The Rocketeers, who opened the season with a double-digit loss to rival Bishop Feehan, have come a long way from that point.
Now, the Big Red is heading to Gillette Stadium for the Division 3 State Final.
Behind a pair of key defensive stops in the second half, North Attleboro pulled away from a gritty Billerica squad for a 28-10 win in a D3 State Semifinal clash at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium in Quincy.
“That was about exactly what we expected, it was pretty clear that they were going to be a tough team no matter what,” said North Attleboro coach Don Johnson. “I think if we didn’t get those two penalties in the first half, maybe it would have been a different game, but they hurt us. Those would have been stops with good field position. But [Billerica] is tough, they have playmakers…they’re a good football team.”
With its back against the wall, North Attleboro’s defense delivered.
Billerica seemingly had all of the momentum after forcing a rare turnover from the Rocketeers on one end of the field, and now was in position to take the lead after a lengthy, double-digit play drive that put the ball inside North’s 5-yard line.
On the Indians’ 10th play of the drive, a 1st and goal attempt from the four down 14-10, the Rocketeers defense not only stuffed Billerica up the middle, they forced the ball free and recovered to end the drive.
“That was the first time all year that I felt like we got a lucky break,” Johnson said. “Now I mean there are kids working hard that caused that to happen but those are the things that have been happening against us. That was one time where it really worked out for us.”
And even when North wasn’t able to get any points on its ensuing 12-play, 80-yard drive because of a blocked punt, the defense didn’t let Billerica capitalize on that momentum. They forced a quick three-and-out, and from that point on it was all North.
Freshman Chase Frisoli converted a third down with a 24-yard pass to junior Jack Munley to move inside the red zone. And despite a false start penalty three plays later that cornered North into a 3rd and 14, Frisoli hit senior Tyler DeMattio for a 17-yard score and the Rocketeers had some breathing room up 21-10 with 6:18 to play.
After just two pass attempts in the first half, Frisoli went 5/8 in the second half for 92 yards and a score.
“We thought going in that we were maybe going to have trouble running the ball and we might have to ask more of him,” Johnson said. “We worked on the pass game a lot and I think he’s just showed tremendous poise for a freshman and he did that tonight.”
Billerica moved into North territory on the ensuing drive in an effort to make it a one-score game but DeMattio and Kaiden Leary combined for a tackle for a loss on second down and the Rocketeers stuffed a fourth down run two plays later to get the ball back.
And just two plays later, DeMattio broke free through the left side for a 72-yard touchdown run, shaking one more defender just before the goal line to ice the win with 1:17 to play — his third rushing score of the game and fourth overall. He also booted all four of North’s extra points.
Billerica’s lone touchdown drive — its second series of the game — had originally ended with a punt but a running into the kicker penalty shortened fourth down and the Indians kept the drive alive. The Indians capitalized on that momentum as junior quarterback Joseph Green scored from 4 yards out to take a 10-7 lead, which was Billerica’s lone advantage of the evening.
“The front seven has played great this year, and our secondary has been awesome,” said senior captain Jared Vacher. “That fumble just completely flipped the game. After that, it was our game and we were able to take over. [Dominic Gird] was quick but we were just trying to mix it up. Their quarterback was pretty good and broke some plays, it was my first time playing against that muddle huddle.
“After our first loss to Feehan, Coach [Paul] Sullivan told us a story about a team from the 2000s that lost their first game but won out the rest of the year and I think that brought us so much hope. We bought in and each we’ve gotten better and better, and that’s what it’s all about. Our goal all along was Gillette and it’s awesome to finally achieve that.”
North opened the game in style, marching 60 yards on seven plays on the first drive of the game to take a 7-0 lead. DeMattio (16 carries, 174 yards) and senior Tyler Bannon (12 carries, 56 yards) split the workload, including back-to-back first down runs early in the drive.
Billerica’s defense forced the Rocketeers into a 4th and 5 situation at the Indians’ 34-yard line. Without hesitation, North kept the offense on the field and DeMattio followed a block from Bannon up the left side for a 34-yard touchdown with 8:13 left in first.
The Indians used a combination of runs from back Joseph Gird (17 carries, 53 yards) and keeper runs from Green (18 carries, 104 yards) — plus a roughing the passer call — to move down the field on its opening drive but the Rocketeers’ defense stood tall in its own territory, getting key tackles from Bannon, DeMattio, Vacher, Greg Berthiaume, and Keysun Wise among others, plus strong coverage in the secondary from Joey Perriello.
Billerica settled for a 40-yard field goal from Shaan Rana to get on the board, down 7-3 with 2:51 left in the first.
Green’s 4-yard touchdown run after the running into the kicker call put Billerica up 10-7 with 8:05 left in the second quarter but North was back ahead less than five minutes later.
Frisoli found Gavin Wells for 35-yards on the second play of the drive, Nathan Shultz had back-to-back carries, and Bannon rumbled his way for 16 yards to move the offense into scoring position. From there, DeMattio took it in from 5 yards out for a 14-10 lead with 3:49 left in the half.
Following its first two scoring drives, Billerica punted on three of its next four drives (fumbling on the other), turned it over on downs, and then ran out of time to end the game on the final drive. The Indians had 219 yards of offense but went just 1-for-5 on third down in the second half.
“That was the other thing, we didn’t give up many big plays,” Johnson said. “We knew they kind of liked to grind it out so we didn’t see them on film making a lot of big plays. Our game plan was to try and stop their run game and force them into passing situations, which I feel like we didn’t do enough.”
North Attleboro (7-3) advances to play at Gillette Stadium (date and time TBA) against top-seeded Marblehead (10-0), who routed Westfield, 40-7, in the other semifinal.