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Falmouth upset in first home playoff game

Sports

Falmouth upset in first home playoff game

FALMOUTH—Two weeks ago, in a regular season loss at Westbrook, the Falmouth football team surrendered 28 points.

Friday night, in the first home playoff game in Yachtsmen history, they only gave up 12, but the team's high-flying offense didn't deliver its normal prolific performance.

Falmouth was held scoreless until midway through the fourth period when it finally went on top, 7-6, behind a touchdown run from junior Will Sipperly.

But the Blue Blazes, who rose from utter obscurity to make the postseason, then drove 57 yards in 10 plays to go on top, 12-7, on a 1-yard TD run from senior bruiser Graham Strondak with just 1:50 remaining.

The Yachtsmen had their chance to rally, but one week after an improbable come-from-behind victory over rival Greely, they discovered that the magic had run out and hopes of a first-ever playoff win fell by the wayside as Westbrook held on, improved to 5-4 and advanced to meet Wells in next week's semifinal round, ending Falmouth's season at 6-3 in the process.

"It wasn't meant to be," lamented Yachtsmen coach John Fitzsimmons. "I felt when we came down and scored, I thought the magic was going to be there, but to (Westbrook's) credit, they worked hard and drove the ball up the field. This game meant the world to us. We've never had a home game. We were excited about it. We wanted to have the first (playoff) win ever here. It wasn't to be, but part of life is learning that things don't always go your way and picking yourself up to move on."

Surprise twist

Falmouth made the playoffs in both 2008 and last fall, but each time had to travel to Rumford for the semifinals and lost, 41-6 and 43-6, respectively to a Mountain Valley team that went on to win a Class B state title.

This fall, the Yachtsmen expected to be one of the top contenders in Western B and lived up to billing, winning their first three games by a combined 131-21 margin. After being utterly dominated in a 28-6 loss at Cape Elizabeth, Falmouth pounded host Lake Region (46-14) and visiting Fryeburg (42-12) before dropping a tough 28-25 decision at Westbrook. With a home playoff game on the line last weekend, the Yachtsmen climbed back from 16-0 and 30-17 deficits to beat Greely, 31-30, to finish 6-2 and earn the No. 4 seed in the region.

Westbrook, on the other hand, was a longtime doormat in Class A and in its first Class B season, appeared destined to miss the playoffs again after a 1-4 start, but the Blue Blazes came to life at the end of the regular season, winning their final three games to finish at .500 and earn the No. 5 seed.

The first ever playoff meeting between the neighboring towns was expected to produce offensive fireworks, but instead came down to defense and missed opportunities.

The visitors got the ball first and gained a first down behind the running of  Strondak, but Falmouth's defense stiffened and the Blue Blazes were forced to punt.

The Yachtsmen began their initial drive at their 20 and got rolling immediately as senior Ryan MacDonald had runs of 18- and 15-yards moving his team into Westbrook territory. Three ensuing rushes (one by MacDonald and two by Sipperly) only gained five yards and Falmouth had to punt.

The Blue Blazes started at their 10 and gained three first downs, sparked by a 21-yard scamper from senior quarterback Terry Webber. Webber was then sacked on back-to-back plays (the first by seniors Michael Ryan and Will Ryan and the second by Michael Ryan and MacDonald) and the drive stalled at the Yachstmen 44, necessitating another punt.

Falmouth took over at its 20 and as the scoreless first period gave way to the second, a false start pushed the Yachtsmen back and they had to punt once more.

Westbrook promptly went three-and-out and junior Ben Grant's punt only went 11 yards, giving Falmouth the ball at the Blue Blazes' 47 with 8:54 to go before halftime.

The Yachtsmen couldn't take advantage of the good field position, as senior quarterback Matt Kingry sandwiched incomplete passes around a 4-yard run from junior Alex DerHagopian and Falmouth had to kick the ball back to the visitors. Junior punter Michael Caswell then got off a beauty, pinning Westbrook at its 1.

The Blue Blazes were able to get out of the shadow of their goal line when Strondak ran for 11 yards on third-and-8 from the 3. The drive then stalled and although Grant got off a 40-yard punt, MacDonald's 12 yard return set the Yachtsmen up at the Westbrook 44 with 4:43 remaining in the half.

Again, Falmouth's offense sputtered. After MacDonald gained 7 yards on first down, he was held for no gain on a second down carry. On third down, the ball came to MacDonald again, but he only gained 2 yards to set up a fourth-and-short at the 35. Sipperly got the fourth down carry and saw a hole, but as he attempted to cut back, he slipped and fell at the line of scrimmage, giving the Blue Blazes the ball at their 35.

After Westbrook went three-and-out, the hosts had one final chance to score before the break as they again had great field position, taking over at their 46 after Grant somehow rescued a bad snap and managed to punt the ball 13 yards.

With 1:52 remaining, Kingry and the passing game started to click. First, he found senior Jack Cooleen for a short dump-off pass that turned into a 23-yard catch-and-run, down to the Blue Blazes' 31. On the next play, Kingry found Sipperly for 19 yards to the 12. Kingry then spotted senior Aaron Rogers open in the left corner of the end zone, but Rogers couldn't hold on to the pass. After Cooleen couldn't come down with a jump ball near the end zone and a delay of game penalty pushed Falmouth back to the 17, Kingry threw a strike toward the end zone, but it was intercepted by Westbrook junior Aaron Duncanson.

The Blue Blazes had dodged a bullet and happily took a knee to run out the first half clock with the game still surprisingly scoreless.

In the first half, Westbrook mustered 94 yards of offense, while the Yachstmen only had 92.

Falmouth got the ball first in the second half, but consecutive penalties for delay of game and too many men on the field led to a three-and-out. The visitors finally had good field position for their first drive, starting at their 40, but after Webber ran for one first down, the Yachtsmen defense stiffened and forced a fourth-and-1 from the Falmouth 38. Webber looked to gain a first down through the air, but DerHagopian made an athletic interception at the 9 and the game remained 0-0.

Sipperly appeared to give the offense a little breathing room with a 6-yard carry on first down, but a holding penalty moved the ball back to the 4. Caswell would soon have to punt from just outside the end zone and a return by senior Magnes Lewis set the Blue Blazes up at the Yachtsmen 38.

Three running plays made it fourth-and-3 at the 31, but sophomore Kyle Heath was thrown for a 2-yard loss and Falmouth's defense once again had done its job.

The offense started at the 29 and on the first play, after a nice 15-yard run, Sipperly fumbled and Westbrook senior Blake Toth recovered at the Yachtsmen 46 with 1:52 left in the third.

This time, finally, an offense would produce points.

It would take the Blue Blazes 10 plays and 4 minutes, 42 seconds to march the 46 yards for the game's first score. Webber picked up one first down with an 8-yard run. On the first play of the fourth period, on third-and-2 from the 26, Heath ran for 4 to move the chains. A 7-yard run by Webber on third-and-4 from the 16 set up a first-and-goal at the 9. Strondak ran for 5 yards to the 4 and with 9:14 left in regulation, Westbrook broke the ice when Heath scored on a 4-yard run behind the right side of his line. Heath's two-point conversion run was denied, but the Blue Blazes had a 6-0 lead.

Then, Falmouth's offense awakened.

The Yachtsmen started at their 35 after the kickoff went out of bounds and took less than three minutes to drive down the field on seven plays. Kingry jump-started the march by hitting Rogers for 18 yards into Westbrook territory. After MacDonald made a 9-yard reception, he ran for 19, putting the ball at the 19. MacDonald ran for 6-, 3- and 3-yards to make it first-and-goal at the 7 and Sipperly did the rest, scoring on a 7-yard run up the gut with 6:26 to play. Sophomore Joe Goodrich's extra point gave the hosts their first lead of the night, 7-6.

The Falmouth defense, which had been stellar virtually all night, needed just one more stop, but the Blue Blazes wouldn't be denied.

After a short kickoff that senior Ryan Lebel returned to the 43, Westbrook got a first down and moved into Yachtsmen territory behind successive 5-yard runs from Webber and Strondak. After Webber ran for 10 to the 37 and Strondak gained 3, Strondak was thrown for a yard loss by Sipperly and the Blue Blazes faced a third-and-8 at the 35.

But Westbrook came through again as Webber, under pressure, scrambled for 18 yards and a new set of downs at the 17. A 6-yard Strondak run ended with a facemask penalty and the Blue Blazes had first-and-goal at the 5. Strondak ran for a yard and Webber gained 3 and as the clock hit two minutes, Westbrook faced a third-and-goal at the 1.

It was the clutch, palpitating type of situation you hope for in a playoff game and the postseason neophytes came through. The ball went to Strondak and he bulled into the end zone from 1-yard out. Webber attempted to run in the two-point conversion, but slipped and fell short. Regardless, with 1:50 to go, the Blue Blazes had regained the lead, 12-7.

There was plenty of time remaining for Kingry to rally the Yachtsmen and after a MacDonald return set Falmouth up at its 40, Kingry found Rogers for 10 yards to midfield. Kingry then tried to run to the outside, but was held to no gain. Even worse, Falmouth was flagged for holding on the play and the ball was moved back to the Yachtsmen 35. Kingry then rolled left and threw downfield, but under pressure, he couldn't get as much as he hoped on the throw and Duncanson intercepted the pass at the Westbrook 35 with 1:11 showing.

With two timeouts, Falmouth was able to get the ball back at its 25 with 1.3 seconds to play (the Yachtsmen should have taken over at the 40, but an illegal block penalty pushed them back).

It was time for one final play and with 75 yards to traverse, Falmouth eschewed the Hail Mary and instead handed the ball to MacDonald sweeping right. He wanted to throw back to Kingry, but had to keep it and only picked up 12 yards, was brought down at the 37, and the Yachtsmen's season was over as the Blue Blazes and their fans celebrated a postseason victory a long time in coming.

"We were just going to do a quarterback swing," said Fitzsimmons, of the final play. "After the kickoff, followed by a push in the back, 15 yards back, we were beyond a Hail Mary. At the 40, you can go for something. 

"You have to go back and look at some bounces that didn't go our way. We were moving the ball nicely and fumbled it. We dropped three passes. You can't do that. Westbrook played their hearts out and gave us everything we thought they would. I think they would walk away with some respect for us. We did a great job too. They've been struggling in Class A for a lot of years. In Class B, they're going on to the next round."

Statistically, Westbrook had a 233-185 advantage in offense.

The Blue Blazes were led by Strondak, who rushed for 92 yards and a TD on 23 carries and caught one ball for 5 yards.

"It's a big win for us," Strondak said. "Words can't describe how happy I am right now. We've been losing all these years. To come around and win some games, it's just the best feeling. We beat these guys before and we had a three-game win streak. We felt pretty confident. I'd say our defense has really turned it around. When the defense turned it around, the offense came with it. We tried hard and worked harder in practice. We realized how urgent we had to be.

"In the first half, both teams were so enthusiastic and the defenses were going at it hard. We worked hard at conditioning all week long and I think it paid off in the fourth quarter. On the last play, we just worried about the long bomb. We put the prevent in and forced them to run the ball. We stopped the play. To come from only winning one or two games a season to make the playoffs and win a game in the playoffs, it's an amazing feeling."

Webber had 105 yards on 16 carries and completed 2-of-6 passes for 15 yards with an interception. Heath gained 27 yards and had a TD on 15 rushes. Senior Sam Johnson had a reception for 10 yards.

Westbrook only turned the ball over once and only committed one penalty, for a measly five yards.

"People were telling me the last time we were in the playoffs was 1995 or 1996," said Blue Blazes coach Jeff Guerette. "I think the last time we won one pre-dated my existence. We've done a great job in conditioning. We work hard during the week. I think the kids hang their hats on conditioning. It's nice to have that mental edge.

"In the fourth quarter, we started playing with more of a sense of urgency. The mental toughness was a big part. Early in the year, if a team made a play, we hung our heads a little bit. Now, we just play. We've gotten much better in that respect. We were pleased with our defensive game plan coming into the game. We knew they'd make some adjustments. They took away some of the things we do well. We wanted to get the ball into Terry and Graham's hands and let them make plays. We moved the ball better in the second half. We didn't need to panic."

Wait til' next year

For Falmouth, which had three turnovers and was penalized six times for 46 yards, MacDonald rushed for 82 yards on 12 carries. He also caught one pass for 9 yards. Sipperly ran eight times for 38 yards and a score and had a 19-yard reception. Kingry finished 5-of-12 for 79 yards, but was intercepted twice. He ran three times for 22 yards. Rogers had two catches for 28 yards and Cooleen one for 23.

Westbrook will go to 9-0 Wells next weekend for the semifinals feeling like it has nothing to lose (the Blue Blazes played the Warriors tough way back on Sept. 9, falling, 27-14, in their home opener).

The Yachtsmen, meanwhile, will lament what if, say goodbye to some special seniors who turned the program into a legitimate contender and look forward to 2012.

"The guys love the game and played their hearts out," Fitzsimmons said. "We say thank you and wish Westbrook well in the next game. It's a wonderful group of players that I'll be able to always say I was glad to coach. It was an outstanding record for Falmouth, but we really wanted to go to Wells.

"We'll start in the weight room in January and talk about 2012. We'll have some good younger players back, but we lose some talented guys who made this year very special."

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.