Franklin senior Jack Marino denied King Philip on a 4th and 1 situation just beyond midfield with two minutes left in the game to help the Panthers secure a 27-20 win over the Warriors in the 61st Thanksgiving clash between the two teams.
With the win, Franklin clinches its first-ever Hockomock League Kelley-Rex division title and first league crown since 2009. It also snaps a 10-game Thanksgiving skid and an 18-game overall streak to the Warriors, their first win over KP since the same year they won their last title.
“It’s incredibly satisfying, and I’m obviously proud as the coach but I’m just happy for the kids and the town,” said Franklin head coach Eian Bain. “The last couple of years, this game has been good and there’s been some close ones and not so close ones. Eventually, these are games we have to win to move our program forward.
“This is a step in the right direction, and hopefully, our young kids realize what they can do if they keep working. But as awesome as this is, I hope they realize this took a lot of work from a lot of young men. I’m just really happy for the kids to see that hard work pay off today.”
The teams traded touchdowns in the third quarter, the latter — plus a two-point conversion — had the hosts ahead 27-20 going into the final quarter of play.
The Warriors were marching into Franklin territory as the final minutes ticked off the clock. KP punted on its second drive of the second half and then fumbled in Panther territory on its previous drive.
A heavy dose of junior Rudy Gately (24 carries, 162 yards) and Crawford Cantave (14 carries, 72 yards) had the Warriors over midfield, but Will Astorino’s third down run was stopped a yard shy of the marker on a tackle from Luke Davis and Cullen Pek.
On fourth down, Marino came flying through the offensive line and met Gately in the backfield for a loss of yards and a turnover on downs.
Mack Gulla (16 carries, 109 yards) ran for back-to-back first downs and the Panthers ran the clock out to secure their first win in the series in over a decade.
“Me and [Nick Quintina], we knew it was going to be either me or him that had to make the play, we needed to make a play and make a tackle,” Marino said. “Rudy is a hard runner, I’m good friends with him but I was able to get through the gap and he was there for me to make the play.
“It’s great to get this win…the rivalry between Franklin and KP has always been there all the way back to Pop Warner. They’ve had our number for a decade or so, but it’s great to get the last one, especially for the seniors.”
“Jack is one of the savviest athletes out there,” Bain said. “Coach [Zach] Brown would say the same thing with baseball…looking back at any big win, there’s a moment when Jack Marino turned the tide.”
While it was the perfect end for Franklin, it was far from the perfect start.
King Philip’s defense forced a quick three-and-out and its offense needed little time to find the end zone. Gately broke free up the middle for 64 yards and three plays later, senior quarterback Charlie Grant (4/9, 84 yards) went play action and hit classmate Drew Danson in the back of the end zone for a 7-0 lead less than four minutes into the game.
Things went from bad to worse for the Panthers as they fumbled on their first carry of the ensuing drive and KP pounced on the loose ball, taking over in Franklin territory.
The Warriors needed just four plays again, helped along by a 33-yard pass and catch from Grant to Danny Clancy down the right sideline down to the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Grant kept it himself on the sneak and Matthew Kelley booted the point after for a 14-0 lead with 5:55 left in the first quarter.
“You’re up 14-0 and you keep trying to tell the kids it’s not going to last,” KP head coach Brian Lee said. “You want to try and jump on them as much as possible early. I think if we had maybe one more there…but it just comes back to the little things.
“The quick reaction is jeez, we made a lot of mistakes but how much of that is from the pressure [Franklin] was bringing on us? It makes you a little antsy, jump offside, lineup wrong, just little things like that…you like to think it’s us self-destructing but I think it’s the pressure they put on us. That’s what happens playing against a very good team.”
Franklin had to punt on its third drive but the Panther defense delivered a big stop, cooling some of KP’s momentum.
After a first down run from Gulla, Bain dipped into his bag of tricks and the Panthers executed a perfect flea flicker. Gulla took the handoff but tossed it back to Jared Arone (11/17, 231 yards, 3 TD) and he hit Shane Kindred (5 catches, 159 yards, 3 TD) in stride for an 85-yard touchdown with just over a minute left in the first. Sean King blocked the point after for KP but Franklin was on the board, down 14-6.
Helped by a holding call, KP’s offense went backward on its next series. A third-down pooch punt didn’t travel as far as the Warriors’ hoped and Franklin took over at the KP 45-yard line with 9:19 left in the second.
Arone broke free from a facemask hold and weaved his way to a 45-yard score, only for a block in the back to offset the penalties and nullify the play. But the Panthers’ offense carried on as Arone hit Will Deschenes to convert a fourth down and on the next play, Arone hit Kindred up the left hash for a 17-yard touchdown, making it 14-13 after Garrett Portesi’s extra point.
A false start and a tackle for loss from Marino stalled KP’s next drive, and a sack from Jay Gulla ended it as the Warriors had to punt it back.
Franklin’s offense capitalized on the momentum as Arone hit Kindred to convert an early third down, and the duo hooked up two plays later on the right side and Kindred managed to stay inbounds, racing up the right sideline and diving into the end zone. Hunter Hastings blocked another point after attempt but the Panthers had a 19-14 lead at halftime.
“I think we’ve been in that situation a couple of times, and even though you might get your confidence rattled a little bit, we’re still a pretty good football team,” Bain said of facing an early deficit. “And as long as we kept believing, I think the biggest thing was just having our kids settle down. You want them to play with emotion but they had to settle down and once we hit the big play to Shane at the end of the first quarter, and then we got a stop that we needed and we settled in.
“KP did an awesome job, they’re going to Gillette for a reason. Kind of like last week, we knew they’d score points and make big plays, we just had to take it one series at a time. You can’t hit fast forward to the fourth quarter and the game is over, we had to work for it and earn it.”
KP opened the second half in typical Warrior style: a 9-play, 70-yard march down the field to retake the lead. Gately and Cantave alternated carries, and Grant hit Gately for 25 yards out of the backfield on a third and long. Cantave capped the drive by backing his way across the goal line for a 6-yard touchdown.
The two-point pass was broken up in the corner of the end zone by Franklin’s Devine Johnson.
Franklin went three-and-out on its first drive of the second half after a pass break up on third by KP’s Kelley. But the Panthers’ defense bounced back and stuffed the Warriors, who went for it on 4th down from the Franklin 32-yard line.
“I think it was good to get back to our identity and our reality,” Bain said of the defense. “Certainly, Springfield Central can take anyone out of their comfort zone and King Philip does it in a totally different way, and that’s hard. It’s hard to keep getting hit in the mouth and then you’re down 14. You have to ask yourself, do I want to keep getting hit in the face over and over and over again. Our guys didn’t back down…it was hard, and they’ll be sore tomorrow but they kept answering the bell time and time again, getting off the mat. In the fourth quarter, they made a couple of plays that were key to winning the game.”
Gulla made a nice catch on the left sideline for 19 yards to move the sticks and then bulldozed his way for 10 yards on the ground and another first down. Four plays later, he ran up the middle for a 5-yard touchdown.
On the two-point try, Arone went to the right on the bootleg but didn’t have anyone open so he raced back to the left and into the end zone for a successful conversion and a 27-20 lead.
“I don’t want to think if we did lose, but I think they still would have had a great career but I think this was needed for them,” Bain said of his senior class. “I think a couple of classes before them, I think they feel a part of this too but this group pushed us over the hump. Everyone got screwed out of a normal experience last year but to bounce back and to have this, for this to be their last high school football memory, it couldn’t be more fitting for this group of kids.
It was the first time in nearly a decade that Thanksgiving games counted towards division titles in the Hockomock League. With the new rating system, the league elected to have Thanksgiving count as a league game with holiday rivals only playing once in the season, rather than twice as they had for the past eight years.
King Philip still has one game left as the Warriors are headed to Gillette Stadium to play Catholic Memorial in the Division 2 State Championship game. But the Warriors weren’t focused on next week just yet. KP played all of its starters.
“We were focused on this game…you have to respect their seniors, that’s a great team and they want to know they beat us with our guys,” Lee said. “They deserve that shot, that opportunity after the season they’ve had. And we wanted our guys to have a shot at the league title. Yeah, we’re going to the Super Bowl but who knows what’s going to happen? We’re playing against an absolute animal of a team. But with a chance at the Hock title, we wanted to try and go get it.”
Franklin finishes the season at 10-1 and a perfect 5-0 in Kelley-Rex division play. King Philip enters its showdown with CM next week at 9-2.