BROCKTON, Mass. – King Philip has been in these type of games before. Despite trailing by two points going into halftime of Friday night’s Div. 2 state semifinal at Brockton’s Marciano Stadium, the Warriors remained confident that they could turn things around.
In the third quarter, KP ran 20 plays to Milford’s one. The Warriors ate up more than nine minutes off the clock on a 16-play, go-ahead drive to start the half, forced a turnover, and then ran another 10 plays and used up more than four minutes to extend the lead. Before the Hawks had a chance to find their footing after the break, KP had taken control of the game.
The Warriors scored 17 unanswered in the second half, turning a two-point deficit into a 31-16 victory that sends KP to Gillette Stadium for the fourth time in the past six years (or four out of the past five seasons where a state title was up for grabs).
“We knew we weren’t getting that good of a push up front and we wanted to come out there and we wanted to set the tone for the second half,” said senior lineman Hunter Hastings about turning things around out of halftime. “We knew we had to do it on the first drive, so we came out there and we pounded the ball and we took up time and scored the ball, doesn’t get better than that.”
He added, “Coach Lee tells us what we need to do and he knows we’re going to be in these situations and he knows we’ve got to fight through the adversity and that’s what we do at KP.”
Milford came out with a hurry-up offense, trying to get the KP defense on its heels and slow down the pass rush. It worked on the opening drive, as the Hawks marched right down field, going 70 yards on 13 plays, and taking the lead. The big play was a 30-yard pass to the sideline from Evan Cornelius to Jayden Agnew to convert on third and long. Cornelius would finish off the drive with a 4-yard keeper.
“We wanted to go hurry-up early, but we just don’t have the numbers to sustain that for a whole game,” Milford coach Dale Olson said. “Tried to limit their blitz package and had a great first drive.”
The lead lasted all of 19 seconds. Although Milford is known more for the big-play offense, KP hit paydirt on its first play from scrimmage. An end around to Crawford Cantave caught the Hawks over-pursuing and the senior raced up the sideline for a 70-yard touchdown that quickly tied the game.
“You get knocked down, you’ve got to get up, you’ve got to have a response,” Lee explained. “Craw gets us right back in so we get a fresh start. I told them, let’s get through it, eventually the pace will slow, things will get down, and we’ll get back on schedule.”
Olson said, “Give them props, that’s a new formation we saw last week and they ran the double handoff. Our team’s chasing the first handoff and they give it to the kid going the other way and we haven’t seen it on film. It was a great call on their part.”
Isaiah Pantalone, who was held to one catch, broke a 54-yard return on the ensuing kick and the Hawks were back in business, starting at the KP 36. After a false start brought up first and 15 at the 30, Cornelius hit Nick Schuler for 13 yards. Tyler Lane (15 carries, 119 yards) got two to bring up fourth and one. The Hawks lined up to go for it but a false start backed them up, so the field goal unit came out. Another false start made it a 43-yard kick, which KP blocked.
On the final possession of the first quarter, KP struck again. Charlie Grant (4-of-9, 38 yards) converted a third and long with a 12-yard pass over the middle to Danny Clancy. On third and two from the Milford 49, Rudy Gately (22 carries, 134 yards) found a little seam between the right guard and tackle and burst through it, breaking away for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.
Milford again got into KP territory on its next drive. Lane had the big play with a 43-yard rush down to the 32, but that’s where the possession stalled. Sean King blocked a fourth down pass to get the ball back, but the Warriors went three-and-out and punted. With the short field, Milford was able to tack on three points. A nice play by Cantave and William Astorino on third down forced the Hawks to settle for a 32-yard kick by Nicholas Araujo.
The biggest play of the half came on KP’s next possession. Milford brought a big rush to try and block Grant’s rugby-style punt. Lane got through for the block, scooped up the loose ball, and took it the distance. He appeared to be tackled at about the five, but somehow managed to stay on his feet and find the end zone. Although a low snap led to a missed extra point, Milford regained the lead going into the break, 16-14.
KP came out intent on grinding down the Milford defense. Nathan Kearney converted on third and one, then Grant hit Clancy for eight yards to convert on third and eight. Gately converted back-to-back third downs, as KP just kept pounding the ball up the middle and moving the chains.
The Hawks were able to get stops inside the 30 and force the Warriors to settle for a 38-yard Matthew Kelley field goal, but KP had used up 9:19 off the clock, ran 16 plays, regained the lead, and stolen all of the energy from the opposite sideline. Milford tried to take a shot on the first play of its first possession, but Crawford was able to go up and intercept a pass to Pantalone and get KP the ball back at the Hawks 42.
“We ran one play in the third quarter and it’s a 50-50 ball that goes through Isaiah’s hands into one of their best player’s hands,” Olson said. “Usually Isaiah makes that play and it’s a big play down the sideline, but that’s the game of football.”
Four plays later, the third quarter came to a close. Milford had run one play in 12 minutes. After Grant found Cantave in the flat to convert third and five, Gately got four straight carries down to the 10. On third and six, Grant looked for Clancy in the end zone. The pass fell incomplete but the officials called defensive holding, which gave KP another chance. Now, on third and one from the five, Gately got the call, spun out of a tackle in the backfield, and scored for the second time.
“Rudy doesn’t look like your typical pound back but he finds a way to make things happen when he gets the ball in his hands,” said Lee. “Craw was able to do it and the offensive line had a response. We made some big pass plays. We made plays.”
A short punt on Milford’s next possession meant that the Warriors got the ball back near midfield and they went right back to grinding out first downs. Facing third and nine from the 14, Gately somehow managed to keep his feet moving, breaking tackles in the backfield again, and moving the pile down to the five for a first and goal. Two plays later, Cantave punched it in from the three for a 31-16 lead.
Thomas Brewster broke up a pass play on the sideline and Jake Sullivan sacked Cornelius (8-of-20, 63 yards), not allowing Milford to put together a drive to try and cut into the lead in the final two minutes.
When asked how it feels to be heading back to a state title game, Hastings replied, “It’s never felt better. We come to play every week. We don’t care who we’re against.”
Olson remarked, “I’m proud of my kids. We’re still trying to build this and for us to be in this game is huge for this program.”
This will be the fifth Div. 2 (2016 was D1A) Super Bowl in a row, and eighth in the last 11 years, that has featured either King Philip or Mansfield. Only two times in the past 11 years, 2014 and 2015, has the Hock not had at least one team reach a Super Bowl.
King Philip (9-1) will face Franklin on Thanksgiving Day to decide the Kelley-Rex division title and then will await the winner of No. 1 Catholic Memorial and No. 4 Marshfield in the Super Bow. Milford (8-3) will face Taunton in the first Thanksgiving Day matchup between the two programs.
“It feels awesome,” Lee said about heading back to Gillette. He added with a laugh, “I love that we have a humungous Thanksgiving Day game against, you know, the third best team in the state before. We can’t enjoy it for long.”
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