CLINTON, Mass. -- It was just a few ticks into the fourth quarter and Maynard was feeling the heat.
After racing out to a 30-point lead, the Tigers suddenly found themselves in a precarious situation after watching Clinton storm its way back to trail by only a touchdown.
Clearly, with momentum shifted over to the side of the Gaels, Maynard needed to siphon up something positive in the worst possible way.
Enter punter Reese Lesage.
The senior, standing inside his own 35-yard line, booted a deep punt that settled on the Clinton 3. The kick seemed to breathe life back into the Tigers as they rewarded Lesage's heroics by holding the Gaels on downs and forcing them to punt inside their own end zone.
Maynard got the ball back on the Clinton 31-yard line and two plays later, junior running back Stephen Peterson (103 yards on 14 carries) bolted 27 yards to pay dirt with just under six minutes remaining allowing Maynard to survive a 38-24 triumph in the 56th edition of this Thanksgiving rivalry at Veterans Athletic Complex.
Clinton leads the overall series 33-22-1.
"Reese's punt was the turning point of the game," said Tigers head coach Harold Ogilvie. "It put them back on the 3-yard line. If we gave them the ball at midfield or anywhere else we could've been in trouble. We were able to pin them back on that play and our defense pinned their ears back and played the way they've been taught to play. We are a bend but don't break sort of defense. We're going to give you the yards but we're not going to let you get into the end zone."
The Tigers completed an impressive campaign, closing with a record of 8-3, while the Gaels finish at 4-7. Both teams earned playoff berths this year. Maynard lost to Blackstone Valley Tech while Clinton was upended by Northbridge.
Despite the half-foot of snow that fell on the region overnight, there was no doubt this game would be played as scheduled. Kudos to a host of volunteers who arrived here in the wee hours of the morning to clear off the field and stands in preparation for this tilt.
"There were people here at 6 a.m. getting this field ready," Clinton head coach Paul Constantino said. "We wanted to play on Thanksgiving and Maynard did too. Barring any unforeseen thing when they showed up we were going to play today. All of the kids wanted to play today. It's what it is suppose to be."
The Tigers wasted little time setting the tempo in this one, scoring on their first four possessions to lead 30-0. A Daryl Jent fumble on the game's opening play was recovered by Maynard on the Gaels' 30. Two plays later, senior running back Bryan Kiley busted up the gut for a 27 yard score. Kiley would add the conversion run to put the Tigers on top 8-0. Early on, Clinton's offense (179 yards) failed to move the ball against Maynard's vaunted defense led by linemen Jared Cormier, Akram Semakula, Jake Kennedy and linebacker John O'Callaghan. The Tigers would go up 16-0 minutes later on Zach Boerman's 1-yard dive completing a 40 yard drive.
On Clinton's ensuing possession, a bad snap on a punt attempt forced punter Alex Ortiz into a throwing situation that fell incomplete. Getting the ball back deep in Gaels' territory, Zach Uglevich found the end zone from 10 yards out with 2:38 still remaining in the opening quarter. Another Clinton punt resulted in more points for Maynard (308 yards, 211 in the first half) as they marched 95 yards capped off by Cal Howes' 12 yard scoring pass to Boerman. Kiley's conversion run had the Tigers well-in command.
"Leadership has really brought us through," said Kiley, who finished with 136 yards on 22 rushes. "We knew we needed to stay focused when they came back on us. We did what we had to do to win. As a team we try to even out the carries to several running backs. The past years we kind of had just one key running back. It's not like that this year. We've spread things out and it has really worked well for us and gave us a really strong backfield."
Down by 30 points, it would have been easy for the Gaels begin turning their thoughts to Thanksgiving dinner. But after Ortiz returned a kickoff 89 yards to put Clinton on the board, suddenly a glimmer of hope could be seen on the Gaels sideline. After stopping the Tigers on their next possession, Clinton got the ball back and drove 76 yards, keyed by runs from senior back Kenel Meunier (86 yards on the ground). Facing fourth and goal at the Tigers 3, junior running back Brandon Whitney bowled over the goal line with no time left in the half. Following Jent's conversion catch, Clinton had sliced the deficit in half, trailing 30-16.
Maynard could do nothing offensively on its first possession to begin the third quarter. The Gaels had the ball back in their hands and were now starting to find holes within the Tigers defense. Behind the running of Jent and Whitney (27 yards), Clinton kept its 65 yard march intact. Reaching the Maynard 1, Jent (19 yards on 11 carries) pushed his way across the goal line and would add the conversion run to make it a one score game (30-24) with 2:33 left in the quarter.
"We gave Maynard two scores right from the get-go," said Constantino. "Suddenly it's 22-0 and then its 30-0. We called a time out and I told our kids to keep fighting because there is no place to hide. We were able to get back into it but they had that great punt which changed things a bit as it put us back so deep. I told our kids I know things are hollow right now but it really was an incredible comeback in the way they never quit."
Following Jent's score, a feeling of dis-belief had beset on the Tigers sideline. Thoughts resonated through their heads that If they continued to allow Clinton to ride this newfound crest of momentum, how would they ever live this down should the Gaels find a way to rally back for a victory?
Early in the final quarter, Maynard reached midfield but a swing pass to Kiley on third down netted them a four yard loss thus forcing a punt. But as a result, Lesage proved to be the most unlikeliest of heroes with his high, arcing punt putting Clinton in the shadow of its own goal post and, in turn, snuff out to its remarkable comeback effort.
"It's Clinton and I knew they would make a charge at us," Ogilvie said. "That's a well-coached team over there and those kids don't quit. I'm very proud my guys answered the bell in the fourth quarter. It's nice to finish the year 8-3. It's a great way to go into the off-season. I'm excited about what we have coming back next year. Maynard is a special place and there are a lot of special players on this team."