MANSFIELD, Mass. – Throughout the season, we’ve seen the Mansfield defensive line wreak havoc in opponents’ backfields, and the Hornets’ linebacking corps deny top running attacks.
In the Division 2 State Championship at Gillette Stadium, it was the secondary that took center stage.
The Hornets corners and safeties combined for three interceptions, including a game-changing takeaway late in the second quarter, to help Mansfield run away with a 41-0 win and the program’s eighth state title.
With such a large margin of victory, it might seem unlikely that the game changed on one play. But instead of holding a one-score lead at halftime and having to kick off to the Warriors, an interception turned into a three-score lead.
With a 14-0 lead and the clock ticking away in the first half, Lincoln-Sudbury’s offense got a sudden jolt after a 15-yard penalty and a broken play that resulted in a 54-yard run from Warrior junior Jack Malone.
Mansfield senior corner Makhi Baskin fought off a would-be blocker, making a tackle inside the 10-yard line to prevent Lincoln-Sudbury from getting on the board. While it looked like a simple hustle play, the ensuing plays proved how big it was.
The Hornet defense, faced with their first red zone challenge with the Warriors starting at the 7-yard line, came up big.
The first play went backward as the Hornets came buzzing in to halt the Warriors after a bad snap. The teams traded penalties with a hold pushing L-S back 10 yards, only to regain half of that on an offside call.
Facing second down from the 18-yard line, L-S senior receiver Griffin Brown found an open spot against the Hornets’ defense in the end zone near the left sideline.
L-S junior quarterback Collin Murphy floated a pass that looked destined to drop into Brown’s waiting arms, but Mansfield junior corner Nick Bertolino read the play and timed his jump perfectly, cutting in front of the receiver and hauling in his first career interception.
“We were in zone and I was supposed to play in the flat…the guy got around me and I had great help over the top,” Bertolino said. “I just read the quarterback’s eyes, dropped back, and went up and got it.
“It felt like it was a big game-changer. They were driving on us some and had that big run but we got the ball back and went down and scored, and I felt like that kind of sealed the game.”
The Hornets marched 80 yards on eight plays, capped by a four-yard touchdown from senior Vinnie Holmes with just over a minute left in the half, and just like that, Mansfield held a 21-0 advantage.
“They had that nice run, and they threw a nice fade and I thought they had a touchdown,” admitted Mansfield head coach Mike Redding. “Nick Bertolino came out of nowhere, that was a big play. [If they scored] it makes the game interesting at half but instead we get the pick and go down and score, and it goes from 14-7 to 21-0 that. I thought that was the turning point of the game for us to be able to extend the lead, and then put them away in the second half.”
While it doesn’t stand out as much as the interception, the tackle from Baskin just a couple of plays earlier inside the 10-yard line proved to be a game-changer.
“That saved a touchdown,” Redding said. “The defense keeps playing, even if its first and goal from the one, they are battling to keep the other team out of the end zone.”
For Baskin, it was just a play he knew he had to make.
“We always go by the motto of ‘never surrender’…we just never give up, and that’s what I did on that play, and then we got the big interception,” Baskin said. “We take a lot of pride in the secondary. We have a lot of camaraderie with each other.”
Bertolino’s interception wasn’t the first or the last by the Hornet secondary in the game. The first came on the Warriors’ first possession. Mansfield was forced to punt after its opening drive stalled, and a miskick on the punt gave L-S decent starting field position near midfield.
But just a couple plays into the series, safety Michael DeBolt came down with a deflected pass for an interception to get the ball right back. And the Hornets cashed in when Jack Moussette connected with a wide-open Everett Knowlton for the opening score.
Lincoln-Sudbury ventured into the red zone for the first time in the second half but were stuffed on a run play and Bertolino and DeBolt combined for a pass breakup in the end zone.
Bertolino entered the state championship with a team-high nine pass breakups.
“He’s played great as a junior,” Redding said of Bertolino. “He’s a really good cover guy. He kind of had a breakout year, he played JV last year and didn’t play any varsity. He lines up and plays 12 weeks at corner and did a great job for us.”
After holding Murphy to just five completions for 52 yards (one play for 44 yards, the other four for eight or less yards), the Mansfield secondary capped its night when Baskin came up with his team-high third interception this season.
“This defense, even when [L-S] got inside the ten, we kept saying they’re not going to get it in, they’re not going to get it in,” Redding said. “It’s tough against our defense when you’re that close because our coverage tightens up, defense gets aggressive, and we knew we’d make them work. They wanted a shutout today, and it’s a great way to end it the way this defense has played all year.”