By Joe Clark, HockomockSports.com Student Reporter
FOXBORO, Mass. – It nearly had the makings of a terrific comeback.
North Attleboro had just cut the deficit to nine, closing the gap to 35-26 behind junior Brendan McHugh‘s third touchdown of the day. Now the defense was tasked with somehow forcing a turnover against a red-hot St. John’s Shrewsbury offense.
With 5:32 left in the game, on 3rd and 12, St. John’s Shrewsbury quarterback Steve Bucciaglia hit his receiver over the middle for what looked to be a first down, and possibly the play that would end North’s comeback attempt. Instead of a first down though, Thomas Lockavitch ripped the ball free for a fumble, recovering it himself and North Attleboro took over at the SJS 48-yard line with a chance to get back in the game.
After an incomplete pass on first down, Chad Peterson (23-30, 218 yards, two touchdowns) hit Marion Bresko for an 18-yard completion to get down to the St. John’s 29-yard line. On the next play, St John’s pressure resulted in an intentional grounding call and on 2nd and 22, Ian Schade brought pressure and picked up St. John’s first sack of the day, a five-yard loss, which pushed North back to the St. John’s 46.
Then, a false start on the Red Rocketeers pushed them back even further. On 3rd and 32 from their own 49, Peterson found Ryan Gaumond for a nine-yard gain, but North’s fourth down attempt was incomplete and St. John’s took back possession with a nine-point lead and just three minutes to play.
North hung tough and got their first stop on downs of the night against St. John’s explosive offense. Back on offense, they found the end zone on a Peterson 14 yard strike to Nate Pearce, but the ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Pioneers, securing a 35-33 decision over the Rocketeers in the D3 State Final.
The turning point in the game came with 1:39 left in the third quarter, with North Attleboro trailing 28-20. St John’s was facing a 3rd and 12 from its own 26 yard line after back to back negative plays, and North sent a blitz but the offensive line picked it up just long enough for Bucciaglia (17-22, 224 yards, three TD) to deliver a perfect strike down the middle to an open John Brunelle on a post route for a 74-yard touchdown and a 35-20 lead.
“I felt like the momentum had started to swing on those first couple of downs and we had them back on their heels a little bit, and that’s what great teams can do, they come up with big plays in those crucial situations,” North Attleboro head coach Don Johnson said about the play.
“They were in zero coverage, man to man, sent the blitz, and our receivers are just so knowledgeable, they know what to run, and John [Brunelle] just got wide open and made it easy for me, that was all him,” Bucciaglia said about the game-breaking play.
St. John’s no-huddle offense got to work immediately, as their opening drive lasted just 2:32 and was capped off with a ten-yard Bucciaglia touchdown pass to Coleman Drugotch.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve seen an offense with that kind of tempo, ironically I think the last time was the last Super Bowl we were in, against Swampscott, and we came out on top of that one 44-40, but this one I think was even faster in their tempo,” Johnson added about the St. John’s offense.
Despite the prowess of North Attleboro’s defense, the plethora of weapons and up-tempo style that St. John’s ran proved hard to stop. Still, the Red Rocketeers made plays on offense to stay in the game and never let it get out of hand.
North responded immediately, marching down the field before Peterson hit senior Zach DeMattio out in the flat for a three-yard touchdown.
In the see-saw affair, SJS struck again before the end of the first quarter behind a four-yard rush from Colin Deso. But once again, North’s offense was there with an answer as McHugh took the jet sweep to the right for a nine-yard score and a 14-14 score just before the midway point of the second quarter.
“We came in and were fairly confident we could move the ball against them, and I thought the key to the game was going to be could we get a couple of stops on defense, and we just didn’t get enough,” Johnson added.
SJS took a 20-14 lead on its next drive, and North Attleboro ran out of time at half before it could respond. Big Red was unable to get things going on the first drive of the second half, resulting in the game’s first punt. The Pioneers made North pay, taking it down before Eamonn Dennis found the end zone from 15-yards out and a 28-14 lead.
McHugh got his second touchdown of the game, a three yard-rush, late in the third quarter to make it 28-20. Just over a minute later, Bucciaglia had his 74-yard touchdown.
“The defensive game plan going in, we knew they could run the ball, they have a couple 300 pounders up front so we were worried about that, but there’s only so much you can do to commit to that run game because those guys can throw all over the place,” Johnson said.
North cut it to nine with 6:38 left int he game when Peterson threw a pass to Nick Raneri behind the line of scrimmage, and the junior running back and backup quarterback floated a pass to McHugh right on the goal line for the touchdown.
For St. John’s Shrewsbury, the win caps off an undefeated 13-0 season that saw Bucciaglia have a record-setting season at quarterback. The Pioneers beat Doherty Memorial, Shrewsbury, and Springfield Central on their path to the state title game. It marks their first state title since 2010, when they were in Division 1.
North Attleboro finishes its season at 11-2.
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