WALPOLE, Mass. -- Colton Mitchell is prone to nail a 40-yard field goal, sometimes 45, usually down the middle, in a practice at Walpole High. This, however, was anything but.
"I was very nervous," the No. 23 Rebels' sophomore placekicker admitted of the moments before he was set to attempt a game-winning field goal over Natick. "Everyone kept coming up to me on the sidelines, and I just had the thought of it coming through. All of them helped me get it through."
The sophomore took three steps back and to his left, then exhaled, as he lined up for a 25-yard chip shot with six seconds left in regulation. Then he grimaced as he watched it come off his right foot like a line drive, a frozen rope that sailed just six inches above the crossbar.
Mitchell is breathing easy tonight, the hero in a 16-13 last-second win over the No. 21 Red & Blue (8-2), which clinched a second straight Bay State Herget title and playoff berth for the Rebels (9-1). But boy, was fate playing with Mitchell's emotions for a few moments there.
"Very nervous," Mitchell said again, smiling, when asked about his emotions watching the kick. "I was like, 'Please, please get over'. Thankfully, it did."
Head coach Barry Greener, ever the gift for gab, offered empathy for Mitchell.
"None of us woulda wanted to have been out there trying," Greener laughed to reporters. "He's a great kid. You'll also see Mitchell as a punt returner and a wide receiver. He's a terrific player. He's been banged up -- broke his hand on a punt return in the Norwood game (in September), and we had trouble just to get him cleared to kick. Doctor didn't know you didn't need a hand for that."
So how did the game's outcome fall into the hands of a nervous 16-year-old kid? Enter Craig Hanley, a senior captain who finished the night with 107 yards and two scores on 15 carries, but saved most of his work for the second half. On the game's final drive, he had five touches for 47 yards, including a 23-yard dive up the middle in which he broke free of a shoestring tackle near the line of scrimmage to reel off another 15 yards down the left hash marks.
But on third and goal from the Natick 8 with 15 seconds to go, Hanley took a big hit at the line of scrimmage from linebacker Brian Tingley and came off the turf limping. Hanley said "it was just a dead leg" and that he'll be fine.
As for Mitchell's kick, Hanley said, "I was a little bit [nervous]. We were all holding hands on the sideline, 'Please kick it', and he got it in. We didn't know, because I saw it, and was like 'Is that wide left?'"
Winning the trenches: Behind a sound line of Gary DeVincintis, Dan Woods, Charlie Love, Rick Ordway and Dan King, the Rebels cranked out 312 yards on the ground, paving wide lanes at times for Hanley, Shane Blass and Steve Thulin with a series of dives, counters and sweeps from two-back formations.
On the other side, thanks in large part to its aggressive three-man front, which had totaled five sacks on Natick sophomore quarterback Troy Flutie, Walpole had yielded just 17 yards of Natick offense in the first half. And while the Red & Blue offense came alive in the second half, the tone had been set, with Woods at the nose and King bringing heat off the edge.
Against Natick's spread, which often deploys three and four-receiver sets, the Rebels left five in the box, but were clearly confident in their three-man front.
"We had a three-stack in [linebacker set] ready to go, which would give us a six-man box and blitz, but we never went to it," Greener said. "We worked on it a lot, but we stayed with the five-man box, we felt we could stop the run in a five-man box. Our front three are very, very good, and we go five deep. Gary DeVincintis had a heck of a game."
Tempo recognize tempo: Natick has been going no-huddle this season, with Flutie calling the plays out from the line of scrimmage, and as the game wore on they tried to speed the game up to an Oregon-like pace, sometimes getting the snap off in 15 or 20 seconds.
Asked about preparing for Natick's tempo, Walpole players and coaches merely shrugged -- and smiled.
"We've been working on that all week, we were ready for that all week," Hanley said. "We had great coaching."
What kind of coaching? Greener got colorful in describing his practice atmosphere.
"When we go to Team D after indie [individual] and group, we have two offenses running at our defense -- no rest," Greener said. "It is absolutely massive friggin' chaos out there. They don't have time to get down in their stances, we're running plays at them so fast.
"That's the way we try to practice -- uptempo, go, go, go. I honestly feel if you've got to run sprints after practice to stay in shape, you didn't practice fast enough. Basically, this was a slower pace than practice for us."
Glimpse of the future: If there's one thing we took away from Natick's performance, it's that they're going nowhere but up from here. It shouldn't surprise that inexperience shone through tonight, but that youthfulness has to have Red & Blue fans excited for the next few years.
It's hard to believe leading receiver Brian Dunlap, who caught his Bay State-best 13th touchdown pass tonight, is just a freshman. When Greener says things in the post-game like, "I told the kids it's not just Dunlap", it makes one take a step back and remember this is a kid who caught over 200 yards in his first varsity game as a 14-year-old.
Then there's Flutie, son of former Boston College and CFL star Darren, who reeled off a 53-yard touchdown run up the sidelines to knot the game at 6-6 early in the third. On an option keeper, Flutie juked a defender with a basketball-esque ball fake, slipped inside of a crackback block from Dimitri Kourtis, and outran the secondary to paydirt.
Later in the third quarter, Flutie knotted the game at 13-all with a 12-yard strike to Dunlap on a skinny post to the back of the end zone. Looks like they just might have practiced that one a few times.
"We think our pass game is pretty advanced," head coach Mark Mortarelli said. "Tonight it wasn't, but usually it is."
Said Greener of Flutie, "The thing that amazes me with him is that he calls everything from the line of scrimmage. I guess he's been doing it since he was 10."
WALPOLE 16, NATICK 13
NAT (8-2) 0 - 0 - 13 - 0 --- 13
WAL (9-1) 6 - 0 - 7 - 3 --- 16
W - Craig Hanley 5 run (kick failed) :07
N - Troy Flutie 53 run (kick failed) 9:03
W - Hanley 4 run (Colton Mitchell kick) 5:52
N - Brian Dunlap 12 pass from Flutie (Sam Lenson kick) :27
W - Mitchell 25 field goal :06