NATICK, Mass. – As the celebrations took place all around him at Natick’s Memorial Field, Mansfield coach Mike Redding was able to smile and joke about the old adage that an ugly win is so much better than a beautiful loss. That counts double this time of the year.
The Hornets racked up nearly 100 yards in penalties, had three first half drives stall inside the red zone, and didn’t score a touchdown until the fourth quarter of Friday night’s Div. 2 South title game, but still walked away with a 22-3 road win against top seed, and previously unbeaten, Natick.
It was the defense that carried Mansfield to its first Super Bowl since 2013. The Hornets allowed only 45 rushing yards, six yards passing, had three sacks, and held Natick to only two first downs on the night. Both first downs came on one drive in the first half, and one came by way of a penalty.
“As sophomores they lost in the semis, lost last year in the finals, this year we get there and win it, so every year they just go a step further,” Mansfield coach Mike Redding said of his senior class. “They’ve overcome a lot of stuff, injuries, and it’s a great group and it will be a lot of fun taking them to Gillette. I told them they’ve been through a lot but it’s all worth it when you walk down the ramp at Gillette Stadium.”
Senior running back and linebacker Vinnie Holmes (18 carries, 131 yards) added, “This just means the world to everyone. We’ve just worked so hard for this. Winter, spring, in the weight room, we just knew that this was our goal. We wanted to get to Gillette and that’s exactly what we did.”
On its second possession of the game, Mansfield started to move the ball. Jack Moussette (6-of-11, 64 yards) hit Cincere Gill for a perfectly executed 16-yard completion to the near sideline on third down to jumpstart the drive. Gill (seven carries, 41 yards) then weaved his way for 17 to the far sideline and Michael DeBolt (six carries, 41 yards) added 10 more to the Natick 14.
A chop block penalty backed the Hornets up and, despite a completion and a draw play to Holmes making it a manageable third and four, the Natick defense held firm. DeBolt booted the Hornets into the lead with a 26-yard kick.
The hosts answered right back. Natick started at its own 40 and two plays later were given a boost on a 15-yard penalty to reach the Mansfield 37. Two five-yard runs, including one by quarterback Will Lederman, who had missed the last four games with a knee injury and wasn’t expected to start the final, and an offsides call made it first and five at the 22.
Holmes stuffed a play for a three-yard loss and a pair of incomplete passes forced Natick into a 41-yard field goal by Sam Waltzman to tie the game. It was as close to the end zone as the Redhawks would get all night.
Mansfield again marched into the red zone in the second quarter but an illegal push call backed them off the goal line and a hold backed them up to the 13. In the end, DeBolt was forced to come on and get Mansfield three more with a 21-yard kick.
Natick fumbled the ensuing kick and Mansfield appeared to recover it, but the officials ruled that the ball went out of bounds first. Lederman nearly hit Nick Ofodile on a bomb on the first play but it was dropped. Nico Holmes and TJ Guy stuffed the next play for no gain and on third down Everett Knowlton pressured Lederman into an incompletion.
Vinnie Holmes broke free for the first time on a 53-yard run to get the Hornets to the 32. After a nine-yard pass from Mousette to Danny Rapoza, Mansfield had first and 10 at the 17. Moussette tried two passes to the corner but both fell incomplete and DeBolt came out again to kick a 28-yard field goal and make it 9-3 at the half.
“We moved the ball but just couldn’t finish,” Redding explained. “They’ve got some big dudes and once we got in the red zone, they know we’re not going to throw and it just got tough and then we shoot ourselves in the foot with all the penalties. It felt like at the half we should’ve been up 14, 17-3.”
On the opening drive of the second half, Mansfield was struck by a controversial penalty on Gill. The junior running back was ruled out for the rest of the night, but Redding saw the ejection as adding even more fuel to his team’s second half push.
“I thought it was unwarranted,” he said, “but it rallied the troops for sure and emotionally everybody stepped up and everybody got more physical. Backs were running hard and it was like, this is our game and we’re going to take it.”
Late in the third quarter, Mansfield appeared to convert a third and 14 on a screen pass to Holmes only to have it called back on a penalty. On the next play, Mousette connected with Nick Marciano for a sliding, 15-yard grab. Facing fourth and one, Marciano gained eight on a draw play to keep things moving. Marciano (nine carries, 41 yards) got the call again at the three, running the wildcat and finding a hole on the right side for a touchdown.
“We couldn’t punch one in, settled for three field goals,” said Holmes about Mansfield offense. “In the locker room we were just saying we need to punch this next one in. We need to punch it in and that puts us in a good position to win.”
Chris Graham sacked Lederman to start the next drive and then he and Holmes pressured the quarterback into an incompletion for a three-and-out. Mansfield’s offensive line and running game seemed to have worn down the Natick defense. Holmes and Marciano combined for nine plays and 53 yards, with Holmes breaking an 11-yard rush, to make it 22-3 with just 4:45 to play.
“Defense played great all night,” said Holmes. “Everyone just played their hearts out, played with enthusiasm. It was a great game.”
The Hornets continued to make plays defensively. Graham got his second sack of the night, then combined with Nico Holmes to stuff Natick running back Jalyn Aponte for no gain. On third down, Nick Bertolino stepped up from his cornerback position to make a big hit and a fake punt came up short.
“Oh my God, it’s crazy,” said Graham following the trophy celebration. “It’s great to be able to go back to Gillette. We wanted it so bad, we’ve been working so hard, trying so hard. Every morning in the summer we were up early in the weight room.”
He added, “When we got into the locker room on Monday, we had a note taped on the locker that a Natick player said we weren’t going to score one point on them. That their defense was too god. Well, we came out 22-3.”
Mansfield (9-1) will take on North champion Lincoln-Sudbury in the D2 Super Bowl at Gillette the weekend of Dec. 7. The date and time of the state title game has not been set.