LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Before they had time to blink, the Doherty Highlanders were trailing 16 points to Western Mass. power Wahconah Regional.
Like a Mike Tyson fight (pre-Buster Douglas, of course), Doherty found itself lying on the canvas in a heap after the Warriors came out swinging right from the outset.
With one foot firmly planted on the Highlanders' throats, Wahconah failed to complete the task when it had the chance and let Doherty off the hook. Helped by a couple of Warrior miscues, Doherty was able pull itself up, and in the process, save its season after rallying back to post a 22-16 triumph in today's Division 4 state semifinal played at Doyle Field.
"It seemed our kids were so excited about this game and the atmosphere that we got tired after two plays," said Highlanders head coach Sean Mulcahy, his team finishing with 325 yards to the Warriors' 257. "Wahconah took it to us early and I think our kids did panic a little bit."
Doherty (10-1) faces Dennis-Yarmouth (a 21-14 winner over Bedford on Saturday) in the final on Dec. 7 at Gillette Stadium – time to be announced.
While some pundits assumed the Highlanders' overall talent-level would be far too great for the Warriors (10-1) to handle, it appeared to be the other way around in the early going.
On the Warriors’ opening possession, senior quarterback Ethan Wells, who played marvelously all game long, directed his club on a 53-yard scoring drive with Wells completing the drive by connecting with junior wide out Ryan Washburn for a 26-yard scoring reception. Matt Salvatore's proceeding conversion catch had the Warriors in front, 8-0.
Wells put his diversity on display for the Highlanders, demonstrating his capabilities throwing the football as well as running with it. He finished with 129 yards on 30 carries and was 6 of 13 passing for 93 yards. Lining up in the shotgun throughout, Doherty's defense appeared baffled about what Wells would do next, consistently loading the box to take away the run.
Yet, the strategy didn't seem to faze Wahconah. After a second consecutive Highlanders punt, the Warriors were given a short field to work as they set up on Doherty's 43-yard line. Four runs by Wells, netting 17 yards, positioned running back Darrow Brown to bust through for a 10 yard scoring run with just over a minute remaining in the initial quarter. Brown then threw a pass to Cole Morrison for the two-point conversion pushing the Warriors out to a 16-0 advantage.
In spite of the deficit, it was certainly still within reach for Doherty, and its plethora of talent, to jump back into it. All the Highlanders needed was something to fall their way and provide a much-needed lift. It came in the form of running back Jahkari Carpenter.
With Doherty's running game totally inept during the opening frame, Carpenter changed that early in the second thanks to his 59-yard jaunt. That was immediately followed by senior quarterback Luke Brennan's 19-yard touchdown scamper to make it 16-6 after the conversion run failed.
"Our defense made some great adjustments after [Wahconah] went up by 16 points," said Brennan, who finished with 93 yards on 6 of 15 passing. "Our offense eventually clicked and that's what we did the rest of the game. Everyone kept their poise. We knew it was going to be a war. We knew we needed to grind for four quarters and keep our composure the whole game no matter what happened and that's what we did."
On the ensuing kickoff, the Warriors made a critical error which in turn provided the momentum shift Doherty grasped hold of and didn’t surrender.
Senior Eli Pease had the ball squirt through his hands that ended up sitting on the 1-yard line. After a delay-of-game penalty, Wells had no place to go inside his own end zone and was smothered by the Highlander defense resulting in a safety.
"Once we got that safety I felt our kids could finally breathe a little and now start to play," Mulcahy said.
He added, "We'll enjoy this and now get ready for Burncoat on Thanksgiving. We'll worry about Gillette after Thanksgiving."
With 4:47 still left before halftime, Doherty came all the way back. Carpenter's 42-yard zig-zag touchdown and Mitch Celaj's conversion catch had this contest knotted at 16-16. Carpenter finished with 114 yards on 14 attempts.
"We did a great job coming out for this game," Warriors coach Gary Campbell Jr. said. "Offensively and defensively we were executing. But in the second quarter the wheels came off. All you can ask for are opportunities. If you get them phenomenal and if you don't that's the way it goes. Doherty is a quality team but I was pleased to see our kids hang with them through four quarters like they did. We'll fight with anybody but this one will sting a little.
“I thought Ethan [Wells] played great for us today. He is our heart and soul. He's a tough kid who is still deciding on attending either RPI and WPI. It doesn't matter where you put him on the field. He's just a very smart, tough player that can play anywhere."
It only got worse Wahconah after a shotgun snap deflected off of Pease, who was in motion, resulting in Highlander senior Peter Franco’s recovery on Wahconah's 40. But Doherty running back Issac Yiadom gave the ball back to the Warriors, coughing it up inside the 10. Yiadom carried the ball four times for 40 yards.
Wahconah's offense did nothing following the turnover and had its punt partially blocked. Doherty took over on the 16 and needed only one play to take a 6-point lead. Alfred Adarkwah's 16-yard scoring grab from Brennan with 16 seconds before halftime had the Highlanders in a much-better frame of mind than what transpired during opening 11 minutes.
The second half was a bend-but-don't break style offense and defense from both teams. Doherty had a chance to pad its lead late in the third but Carpenter lost control of the ball inside the Warriors 10. Likewise, Wahconah put forth its best drive of the game following the turnover. Beginning at his own 8-yard line, Wells' legs did much of the work in moving the Warriors all the way the Highlanders’ 6. Facing a fourth-and-goal Wells' pass to the back of the end zone was battered down by senior Shawn Jackson.
Doherty regained possession and eventually ran out the clock for the triumph.