Yarmouth rallies to save season, end Freeport's
FREEPORT—For seven games and all but six seconds of an eighth, the Yarmouth football team resembled anything but the state champion it was each of the past two seasons.
But with all hope apparently lost Saturday afternoon in the mud at an inspired and hungry foe, the Clippers woke up the echoes.
With a postseason berth awaiting the winner and a bitter end looming for the loser, Yarmouth struggled with a host Freeport squad seeking its first ever varsity victory over the Clippers.
The Falcons grabbed an 8-0 lead in the first period on a touchdown run from junior Ben MacMillan and a two-point conversion rush from senior bruiser 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 Clippers freshman William Landry blocked a punt. Yarmouth turned that opportunity into their first points as junior 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.
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 junior 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. 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 Friday night.
"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. "We had some mistakes. At this point of the year, I think we're at a point where we've learned to overcome mistakes and play a full 48 minutes of football. There was nothing I could say at halftime to motivate them. Either they wanted it or not. Boy, did we play with some heart. "
Agony and ecstasy
The Freeport and Yarmouth programs have been linked for a decade.
The schools came of age in the Development League, where the Falcons consistently beat the Clippers in down-to-the-wire thrillers (please see sidebar).
Yarmouth became a varsity program in 2007, while Freeport made the jump in 2009.
By that point, the Clippers were on the verge of becoming a champion and they dominated the Falcons in the programs' first three varsity meetings by a composite 163-12 margin.
After running roughshod on Class C in undefeated championship seasons in 2010 and 2011, Yarmouth has come back to the pack this fall, but its 1-6 record was a little misleading, considering the Clippers played the toughest schedule in the conference.
After seeing its 24-game win streak snapped in the opener, 33-7, at Oak Hill, Yarmouth handled visiting Poland, 38-18. The Clippers then suffered a 22-21 loss at Maranacook and the setbacks continued at home versus Traip (27-6), at Winslow (34-8) and at home against Lisbon (35-13) and Dirigo (35-20).
Freeport made it to the playoffs for the first time in 2011 and started this autumn strong with victories at Boothbay (18-14) and at home over Sacopee (49-0). After falling at Traip (31-0), at Lisbon (31-22) and at home to Old Orchard Beach (30-26), the Falcons defeated host Telstar (42-13) and visiting Winthrop (52-30).
There was some confusion heading into the game whether or not it was going to be a winner-take-all affair.
"We had no idea after the Dirigo game we were even in the running," said Pingitore. "We downplayed that this week."
Even if it wasn't for a playoff spot, it was for bragging rights and with the proposed addition of a fourth high school football class for 2013, it's quite likely Saturday was going to be the last time the neighbors would meet in a countable game on the gridiron for the foreseeable future.
If that was the case, this one won't soon be forgotten.
The inspired Falcons took their first ever lead over the Clippers when MacMillan bulled in from the 2. Burke's two-point rush made it 8-0 and Yarmouth, as it has been so often this fall, was in a hole.
As the minutes and quarters drifted by, the Clippers couldn't draw closer, shooting themselves in the foot twice in the third period with a fumble and a Neujahr interception inside the Freeport 10.
But even as the game entered the fourth period, Yarmouth didn't give up hope.
"I think we all had faith," said Neujahr. "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."
"I think down the stretch, kids like Brady, (junior) Tommy Lord, Woodbury, guys who have been there, gave the inspirational speeches," Pingitore said. "The coaches let them talk. The guys knew what it took to the push the other guys' buttons to give a little bit more. It was just a matter of reminding them that out of 32 kids on the original roster, only four had experience. Every game was in a sense a game to gain experience."
It would be a freshman who changed the Clippers' fortunes.
With just under seven minutes left in the season, Landry broke through the line, shook off a Burke block and blocked Purdy's punt at the Freeport 30.
It took just four plays for the visitors to capitalize.
On third-and-8 from the 28, Neujahr and Eddy hinted at a big play to come when they hooked up for 22 yards to the 6. On the next snap, Neujahr dropped back, rolled left and threw across his body, yet managed to hit Shields-Auble in the end zone and finally, Yarmouth was on the scoreboard. Lord got the handoff on the two-point conversion rush, but he was denied and the Falcons clung to an 8-6 advantage with a long 5;23 still to play.
Freeport began its next drive at its 35, knowing that another score or even a few first downs might end the game.
Burke ran for 8 yards on first down and after Burke fell just shy of the first down marker, Purdy kept the ball on third-and-inches and ran for 6 to the Clippers' 49. Back to back 1 yard losses set up third-and-12, but Purdy broke free for 12, to the Yarmouth 39 and after a long delay for a measurement, the first down signal was given.
The Falcons were one first down away from victory.
Instead, senior Jared Polley was thrown for a 4-yard loss and after a running back slipped as Purdy was pitching him the ball, Purdy had to fall on the loose pigskin for a 7-yard loss, setting up third-and-21 at midfield. Burke got 5 yards back, but Freeport had to punt.
Which the Falcons chose not to.
With the memory of the previous block in his mind, Freeport coach Rob Grover instead called for Burke to run the ball and although he gained 9, he was 7 shy of the sticks and with 1:40 left, the Clippers took over at their 36 with a last ditch chance to snare victory from defeat.
"I didn't want to give them anything free back there," said Grover, of the play call. "It was kind of a Catch-22 there."
Neujahr threw incomplete on first down, then made arguably his biggest individual play since his fourth quarter touchdown dash rallied Yarmouth past Lisbon in the 2010 Western Class C Final.
Neujahr dropped back, was flushed from the pocket, then slipped. If his knee would have hit the ground, the play would have been dead, but Neujahr kept his balance, then his eyes lit up when he spotted Shields-Auble wide open behind the secondary. Neujahr let it fly and 55-yards later Shields-Auble was dragged down.
"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."
The Clippers had first-and-goal from the 9 and suddenly the clock wasn't a factor as 1:19 remained.
An 8-yard scramble by Neujahr ended up just shy of the end zone.
Yarmouth was now less than a yard from victory and that little sliver of real estate wouldn't come easily.
On the next snap, the handoff went to Lord, who was stood up at the line of scrimmage.
Now the clock was rapidly winding down and the Clippers had to hurry on third down.
With a timeout remaining, Yarmouth had the option of running the football, but Neujahr kept it, rolled left and spotted Eddy in the end zone. The throw was slightly high, but Eddy came down with it and kept possession. The side judge signaled touchdown and with only six seconds left on the clock, the Clippers' comeback was complete.
"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."
"Rhys has had an amazing year," Pingitore added. "He's come on as our number one receiver."
Yarmouth went for two and got it as Woodbury barreled in.
That left the kickoff and one opportunity for a Freeport miracle.
The Falcons got the ball at their 31 with four seconds to go and Purdy heaved the ball down the field, hoping for a deflection or a pass interference call.
Instead, the pass was batted down and a scintillating high school football game had come to an end.
Yarmouth 14 Freeport 8.
"This is up there with the state championships," said Neujahr. "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, the thought of the trophy possibly being in Freeport forever was big motivation for us."
"What a game," Pingitore said. "This is the way a rivalry game going into the playoffs should be."
Neujahr epitomized the Clippers' comeback. After a first half which saw him go 2-of-5 passing for just 6 yards, the standout completed five second half passes for 159 yards and two TDs.
"I have so much confidence in Brady" said Pingitore. "He calls a lot of those plays himself. He'll come to the sidelines and it looks like he's getting a play, but he tells me what he wants to run. He called that touchdown catch. He called the two-point conversion. He's grown up. I'm glad I've got him for another year. I do feel comfortable with the ball in his hands. He makes things happen."
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 Grover. "They've been there. We talked at halftime, but (Shields-Auble) slipped through and we didn't pick him up. He got behind the safety. We needed to get another first down. They slowed our offense down. We'd moved the ball pretty good all year, except for this one.
"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. We were a little younger this year, but we were competitive with most of the teams we played. Hopefully we can keep building."
The Falcons will graduate eight seniors, but the loss of Burke and 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 do deserve to be a playoff team. I told some of the guys after the game that I wish I had them on my team. Their players showed more heart than anybody we played this year."
Yarmouth earns a rematch with a Winslow (7-1) team that it struggled against back on Sept. 29. 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. "(Winning this game) is a huge boost of confidence. 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."