net, but the officials signaled to play on. While the Wachusett fans and bench protested, the action went to the other end, and eventually Michael Cole stuffed in a loose puck with 2.2 seconds left.

The Crusaders fell to 3-6-1 and will travel to the Chelmsford Forum in North Billerica for a matchup with Lowell Catholic Saturday at 8 p.m.

Jan 222015

The Lawrence Academy Spartans boys’ and girls’ basketball teams took part in the 2015 Hoop Mountain Mass Arc Holiday Challenge at TD Garden Monday and came away with one win and a loss.

The Lawrence Academy Spartans boys’ and girls’ basketball teams took part in the 2015 Hoop Mountain Mass Arc Holiday Challenge at TD Garden Monday and came away with one win and a loss. LA Photo by Jon Chase.

BOSTON – The Lawrence Academy Spartans boys’ and girls’ basketball teams took part in the 2015 Hoop Mountain Mass Arc Holiday Challenge at TD Garden Monday and came away with one win and a loss. The Challenge is a prep school basketball day with 11 Massachusetts schools competing. Funds raised by the competition go to The Arc of Massachusetts, an 18-chapter organization that represents nearly 200,000 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The LA girls defeated the Thayer Tigers in a no-doubter, 50-19, to remain undefeated on the season at 11-0.

Erin Antosh (18 points, four rebounds, four steals) and Gabrielle Reuter (11 points, five rebounds, three blocks) paced the effort for the Spartans. Jalianette Marquez, the shortest player on the court for Lawrence, stood tall with six points and five rebounds.

While it wasn’t the cleanest effort for Lawrence, it was clear that Thayer, who lost their eighth in a row to fall to 1-8, was outmatched. They scored only six points in the first half, five of them by Abigael Osmanski. They committed four shot clock violations, and on three of those occasions, they didn’t even come close to taking a shot. They gave up eight steals to the Spartans, and airballed several desperation shots in the second half. To top it all off, they were outrebounded 28-18.

During warmups, it came to the attention of the officials that both teams had come to the Garden wearing their white uniforms, and neither team brought their road uniforms, despite the fact that Lawrence was supposed to be the visiting team. After a lengthy fashion discussion delay, the officials ruled that Lawrence had to wear blue shirts underneath their jerseys in order to differentiate themselves.

The LA boys fell to the Cheshire Fighting Cats 86-81, in a wild, back-and-forth, fast-paced contest. The lead exchanged hands multiple times in the first half and early in the second before Cheshire (8-7) pulled away thanks to stellar performances by Austin Nehls (27 points, nine rebounds, four steals, two assists), Josh Ajayi (22 points, nine rebounds, 10-for-14 on free throws), Tyler Hamilton (13 points, seven rebounds, four assists, three steals), and Ricky Leonard (13 points off the bench). Lawrence’s Timothy Preston had a Herculean performance to keep the game close, scoring a game-high 29 points (including five three-pointers) to go along with three assists. Nick Lynch chipped in 12 points and nine rebounds; Sherron Dailey-Harris added nine points, six rebounds, and three steals; and Martin Mann had nine points, four rebounds, and two assists.
The Spartans fell to 3-10.

In the second half, the game clock started at 18 minutes instead of the regulation 16, and the issue was never fixed. However, given that Cheshire was leading with two minutes left and Lawrence never took the lead after that point, the time question became moot.

To listen to the on-demand audio broadcasts of these games:'_basketball,_1-19-2015.mp3) for the girls’ game and here
('_basketball,_1-19-2015.mp3) for the boys’ game.

Jan 162015

The Groton-Dunstable Crusaders girl’s basketball team defeated the Westborough Rangers handily, 59-46, Tuesday night, but despite the double-digit margin, there were some anxious moments.

The Crusaders’ best plays came in the second quarter, when they outscored the Rangers 21-4 and didn’t allow a point until there was 1:15 left. They made four threes and exhibited great ball movement leading to plenty of wide-open looks. It could have been even more lopsided, given that they forced 10 Westborough turnovers in that period alone, but they were inconsistent in converting those opportunities into points at the other end.

“Those things are going to come and go, but I liked the energy,” G-D head coach Mark Hennelly said. “The effort and the ball movement were good, and I’ll live with that.”

The Rangers made it interesting in the fourth quarter. Down by 20 entering the final frame, they went on a 10-0 run in the first four minutes. Eventually the Crusaders, after scoring their first points of the quarter with four minutes left, would come back with a 7-0 run to put the game out of reach, and Hennelly brought in his second-stringers.

“Mentally, we were in a place where we were all set,” Hennelly said. “We thought we had won, we thought the game was over, we shut down, and [Westborough] decided that they wanted to play the fourth quarter.”

Rebounding was an issue for the Crusaders in the second half, as Westborough came back strong and evened the rebounding totals at 33 per side by game’s end.

“I’m not thrilled with the overall effort,” Hennelly added. “I’m thrilled with certain aspects of it. We played a great second quarter, but I’m not pleased with our defensive rebounding in the second half. We’ve got to be better.”

Three Crusaders scored in double digits: Jenna Plausse (14 points, five rebounds), Lindsay Werner (13 points, six assists, four steals, four rebounds), and Melyssa Langell (11 points, three rebounds). Hanna Van Pelt also had a nice game with nine points and seven rebounds.

The Rangers, who have no seniors on their roster, were led by forwards Melissa Mitrovich (15 points, nine rebounds, two blocks) and Kaylie Doherty (six points, 10 rebounds).

“They’re bigger players, which we just have to deal with,” Hennelly said. “We’re always going to be the smaller team, so we’ve got to box out, and we’ve got to maintain intensity. We don’t have the size to just relax and hope that balls are going to fall in our hands.”

The Crusaders improved to 6-4, 3-1 in Mid-Wach B play.

Jan 122015

WESTBOROUGH — The Groton-Dunstable Crusaders have slowly been getting their legs underneath them as the 2014-15 hockey season has progressed, and last Monday night at North Star Youth Forum, they finally broke through with a 4-2 victory over the Westborough Rangers.

Harry Perrault got the scoring started at 14:03 into the first period. The Rangers committed a turnover in their own zone, which led to an easy top-shelf wrist shot for Perrault past Westborough goalie Jared Ward. The Crusaders extended their lead with two goals in 47 seconds in the second period. After an initial save by Ward, Michael Cole collected the rebound and wrapped around the goal to find Nathan Rabbitt, who put it in the wide-open net. Then Westborough’s Evan Leva fanned on a pass at his own blue line, leading to a breakaway and easy goal for Ryan Dodge.

The Rangers finally got on the board at 6:50 of the third period. G-D’s Eric Niemoller fanned on a shot from the blue line, allowing Jacob Uhlman to chase down the puck and head for the goal. Despite two Crusaders draped all over him, he still wriggled free and scored.

The Crusaders eventually put it away with 1:43 to go in the game, as Robert Hoare batted in a rebound out of midair with six players representing both teams scrambling in front of the net.

“We played Algonquin exactly the same way,” G-D head coach Phil Rowley said. “We outshot them and outplayed them, we just didn’t finish. But we had some nice finishes today, and we had some nice goals. We moved the puck well, and we had a lot of good shots.”

Westborough’s Dylan Kehoe got the last goal of the game 28 seconds later by scoring from a tough angle on his own rebound, but it was too little too late.

Eight different Crusaders had a point, and two had multi-point games: Perrault (goal, assist) and Bradley Garside (two assists).

In the games leading up to this win, the Crusaders have finally found their identity: pepper the opposing goalie with shots. And they lived up to that mantra by outshooting the Rangers 45-17, including margins of 14-3 in the first period and 17-4 in the second.

“That’s what we need,” Rowley said. “We don’t have any pure scorers, so we need to throw a lot of shots on net … It’s a work in progress. We’re trying to get them to feel good about themselves and do things with muscle memory instead of overthinking.

The Crusaders (1-4) have killed penalties at a 94% rate this season, and only built on that mark by killing all three penalties called against them. In fact, they ended up with more short-handed shots (three) than Westborough had power play shots (two).

“The penalty kill has been really good for us this year,” Rowley lauded. “We got some good power play looks today which we haven’t gotten in the past.”

Jan 072015

Marlborough Boys Outpace Crusaders 56-33

The Marlborough Panthers continued their surprising hot season with a 56-33 drubbing of the Groton-Dunstable Crusaders at G-DRHS Friday night, January 3.

Marlborough had three players score in double figures: Chris Doherty (15 points, four rebounds, four blocks, three assists) Joe Cappadonna (13 points, four rebounds, three assists), and Brian Short (10 points, six rebounds). Meanwhile, the Crusaders’ leading scorer, Danny Howes, had just eight points and six rebounds, and no starter scored more than five points.

“We were out of sync offensively for whatever reason,” G-D head coach Greg Gillette said. “When we don’t execute well, no one’s going to get good shots, and you end up getting a lot of forces.” Doherty, Marlborough’s 6’6″ freshman center, was the tallest player on the court, and thus was able to dominate the paint both offensively and defensively, though surprisingly he didn’t record a rebound until midway through the second quarter.

“[Doherty] protected the rim,” Gillette lauded. “I thought our big guys played well against him, but he’s a good player and a good shot blocker, and he made us change shots.”

The Crusaders got to the line far more often than the Panthers did, but only shot 10-of-18 compared to 5-of-6 for the visitors. They were also out-rebounded 35-27, and made just one three-pointer compared to five for Marlborough.

G-D captain Corey Romich, considered one of the best three-point shooters in central Massachusetts, was held to just four points and four rebounds, and did not record a basket from long-distance. Gillette said that he is still “banged up,” coming around the bend from injuries that are not limited to the injury he suffered in the first game of football season.

Despite all this, Gillette felt that the final score belied the effort his team put in.

“We played hard, we just didn’t execute well enough,” he said.

The Panthers, who did not make the state tournament last year, improved to 6-1 (2-0 Mid-Wach B), while the Crusaders fell to 2-4 (0-1 Mid-Wach B).

Nashoba Girls Squeak by G-D 61-59

In what could go down as one of the best games of the season, the Nashoba Chieftans overcame a 12-point deficit to squeak by the Groton-Dunstable Crusaders, 61-59, at G-DRHS Tuesday night.

With her team down by six entering the fourth quarter, Nashoba center Nikkiah Snoddy (24 points, 13 rebounds, three blocks, two steals) took off. She scored nine points in the final session and played a role in the final two plays of the game — the seal on the victory. First, with less than 15 seconds to go and the score tied at 59, she drew a double-team at the elbow, then found a cutting Erin Cressman (seven points, eight rebounds, three assists) for the go-ahead layup.

The Crusaders went cold offensively and scored just six points in the final eight minutes. After a G-D timeout with 7.5 seconds left, the Crusaders hesitated over taking the final shot — and Snoddy blocked the last-ditch effort with ease as the clock expired.

“We didn’t have an answer for [Snoddy],” G-D head coach Mark Hennelly said. “But I can’t fault the kids’ effort. It was a monumental step forward in comparison to the last couple [of games].”

The Crusaders played had to play catch-up themselves, trailing by as much as 11 early in the second quarter. But after Hennelly called timeout with 6:14 left, the Crusaders found their rhythm and outscored the Chieftains 22-6 to take a 37-32 lead into halftime. Lindsay Werner fueled the G-D offense, scoring 17 of her 24 points in the first half, while also collecting five rebounds, four steals, and two assists. Jenna Plausse also had a great game for the Crusaders, registering a double-double (11 points, 10 rebounds).

“Lindsay is going to be one of the most talented players on the floor on any given night,” Hennelly said. “She’s such a coachable kid.”

Hennelly also had high praise for Plausse: “Every single practice, every single game, I’ve never seen her take a breath. I’ll live and die with whatever happens with Jenna Plausse. She’ll play any position, she’ll guard any player.”

Both teams were plagued by turnovers, with Nashoba’s Kevyn Green doing the most damage — she collected eight steals, six in the first half, along with seven points and four rebounds.

“There were too many ill-conceived passes on our part,” Hennelly said. “It’s a double-edged sword. We have guards that can turn up the pace and make other teams turn it over, but sometimes we play too fast and we give it back. We’re trying to learn to play fast defensively and slow down offensively.”

G-D was helped out by Melyssa Langell (nine points, four rebounds), Nikki Eggimann (seven points, four rebounds). and Hanna Van Pelt (two points, eight rebounds). Nashoba received contributions from Kelly Poole (eight points, seven assists, five steals, three rebounds), Nicole Boucher (six points, three rebounds) Afton Burrell (five points, two rebounds).

“Langell’s defense was outstanding, and her offensive contributions took a step up,” Hennelly lauded. “And we need that from her. When she’s doing that, we’re a very tough team. She’s been working so exceptionally hard at practice.”

The win allowed the Chieftains to remain unbeaten at 7-0, while G-D fell to 4-4 with the loss. But Hennelly is already looking forward to the rematch at Nashoba on January 30.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we certainly can play with them,” he said. “I expect to go down there and have every opportunity to beat them in a couple of weeks.”

Dec 292014

The Groton-Dunstable Crusaders girl’s basketball team lost to the Algonquin Tomahawks 55-40 last Tuesday night at G-DRHS, but as G-D head coach Mark Hennelly affirmed, the game wasn’t even that close.

“It was a very disappointing performance,” Hennelly said. “I expected a lot more out of our team. It was by far our worst effort of the season.”

The Crusaders had very little offensive rhythm in the first half and trailed 27-19 at halftime. They went on a small run to cut the Algonquin lead to five early in the third quarter before three turnovers fueled a 10-2 Tomahawk run to put them up 38-25 and effectively seal the game there. The woes were only compounded early in the fourth quarter when Lindsay Werner, who was playing her first game of the season off the bench after sustaining an injury during soccer season, fouled out with only two points and two rebounds.

“That was the nail in the coffin,” Hennelly said. “The entire night, everything was sloppy … the turnovers were awful … we’ve got to get back to work.”

“It was the first time we had a full complement of players, but we came up way short,” he added.

Algonquin led by as much as 18, led by Emily Carens, the only player to score in double digits. She finished with 12 points, six rebounds, and four steals. Caroline Leonard chipped in eight points, three rebounds, and two assists.

“[Carens] is an outstanding player,” Hennelly said. “We knew that coming in, and we were prepared for the fact that she was going to be there, but we were certainly not up to the task of dealing with her.

The lone bright spots for the Crusaders were the play of Jenna Plausse (eight points, six rebounds) and Ariana Lacombe (eight points, seven rebounds off the bench). Hennelly was especially pleased with Lacombe’s effort.

“I thought Ariana was fantastic,” Hennelly lauded. “By far she was the most energetic kid on the floor for us. She was sprinting up and down. That’s where it starts. You at least have to put forth the energy and the effort, and she gave us that tonight, so I’m very proud of her.”

The Crusaders actually out-rebounded the Tomahawks 42-36. But Algonquin was much better at the free-throw line, shooting 21-for-33 (64%) compared to just 10-for-22 (45%) for G-D. Neither team made a three-pointer.

The Crusaders lost their second straight game to fall to 3-2 and are off until December 30th when they host Fitchburg. But Hennelly knows it’s still early in the season, and all is not lost.

“I’m OK with everything that’s gone on this season so far except for the effort tonight,” Hennelly said.

Dec 232014

BEDFORD — A controversial icing call led to three goals on three consecutive shots for the Bedford Buccaneers, boosting them to a 4-2 victory over the Groton-Dunstable Crusaders Saturday night at the Bedford Edge. Tied 1-1 in the second period, the aforementioned icing call led to a faceoff in the Crusader zone, even though the Buccaneers appeared to commit the violation. Crusader head coach Phil Rowley asked the officials for an explanation, but was dissatisfied with the one he got. The ensuing faceoff led to a prolonged chance for the Buccaneers that resulted in the go-ahead goal at 6:20 scored by David Bartkus off a feed from Josh Berenson.

“They said it was a new rule this year,” G-D head coach Phil Rowley said. “I thought it was supposed to be a center-ice draw.”

That opened the floodgates. The Buccaneers scored on their next two shots in the ensuing 1:53. On a race for the puck into the G-D zone, Michael Barr caught up to it as it went around the net and buried it backdoor past Crusader goalie Nevin Tardiff (15 saves). Josh Parella finished the Bedford scoring at 8:13.

“We were still in it, but we made some mental mistakes,” Rowley said.

Trailing 1-0 after one period, the Crusaders got some momentum back at 3:31 on a short-handed goal by Eric Niemoller, who stripped a Bedford defenseman of the puck at the blue line and raced all the way to the goal to beat Bedford netminder Matt Judge (28 saves).

Bedford’s Ethan Miller opened the scoring at 10:07 of the first period when he and Jake Citrano were all alone with Tardiff. Citrano passed to Miller on his right, who beat Tardiff over his right shoulder. Bradley Garside had the final goal of the game at 8:02 of the third period, as he lifted the puck into the top corner from a tough angle. The Crusaders had plenty of chances to make the game more competitive, but poor puck control foiled two breakaway attempts, and two more shots rang off the crossbar.

“We couldn’t convert on those breakaways,” Rowley said. “We had some decent shots from the point, but we couldn’t get the rebounds. We had some chances, no doubt about it. But we had some breakdowns, and we lost it on our own.”

The Crusaders (0-2) are off until Monday, December 29th when they visit Shrewsbury.

Dec 152014

The Groton-Dunstable Crusaders were bounced from the MIAA Division 3 Central hockey tournament by the Wachusett Mountaineers for the second consecutive year in March. Graduating from that squad were five key contributors: Josh Rabbit, Justin Cole, Derek March, Connor Maguire, and perhaps most importantly, goaltender Jason Robes.

“Robes was a four-year starter,” G-D head coach Phil Rowley said. “We have four goalies trying out. We’ll see who wins the job.”

The Crusaders had a strong 2013-14 campaign, finishing the regular season 16-4-1 (7-1 league) and winning 13 straight at one point. While inexperience between the pipes will be a concern, they’ll have plenty of veterans – and speed – amongst their skaters, with Pat Keating, Eric Niemoller, and Bradley Garside as captains, plus John Lagnan, Ryan Dodge, Chris Lattini, and Harry Perrault returning to the starting lineup. Cam Strong, Robert Hoare, and Mike Cole are also expected to make key contributions.

Rowley is in his third year coaching the Crusaders. He said his team has three big games to look forward to on their schedule: two against Shrewsbury (at Northstar Arena in Westborough on December 29 and at the Groton School on Februrary 11), and on January 21 at the Groton School when they look to get revenge against Wachusett. He also said that his team’s goals are simple:

“Be competitive and get better every time we hit the ice,” he said. The Crusaders will get their first chance to do that on December 13 against Leominster at Fitchburg State.

Over at the Groton School, the Zebras finished last season at 16-8-3 and defeated Westminster 3-2 in the NEPSAC quarterfinals before falling 2-1 to Dexter in the semis.

This season, head coach Bill Riley will have two offensive juggernauts that will hopefully power his team to another playoff berth: junior Mike Brown and senior Ace Cowans, who is committed to the University of Vermont.

Cowans was one of the NEPSAC’s leading scorers, with 25 goals and 31 assists, while Brown had 23 goals and 26 assists. Cowans will be one of three captains for Groton, along with Dorien Lewellyn and Jason Cahoon. Brown, Cowans, and Cahoon are all returning starters, as is Matt Winter.

Riley knows his team has the offense to compete, but wants to see improvement on defense. Overall, however, he says he has “a great group of hockey players [that are] extremely competitive.”

Groton’s season opener is Wednesday at North Yarmouth Academy in Yarmouth, Maine.

Lawrence Academy head coach Robbie Barker did not return multiple requests for comment. The Spartans won their season opener Wednesday 4-2 over Milton.

Nov 282014

Having a taste of victory from Colonel Tyng's cupSam Feeley

Having a taste of victory from Colonel Tyng’s cup

The Groton-Dunstable Crusaders “weathered the storm,” head coach Derek Asadoorian said, both literally and figuratively.

Players, coaches, and volunteers worked late Wednesday night into Thanksgiving Day morning to get the snowy field at Groton-Dunstable Regional High School ready for a 10:15 kickoff in the high school’s annual holiday game with the Tyngsboro Tigers.

Their hard work paid off. The Crusaders came away with a 27-6 victory over the Tigers, the third consecutive win for the Crusaders after losing to Shepherd Hill in the Division 4 North quarterfinals, and their fifth consecutive Thanksgiving Day victory over Tyngsboro.

“We’ve had a lot of adversity this season,” Asadoorian said. “I can’t be prouder of the players and the community for getting this ready. It means a lot to play this game on Thanksgiving Day, and the community realized that, and we got the job done.”

“I think Shepherd Hill was a turning point for us,” senior running back Joey Orlando said. “We didn’t really have an identity as a team. I think that game broke us in and made us mentally tough. We’ve been riding that train ever since. I’m really proud of the team effort.”

Orlando ran for 192 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, almost all of which came after the first quarter. He rattled off rushes of 18, 22, 66, and 29 as part of his effort, and scored the final touchdown of the game from one yard out with eight minutes left in the fourth. He saved arguably the best performance of his career for his final game, winning game MVP honors along the way, but he was quick to credit his teammates for helping him.

“It’s not me out there, it’s a team effort,” Orlando said. “The o-line played great today, and without [them], I wouldn’t win that trophy, and we wouldn’t have won this game. The awards are secondary. The win’s more important.”

After allowing the first score of the game in the first quarter by Tigers running back Jake Keenan (109 all-purpose yards), the Crusaders seized control on their first play from scrimmage when sophomore quarterback Nate Forbes (4-of-7, 86 yards, three touchdowns), the third quarterback the Crusaders have used this season, found Jack Battles for his only reception of the game, a 33-yard touchdown strike to tie the game at 6.

“We were able to answer right away. That was big,” Asadoorian said. “That gets us our confidence back and makes sure we don’t start doubting ourselves. After that point, I thought we played pretty good football.”

Though the Crusaders are not usually a passing team, Forbes, who may have been trying to upstage his brother Quinton’s performance in last year’s Thanksgiving game, later found Mitch Townsend and Drew Moore for touchdown passes of 14 and 33 yards, respectively.

“[Nate]’s wise beyond his years,” Asadoorian said. “We didn’t ask him to win games, we asked him to manage them, and make plays when they’re there, and that’s what he did today.”

The Crusader defense rose to the occasion as well after the first score, registering two sacks and holding Tyngsboro quarterback David Walker to just 3-of-16 passing for 11 yards. They also held the Tigers (8-3) to 164 yards of total offense, 3-of-12 on third down conversions, and 2-of-6 on fourth down.

A snowy Thanksgiving didn't cool off the Groton-Dunstable Crusaders, who nailed their fifth bowl win over TyngsboroughSam Feeley | The Groton Line

A snowy Thanksgiving didn’t cool off the Groton-Dunstable Crusaders, who nailed their fifth bowl win over Tyngsborough

Nov 162014

EASTHAMPTON — On the scoreboard, it came down to one point. But if you ask Paul Zukauskas what amounted to the difference between his Lawrence Academy Spartans and the Williston Northampton School Wildcats on Saturday, it was simple — love.

“They love the game of football,” Zukauskas said of his Hugh Caldera Bowl champion Spartans, who defeated the Wildcats in a nail-biter, 35-34, to claim the 2014 New England Preparatory School Athletic Council Hugh Caldera Bowl championship at Sawyer Field on Saturday afternoon. “They wanted to win and they cared about each other. You can win football games that way,” the coach said.

It was the eighth consecutive victory for the Spartans after dropping the season opener to Governor’s. The team lost one game this season.

After falling behind 27-0 at halftime, the Wildcats — specifically, running back Max Chipouras — came out of the locker room on a mission. Chipouras rushed for four touchdowns and 91 yards in the third quarter alone to give the Wildcats a 28-27 lead. During the furious rally, the Wildcats mixed in a successful onside kick, a diving catch in double coverage by Marshall Rizzuto (two catches = 51 yards), and a firm denial of Lawrence running back AJ Dillon, who was held to just 49 rushing yards in the second half after notching 110 yards in the first half.

After being hit with Chipouras’s haymakers, the Spartans answered the proverbial bell in the fourth quarter and regained the lead. The defense forced a Williston three-and-out, then Jake Cassidy (11-of-22, 160 yards) found Timothy Preston (four catches, 118 yards) for their third touchdown hookup of the game. Cassidy found Preston again on the ensuing 2-point conversion, and the Spartans led 35-28 with just under 11 minutes to go in the fourth.

The Wildcats found the end zone one more time on another Chipouras touchdown. They went for the two-point conversion and the lead, but the Spartan defense stopped Chipouras (265 all-purpose yards) in the backfield, preserving a one-point edge.

“Give credit to both teams,” Zukauskas said. “Both teams came out and played a great football game. [Williston] did an outstanding job in the second half, but our kids responded nonetheless.”

After a Lawrence punt, the teams traded turnovers on the next four possessions, including a bizarre sequence for the Lawrence offense. Trying to run out the clock, Williston took their final timeout after a run up the middle on first down. The Spartans took two knees before realizing that they would have to snap it on fourth down. Cassidy took the snap and tried to run out the clock, but the Williston defense stopped him for a huge loss at the Lawrence 36 yard line with four seconds left, enabling the Wildcats to get one last shot at a game-winning touchdown.

However, the Spartan defense held up, as Williston quarterback John Aywayrd (5-for-18, 91 yards; nine carries, 81 yards) threw his fifth and final interception of the game, and the second into the hands of Christian Garrison, setting off the celebration for the Spartans.

“We had a lot of high hopes,” Zukauskas said. “This was the expectation for the team. We didn’t have a great season last year. They knew it, and there was a feeling that we could have a great season. We lost the opener, but we never looked back. It’s such a strong group of kids, and they really care for each other. They really respond to one another, they have a great time together. It was fun to coach them.”

In the first half, Cassidy and Dillon each scored a rushing touchdown, and Preston had two receiving touchdowns.

“Williston put in an amazing effort. But to see the work that our kids put in, to see they way they responded in pressure — that’s a well coached team and that’s a well-led team,” Head of School Dan Scheibe said, who traversed Massachusetts to watch the Spartans win. “It’s a big tribute to the seniors and a huge tribute to the coaching staff, particularly Coach Zukauskas.”

In the end, though, the head coach said it was the players themselves who should garner the most praise.

“Anytime you win a league and win a bowl game, you need leadership — from the players’ perspective; it’s more important than the coaches’ perspective,” said Zukauskas, who moments before had told his players, “I love you guys. Thank you for what you’ve given this school. Thank you for what you’ve given this team.”