NEEDHAM, Mass. -- For three quarters, Lawrence Academy managed to keep just enough distance between itself and St. Sebastian’s to maintain a slim 3-point lead. Despite committing some ill-advised mistakes on offense, the Spartans were still able to fend off the Arrows over the first 36 minutes.
But midway through the fourth quarter, St. Sebs turned the tables by recovering a LA fumble and converting the opportunity into a touchdown to take its first lead on the afternoon.
With virtually everything at stake, LA had one final shot to keep its playoff hopes alive. The Spartans successfully completed their mission, driving 80 yards before running back A.J. Dillon capped it off with a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:23 left to edge past the Arrows, 17-13, Saturday afternoon in a battle of Independent School League heavyweights.
"Everything starts with our quarterback (Jake Cassidy)," said Dillon, who finished his day with 146 yards on 29 attempts. "At the beginning we couldn't really throw the ball because we weren't use to the weather. But he came out in the second half and started capitalizing by making big plays for us. Our defense also played great. I've never seen us play better defense than the way we played today."
LA, winners of six straight, improve to 6-1 and are tied with Governor's Academy and Brooks School atop the ISL standings board. Next Saturday, the Spartans will host Brooks in their regular season finale with postseason bowl implications on the line.
Chances are the NEPSAC committee will most-likely select two ISL teams to partake in their annual bowl match-ups, with an outside chance of third team getting in. Should the Spartans beat Brooks next week, they will secure at least a share of the league title. They could win it outright should Govs happen to stumble against Belmont Hill next weekend.
But for any of that to happen, LA first needed to take care of business against the Arrows (5-2).
In a cold, wind-swept rain, the Spartans were able to control the opening half and stake themselves out to a 10-0 lead. St. Sebs, known for its volatile aerial attack, was handcuffed throughout the afternoon due to the unfavorable weather conditions.
On LA's second possession of the game, Dillion provided the offense, touching the ball six times on the drive before finishing it off with a 3-yard blast at 2:21 of the opening quarter to give his team a 7-0 lead.
"I'm not out there playing for myself but playing for my team," Dillon added. "My main goal was to hold onto the ball and get three to four yards on my carries."
The Arrows offense appeared somewhat incapacitated, unable to move the ball against a staunch Spartan defense. Forced to punt the ball away in three of its four first half series, the final one ended up leading to more points for the Spartans, who finished with 343 offensive yards.
With less than three minutes remaining, LA began from its own 27. Junior quarterback Jake Cassidy (7 of 15 for 144 yards) found receiver Tim Preston for an 18-yard completion. Two plays later, the duo hooked up again, this time for 44 yards to move the ball to the St. Sebs 16.
With time winding down, the Spartans attempted one more pass play that fell incomplete. Kicker Chris Garrison was brought in to boot a 29-yard field goal and send LA into the break up by two scores. Garrison, also the Spartans punter and an outstanding receiver, faked two punts during the game, running for first downs on each to sustain drives.
You had to realize the Arrows (327 yards) were too good a team to remain so silent. After receiving the opening kickoff to start the second half, St. Sebs drove 66 yards before sophomore running back Tommy Seidl took a pitch from quarterback Geoff Wade and bolted 33 yards into the end zone to slice the deficit to 10-7. Earlier, Seidl had a 69-yard touchdown run called back due to a holding penalty. The Wellesley native finished with 85 rushing yards.
On the Spartan's ensuing possession, Cassidy made a huge mistake by throwing into double coverage and was picked off by Tyler Wiik. The Arrows offense took over and reached the LA 12 before setting up a field goal try by Charles Gordon. But Spartan lineman Douglas Rodier managed to get a hand on it to preserve the Spartan's three-point advantage.
"This is a team made up of a lot of different guys," LA head coach Paul Zukauskas said. "I think we are talented in a lot of different positions. With us you see different guys making lots of different plays which makes this team pretty special. When you play a great team like this every play is so important. There are no easy plays. Our kids need to focus on every play and they do. This is a very-emotionally invested team that believes in each other cares about each another. That is what I'm most proud of."
Early in the final quarter, and his team driving down field, Dillon was stripped of the ball that was recovered by Seidl on the Arrow 42. Key runs from Seidl and Wade moved St. Sebs to the Spartan 5-yard line.
That set the stage for senior back Edosa Onaiwu to bust into the end zone and move the Arrows in front 13-10 with 5:44 left to be played.
For LA, its next, and most-likely final possession of the day, would prove to be a moment of truth. Knowing an opportunity to win the league, as well as earn a possible bowl bid, weighed heavily on their shoulders. Without question, this final drive would prove to be the Spartans' most important of the season.
They kicked it off with completions of 26 and 11 yards, respectively from Cassidy. Later, facing a fourth and 1 on the Arrow 34, Dillon was given the ball and gained four yards. A Garrison 18 yard catch later during the drive had LA sitting on the St. Sebs 5. Two plays later, Dillon found enough space to sneak over the goal line and give the lead back to the Spartans.
"We had over five minutes left so we knew to just keep running our offense," Zukauskas said. "You don't want to panic and just try and throw the ball all over the place, especially with the weather conditions the way they were. You want to try and run the ball effectively. Once we got the ball down there deep I only had one thought in mind and that was to just hammer it in. When you have a player like A.J. you've got to use him, especially inside the red zone."
With still time remaining, and a plethora of weapons to choose from, the Arrows never panicked. Wade opened by completing a 16-yard pass. Later, upon facing a third and 10, the Needham senior hit Mitchell Heffernan for 13 yards. The drive continued after Wade (9 of 28 for 95 yards) tossed a 22 yard strike to Mark Heffernan, putting the ball on the Spartans' 21. With time left for just two more plays, any hopes for a last-second comeback victory came to rest after Wade threw a pair of incompletions inside the end zone.
"We had our opportunities and we left it all on the field," Arrows head coach Bob Souza said. "We got down into the red zone a couple of times but couldn't finished the job. Lawrence did a good job and played great defense. Credit goes to them. That was a great final drive by them to get it down there and score. We felt we could throw the ball on them but I felt we didn't throw the ball as well as we have all year with a lot of that because of the weather conditions. But overall, they made the plays they had to and we didn't."