There was plenty at stake when the four Forecaster Country football teams met in two highly anticipated rivalry games last weekend.
Friday night, Greely looked to cap its best regular season to date and secure a first ever home playoff game, but rival and recent nemesis Falmouth hoped to hand the Rangers yet another painful loss in the “Battle of Route 9.”
Two years ago, a late Yachtsmen touchdown not only beat host Greely, 15-14, but also forged a three-way between the schools and Cape Elizabeth for two playoff spots, necessitating a coin toss, which left the Rangers on the outside looking in. Last fall, Falmouth broke Greely’s heart again, 31-30.
This year’s meeting was scheduled to be played in Cumberland, but poor weather and field conditions moved the game to Falmouth’s turf.
The Rangers took command early behind the running of Svenn Jacobson, who broke two long TD scampers in the first quarter for a 14-0 lead. That score remained entering the third period, where the Yachtsmen got their offense going and found the end zone on a lofting pass from quarterback Noah Nelson to Jack Simonds, who made a great catch. Greely denied the two-point conversion, however, and the score was 14-6. The Rangers then did what previous editions couldn’t, answer and retake momentum as Jacobson scored on another TD run for a 21-6 lead. Jacobson then scored a fourth touchdown, on a pass from quarterback Drew Hodge, to clinch Greely’s 28-6 win, its first over Falmouth since 2007.
“Having to go to Falmouth made it that much sweeter,” said Rangers coach David Higgins, who beat the Yachtsmen for the first time. “The defense rose up on the two-point conversion and we scored on the next series. That put the dagger in. Then, we started pounding the ball because it was so (rainy).
Greely finished the regular season with a best-ever 7-1 record.
“We’ve had a lot of firsts this year,” said Higgins. “The kids were very excited. We’ve overcome adversity this year. A lot of young kids have stepped up.”
The Rangers earned the No. 4 seed in Western Class B and Friday evening (7 p.m. kickoff) will host a playoff game for the first time and it won’t be against just anybody. Greely welcomes fifth ranked Wells (6-2), the defending state champions.
The Rangers and Warriors didn’t play in the regular season.
“We’re excited about the opportunity,” said Higgins. “I have the utmost respect for (Wells coach) Tim Roche. They have a great history and they’re the defending champion until the season’s over. We can’t have turnovers. We need to come to play like we’ve done most games. It’s a huge step for the program.”
Falmouth finished 1-7 and its two-year postseason streak came to a close.
“Greely is a terrific team,” said Yachtsmen coach John Fitzsimmons. “Coach Higgins and his staff have done a wonderful job. They are playing with great focus and purpose on every play. I was very impressed with their strength on both sides of the ball. I believe they are the team to beat in the Campbell Conference playoffs. I hope to see them playing in the state championship in a few weeks. In the end, their experience and talent prevailed.”
Look for the Yachtsmen to bounce back in 2013.
“I’m excited about the next couple of years especially when you consider two of the top offensive performers on the team are a 15-year-old sophomore quarterback, Noah Nelson, and a 14-year-old freshman running back, Connor Aube,” said Fitzsimmons. “Due to injuries, we played the last half of the season with only three seniors and four freshman on the field. After five winning seasons, it’s tough losing, but I was so impressed with how the players stuck together and supported each other. It’s a great tribute to their character and proving there is great value in giving your best in spite of the outcome.”
Saturday afternoon, Freeport hosted Yarmouth in the “Battle of the Bay,” a game not just for bragging rights, but for the final playoff berth in Western Class C.
It wound up being a classic.
The Falcons grabbed an 8-0 lead in the first period on a touchdown run from Ben MacMillan and a two-point conversion rush from Dan Burke and that score remained after a couple ill-timed Yarmouth third period turnovers.
With less than seven minutes to play, Freeport looked to be in good shape, but momentum turned when William Landry blocked a punt. Yarmouth turned that opportunity into their first points as quarterback Brady Neujahr found junior Nate Shields-Auble with a 6-yard scoring pass with 5:23 to play. A two-point conversion rush failed, however, and the Clippers were still down by two, 8-6.
The Falcons had a chance to run out the clock, but after gaining two first downs, couldn’t manage a third and after a fake punt was stuffed, Yarmouth got one last chance, from its 36 with 1:40 to go.
Neujahr, who has already led the Clippers to a pair of state championships and has produced his share of memorable moments, made a tremendous individual effort to spark the winning drive, keeping his balance before finding Shields-Auble open behind the secondary for a 55-yard gain to the Freeport 9.
“I saw guys coming at me and cut outside,” Neujahr said. “I slipped and went down to one hand. I got up and saw his hand up and kind of flung it out there. That was a great moment.”
Three plays later, with the nose of the ball just shy of the goal line, Neujahr eschewed the run, dropped pass and lofted a pass to the left corner of the end zone where Rhys Eddy made the catch of his young life, leaping up and to his right to snare the ball, then cradling it as he hit the turf for a touchdown with only six seconds to play.
“I thought Brady would just take it, but the corner blitzed and I tried to show Brady I was wide open,” Eddy said. “I really didn’t think that much. I just saw it and knew I had to do it. It was coming down to the wire and we had to make plays. I was just trying to let the ref know I had possession. It was awesome when I saw the ref signal touchdown. It was the greatest feeling ever. “
“Rhys made a great catch,” Neujahr said. “I was just rolling out. I saw the pressure coming. I knew if I put it up, he’d catch it. We call him ‘glue’ in practice. He doesn’t drop anything. I threw it up and he caught it.”
Junior Matthew Woodbury added a two-point conversion rush.
All that was left was for Yarmouth to deny a last-second Falcons’ prayer, send them home in agonizing fashion at 4-4 and the Clippers did so to not only survive, 14-8, but despite a 2-6 record, they advanced to the postseason as well, as the last team in to the Western Class C party, which means a quarterfinal round showdown at No. 1 Winslow Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
“This is up there with the state championships,” said Neujahr, who wound up completing seven passes for 165 yards and two scores. “We have so much heart. This is what we live for. Football’s my favorite thing on Earth. I go to bed and dream about this. With the classes getting mixed up (Maine will likely go to four classes next year and Freeport and Yarmouth will be separated), the thought of the trophy possibly being in Freeport forever was big motivation for us. I think we all had faith. We had moments when we were down. The fumble and interception were eating away with me, but we hung strong. The fourth quarter’s our quarter.”
“The important thing is that this might have been the last “Battle of the Bay” against Freeport and we did not want to give that trophy up,” said Yarmouth first-year coach Chris Pingitore. “There was nothing I could say at halftime to motivate them. Either we wanted it or not. Boy, did we play with some heart. “
Freeport, paced by Burke’s 130 yards on 22 carries, was left disconsolate after easily the most painful setback in program annals.
“(Yarmouth) got guys open,” lamented Falcons coach Rob Grover. “They’ve been there. We needed to get another first down. I’ve always been honest with (the guys) and I told them we didn’t play the full 48 minutes, but I’m proud of them. We battled. We did everything right, but fell short on the scoreboard.”
The Falcons will graduate eight seniors, but the loss of Burke and quarterback James Purdy will be most notable.
“Dan Burke and James Purdy have been my crutches,” said Grover. “They’ve always been there. Losing them is tough. Next year’s senior class is very talented and next year’s sophomore class is very talented too.”
Yarmouth went out of its way to pay tribute to Freeport’s effort.
“Freeport has come a long way,” said Pingitore. “We grew up in the Developmental League together. They were the only team we couldn’t beat. They play with so much heart and enthusiasm. We knew they were going to. We knew it meant everything to their seniors. Coach Grover has done a great job with them. They deserve to be a playoff team.”
Yarmouth earns a rematch with a Winslow (7-1) team that it struggled against back on Sept. 29 in a 34-8 road loss. The teams have no playoff history.
The Clippers feel they’re playing with house money at this point and are a carefree, confident bunch entering the postseason.
If ever there was a No. 8 seed the higher ranked teams don’t want to play, it’s the two-time defending champs.
“We just need to go in with the same confidence we had in the last drive,” said Neujahr. “We have to play with heart and not give up. If nothing else, it will be a great experience for the freshmen going into next year. We have to just do our thing.”
“We feel we can play with any team,” Eddy said. “As coach said, this is a bonus playoff game. We’re not done yet.”
“We had the toughest schedule in the conference and that helped,” Pingitore added. “We played every team tough. Nobody stopped us. Who knows what can happen? Hopefully today builds confidence. I told the guys no matter the outcome next week, they’ve accomplished something big here. We hope to ride the wave and go in with confidence and feel like we have nothing to lose.”
Yarmouth’s Race Morrison brings down Freeport’s Dan Burke during the teams’ down-to-the-wire thriller Saturday afternoon in the mud. The Clippers scored with six seconds left to win, 14-8.
Greely’s Svenn Jacobson celebrates as he beats Falmouth’s Alec Gee for an early touchdown during the Rangers’ 28-6 victory Friday night.