FITCHBURG, Mass. -- There was not a spot in the playoffs up for grabs Thanksgiving morning. Each team already had one of those. Fitchburg and Leominster played for pure pride and bragging rights, with Leominster holding on for a 21-14 victory.
It was the 128th meeting between the two Mid-Wach A schools, so it is a storied rivalry to say the least. With the two teams so familiar with each other, one could almost expect to see something it had not seen before.
On Fitchburg’s first offensive play, quarterback Connor Lemieux lined up in the shotgun and handed the ball off to Demitri Brasili. He ran left, then pitched the ball to Quinton Perkins for what appeared to be a designed reverse for the speedy wide receiver. Instead of running around the right end, he heaved the ball downfield to a wide open Berny Platel for a 68-yard touchdown.
“We knew it was going to happen, we told them, ‘Don’t bite up on that,’ and we bit up,” said Leominster coach Dave Palazzi. “But it’s a game of what you do after you’re down. I told the kids that’s what this game is all about. There’s going to be plays, there’s going to be big plays, it’s how we respond to those big plays that’s going to be the test of who we are.”
After going three-and-out on its first drive, Leominster (8-3) responded with a five-minute scoring drive. The pivotal play came when Palazzi decided to go for it on 4th-and-4 from the Fitchburg 10-yard line. Quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie (5-of-18, 93 yards) took the snap and sprinted off left tackle with his running back to his right, available for the option pitch if needed. Instead, he decided to keep the ball and got into the end zone to put his team ahead 8-7 after the two-point conversion.
The momentum swung towards Leominster on the ensuing drive when it stopped Fitchburg (6-5) on 4th-and-5 around midfield. This gave the Blue Devils short field position, which they capitalized on early in the second quarter when running back Geraldo Rivera (18 carries, 60 yards; three catches, 71 yards) ran in from seven yards out to put his team ahead 14-7.
Fitchburg tied up the score on its next possession, but Leominster came up with a big play when Brandon Herrick knocked the ball out of Perkins’ hands on a running play. Jason Valera picked up the fumble and ran it back 40 yards for the deciding touchdown.
“It’s one of those Leominster-Fitchburg games,” said Palazzi. “It’s always the same thing, same deal. One or two plays here and there is the deciding factor and we just held strong until the end.”
Palazzi reflects: This marked the first Fitchburg-Leominster Thanksgiving Day matchup for Palazzi as the head coach of Leominster. When asked after the game if the game had a special feeling to it, he quickly put the attention back on the players.
“I’m just happy for our 32 seniors,” said Palazzi. “Starting out the season 0-3, and to be standing on this field 8-3 beating Fitchburg on their home field and just letting our seniors take it all in is fantastic. We’re just fortunate to do what we’ve done. My hat goes off to Ray Cosenza and his entire team. That’s a good football team over there. They battled all game and we’ll see what happens in the playoffs.
D1 Playoff field set: The playoff eligibility was already decided for the two teams coming into Thanksgiving, so the result of the game only told the two teams who they would play Tuesday night in the playoffs. Fitchburg will play St. John’s of Shrewsbury, while Leominster is scheduled to face Shrewsbury. This marks a short preparation time for all teams involved.
“We have tomorrow off, then we’ll practice Saturday, Sunday, and Monday,” said Palazzi. “We’ll have a Tuesday night playoff game. Maybe you guys will figure out who we’re playing and when. I know it will be at Doyle Field, I’m just not sure of the time.”
Perkins goes down: In the third quarter, Fitchburg’s Quinton Perkins went down with an apparent cramp and was forced to leave the game. After getting stretched out on the sidelines by the trainers, he gave it another shot and reentered the game later in the quarter. After one running play, the pain appeared again, but this time Perkins left the game for good.
This time, no stretching or hydration could help. It was a big loss for Fitchburg because until that point, he was giving the Leominster defense fits. The Fitchburg offense was noticeably sluggish with him not in the lineup. Perkins was lining up as a receiver, running back, and even a Wildcat quarterback until that point. He ended the game with 9 carries for 74 yards and the 68-yard touchdown pass.
Defense holds: Both defenses showed up when its team needed it to in the second half. However, it was Leominster’s defense that made the bigger impact by intercepting Connor Lemieux three times in the second half.
“I knew once they started throwing the ball and Perkins went out of the game, that really hurt them,” said Palazzi. “Let’s be honest, he’s an unbelievable player. You take our best player away from us and those things happen. They had to change their gameplan a little bit, throwing the ball around, and I had a little more confidence once they started to throw the ball. We defended the pass pretty well all year and we did it in the second half.”
LEOMINSTER 21, FITCHBURG 14
LEO (8-3) --- 8 - 13 - 0 - 0 --- 21
FIT (6-5) --- 7 - 7 - 0 - 0 --- 14
F - Berny Platel 68-yard pass from Quinton Perkins (Eric Comeau kick)
L - Garrett DelleChiaie 10-yard run (Kevin O'Connor pass from DelleChiaie)
L - Geraldo Rivera 7 run (pass failed)
F - Comeau 33 pass from Connor Lemieux (Comeau kick)
L - Jason Valera 40 fumble return (Pawel Kubiak kick)