Trailing 14-7 to Holliston with just under 10 minutes left in the game, the Bulldogs quickly moved into Panther territory and even converted a fourth down that seemingly put the momentum with the hosts.
But two plays later, Canton fumbled in its backfield and Holliston pounced on the loose ball to put an abrupt halt to the drive.
It was just one of those nights for the Bulldogs, who dropped a 27-14 decision to the visiting Panthers in the D5 South Sectional Final. Canton also hurt itself with nearly a dozen penalties.
“We kind of flirted with that all year, I take full responsibility, we were kind of an undisciplined team and got away with it for many games,” said Canton head coach Dave Bohane on his team not helping themselves with penalties. “Tonight, in a game like this when you get to the sectional championship, we had some bad penalties and we paid for it. I don’t want that to take away from Holliston though, they executed very well like we thought they would. I thought our defense didn’t do a bad job, we just didn’t do enough to move the ball.
“[Holliston] is a good team and they’re going to do well going forward. I’m just super proud of my guys overall. Just an outstanding two years, it’s been great to be apart of it. It’s a sour taste to lose in the final twice but I don’t want to lose sight of all the accomplishments along the way.”
Canton’s fumble summed up a frustrating night on offense for the Bulldogs, who had to punt five times, turned the ball over on downs twice and finished with a pair of turnovers.
The Bulldogs had just forced Holliston’s high-powered offense (entered the game averaging over 30 points per game) to a three and out and started at their own 40 with 9:14 left in the game, trailing just 14-7.
Senior Johnny Hagan (11/26, 124 yards) hit classmate Jace Emma for eight yards on third down, and senior tailback Kyle Fitzgerald (18 carries, 101 yards; four catches, 26 yards) barreled his way for three yards on fourth and one to give the hosts the ball at the Holliston 44-yard line.
But after the fumble with 6:26 left, the momentum swung in favor of the Panthers and they cashed in on their chance. The Bulldogs defense did its part to force Holliston into a fourth and seven from the Canton 34-yard line, but the Panthers elected to go for it.
Matt Arvanitis dropped back and floated a pass up the middle to a wide-open Kevin Lyons, who had released off the line of scrimmage, and the play went for a touchdown to give Holliston a 21-7 advantage with just 3:58 left in the game.
In true Bulldog fashion, the hosts refused to go away without a fight. Canton orchestrated its best drive of the entire game, marching 73 yards on nine plays to find the end zone for the first time on the offensive side of the ball.
Hagan connected with Gersom Rivera for 32 yards on a fourth-down play to keep the drive alive early and then linked up with Cam Sanchez for 22 yards on third down to move deep into Holliston territory. Two plays later, Fitzgerald made a terrific diving catch in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown, bringing the hosts back within a score at 21-14 with 2:09 left in the game.
Canton elected a squib kick up the middle with their entire kicking unit charging but a Holliston player was able to handle the play and the Dogs were whistled for a penalty on the hit, giving the Panthers possession at the Canton 36-yard line.
Holliston running back Tristan Benson (14 carries, 138 yards, two touchdowns) put an exclamation point on a superb second half, running for 28 yards on first down to get inside the 10 yard line, and two plays later plunged into the end zone from three yards out to restore the Panthers’ two-score lead, up 27-14 with 1:44 to go, securing the D5 south crown.
“I think Holliston had a lot to do with the outcome of the game,” Bohane said. “I don’t think we played our best but I don’t want to take anything away from the opponent that played great tonight and deserved to go on to the next round.
“These kids that have played for us have left an incredible mark on the program. I can’t say anything but great things about all of them, it’s been a pleasure to coach them. It’s been such a fun ride for me personally. I’m a proud coach and I just feel bad because they are crushed. We thought we could move on.”
The majority of the game played out as a defensive chess match with the teams trading stops. Holliston had to punt on two of its first three drives and had its other series come to a screeching halt when Robbie Gallery read a screen pass and hauled an interception.
Canton’s offense didn’t fare much better, turning it over on downs on the opening series after starting in Holliston territory, and then had to punt on its second series. Canton moved the ball on its third series, using nine plays to cover 44 yards but there was another big momentum swing when Holliston blocked a 43-yard field goal attempt. The ball ended up in the hands of Holliston’s Teddy Ratcliffe and he returned it all the way to the Canton 32-yard line.
With good field position, Holliston’s offense went to work and found the end zone two plays later. Arvanitis dropped a perfect pass to Christian Schneeloch, who hauled the pass in despite strong coverage, for a 6-0 lead with 9:45 left in the second quarter.
Canton’s next drive was slowed down early by a holding call but Hagan hit Emma down the left sideline for 26 yards to keep the drive alive. The Bulldogs converted another fourth down and moved into the red zone but a pair of incomplete passes resulted in a turnover on downs at the 11-yard line.
Canton’s defense came up with a big response on the next series though. On 2nd and 10 from the 21, senior linebacker Ben Guerini came flying in and landed a monster sack, jarring the ball free. Senior Jahmi Aldin scooped the ball up at the 12-yard line and raced into the end zone for a touchdown. Owen Lehane’s extra point gave Canton a 7-6 lead late in the second, a lead the hosts took into the halftime break.
“That defense kept me up late all week long, a lot of hours,” said Holliston coach Todd Kiley of the Bulldogs’ defense. “There is no weakness on that team, they are a phenomenal football team, one of the best ever I’ve had to prepare for. We’ve been through a lot of games with this program. That team, that coaching staff has done a phenomenal job, we just made a couple more plays than them.
“Our guys dug down and we made a big play when we needed to. Tristan Benson was huge in the second half, he kind of just took it over. Our line did awesome, and how about our defense today? It was just a total team effort. I’m going through all of our kids that made plays tonight, and it’s a long list.”
The Bulldogs had a chance to add to their lead on the opening drive of the second but went backward and had to punt. Holliston started with good field position at the Bulldogs’ 40-yard line and once again took advantage of the strong starting spot.
After throwing for the majority of the first half, the Panthers turned to Benson. The tailback’s speed gave the Dogs trouble, as he had runs of 12 and 19 before plunging in for a 5-yard score, and then the two-point conversion for a 14-7 lead.
Canton’s ensuing series ended with a three and out after Hagan and Fitzgerald just missed linking up on third down. On the next Canton series, Hagan had a 14-yard scramble erased by a holding call but responded to move the sticks. However, four plays later, a 38-yard pass and catch to Fitzgerald on third down was taken off the board after another hold, and Canton had to punt two plays into the fourth.
“I think they were just a little better in the middle than we thought,” Bohane said. “We’ve been able to stay the course and stay the course, and eventually wear teams down. But in a game like this, kids dig real deep and I give [Holliston] a lot of credit, they are very well-coached. They played hard, and I thought our kids played hard too. It was a good game that got away from us a little bit. [Holliston] does a lot of things offensively to put pressure on you.”
Canton football drops its first game of the season to push its record to 9-1. The Bulldogs will host rival Stoughton (8-2) on Thanksgiving at 10:00 AM.