WORCESTER, Mass. – It only took 30 seconds for No. 17 Doherty to make a statement in Friday night’s showdown with Leominster at Foley Stadium.
The Highlanders zipped 70 yards downfield on two passing plays to hang a quick six on the No. 6 Blue Devils’ defense. Doherty scored on each of its first two possessions, underscoring the point about its dynamic group of athletes.
But, while the Highlanders continued to cling to a lead through halftime (19-10), Leominster showed the mettle of a cagy, playoff-proven crew during the second half. Then, the Blue Devils erased the mistakes of the early going and effectively stepped on the neck of the Highlanders, outscoring them 37-7 in the final two quarters for a 47-26 victory.
In a matchup of two of the Central district’s top playoff contenders in their respective divisions, Leominster conducted a clinic as to what the Highlanders will need to adopt if they, too, hope to make a run at a section title – that is a killer instinct.
“We weren’t putting ourselves down,” Blue Devils running back/ corner back James Gurley said of the locker room scene at the half. “We’d been in this position before. We know how to come back – we’re Leominster, we play four quarters.”
Gurley and his teammates dropped the hammer in the second half, when the junior tallied both of his rushing scores, as well as an interception. From upping the defensive ante, to the flawless execution of sustained drives it was all there for the Blue Devils (5-0) – at least coming out of the intermission.
Doherty (4-1) landed the first blow just 38 seconds in. Luke Brennan moved the Highlanders up-field 70 yards for a touchdown on two plays from scrimmage, finishing with a 29-yard lob to Shawn Jackson on a jump ball.
After the Highlanders forced Leominster into a turnover on downs, Doherty utilized a short field to grab a near-instant 12-0 lead on Brennan’s 6-yard pass to Alfred Adarkwah.
“I think they wanted to go to Adarwah there and he hurt us,” Leominster head coach Dave Palazzi said of Doherty’s fast start. “It was a great game plan on their part and it worked for them.”
Doherty held a 19-10 lead at halftime, despite not having a single target at Boston College commit receiver Isaac Yiadom.
Yiadom would play a greater role for the Highlanders in the second half, but the Blue Devils simply ran away.
To start the second half, Doherty remained aggressive, with head coach Sean Mulcahy rolling the dice, calling for an onside kick. The play worked, with Brennan chasing the bounding ball and falling on it for a successful recovery.
However, the Highlanders’ ensuing drive stalled after some penalty trouble. Then, the Blue Devils went to work, engineering a methodical 9-play, 76-yard drive capped on Gurley’s first of two touchdown runs.
After a successful two-point conversion, Leominster trailed 19-18.
The Blue Devils soon had the ball in their possession again after inside linebacker Jason Valera picked off a Brennan pass. Following a 53-yard return by Valera and tacking on an unsportsmanlike penalty at the play’s end, Leominster set up shot first and goal from the 6.
“They had a little bit of momentum going, and we needed a big play,” Palazzi said of Valera’s pick. “We finally got one.”
Two plays later, the Blue Devils had their first lead of the game, 24-19, on Matt Banchs’ 2-yard touchdown plunge.
The momentum snowballed from there. After forcing Doherty three-and-out, Neil O’Connor (16 of 23, 287 yards) connected with Shane Crayton for the pair’s second touchdown play of the game. The 63-yard pass on the roll out from O’Connor, hitting junior wideout on the backside post, and the following 2-point conversion provided Leominster with a 32-19 lead at 9:17 of the fourth.
Doherty would respond with Yiadom getting untracked on a 40-yard touchdown reception from Brennan (12 of 26, 217 yards), but the Blue Devils kept piling it on.
Gurley helped shut the door, knocking in his second rushing touchdown of the game before picking off a pass on Doherty’s next possession.
Blue Devils backup quarterback Nick Xarras capped scoring with a 1-yard touchdown run out of their goal-line double wing set.
“It was a team win in every aspect of the game,” Palazzi said. “We did a great job coming back from the onslaught at the beginning.”
Two-way player: O’Connor continued his campaign for this year’s Mr. Football award with another impressive showing.
On offense, in addition to his 287 passing yards, O’Connor ran for 72 yards on six carries. Twenty-nine of those yards came on one awe-inspiring fourth-quarter carry on which O’Connor broke four tackles before being wrestled down by a pair of Highlanders defenders at the Doherty 13. The run helped set up Leominster’s second to last score, providing the Blue Devils with a two-possession lead.
Palazzi also lauded O’Connor’s play at safety, helping to neutralize Doherty’s passing attack in the second half.
“He’s playing against a lot of these great athletes and he’s a competitor out there,” Palazzi said of O’Connor. “He threw the ball well, he ran the ball well and he played tremendous defense. [He was] going a hundred miles per hour on every play.”