Saturday, November 22, 2014

Windham Beats St. Thomas in a Thriller, Wins School's 1st Football State Title

All 3 football state title games that were played on Saturday at UNH had a lot of build up. 1 of them lived up to the hype more than the others. That was the Division II championship between Windham and St. Thomas. After blowing a 21-0 lead, Windham came back to beat the Saints 38-28. The Jaguars complete an undefeated championship season in just their fifth year as a varsity program. It was their second time in a football state final - the first was in 2011 when they fell in the D-V title game to St. Thomas, a year when they Saints went undefeated.

"It's a credit to the players, buying in to what we asked them to do" said Windham High head coach and A.D. Bill Raycraft. "Our motto was 'Out-work Everybody'and they did it. I'll take these guys into battle any day."

All 9 touchdowns scored in this game were through the air. Windham senior QB Brendan McInnis threw for 5 TDs and St. Thomas junior QB Stephen Hedberg tossed 4 TDs. Ay 6'3", 205 lbs. McInnis has a cannon for an arm, made some huge throws and is also very quick for a QB his size. Hedberg meanwhile set the NHIAA state record for passing TDs with 35 on the season.

"Their QB is a hell of a player" said St. Thomas head coach Eric Cumba of McInnis.

"Brendan is an outstanding player" said Coach Raycraft. "For a kid that size to move around and throw like that - it's not natural he has put in a lot of work. He's worked on his scrambling, he's worked on his footwork. He has also become a leader for us."

Windham hadn't trailed in a game all year. They won all of their games in a landslide. They also hadn't played a team as good as St. Thomas yet. Finally Windham faced some adversity. The Saints came out of the locker room for the 2nd half as the sharper team. Jesse Quintero and Kevin Gould both made bone-jarring hits, and then McInnis' pass on 3rd and 10 fell incomplete. The Jaguars were forced to punt, but the snap sailed high over Anthony Gallo's head.

St. Thomas now had terrific field position on the Windham 39 yard line. They drove into the red zone, and then Hedberg found Charlie Pollack in the end zone for a 9 yard TD pass. The PAT was good and we were all tied up 21-21 with 7:00 left in the 3rd quarter.

The momentum continued to shift in the Saints' favor. On Windham's ensuing possession, McInnis got sacked by Will Micali and Tom Grimes. Windham again punted it away. St. Thomas got the ball back on their own 42 yard line. Hedberg passes down field got tipped and then landed in the hands of TE Liam Middleton, right in stride. Middleton sprinted into the end zone for a 58 yard TD reception. Two TDs in less than two minutes for STA and they now led 28-21 with 5:03 left in the 3rd quarter. This was the first time Windham had trailed in the 2nd half all year. Their first time all year seeing adversity, how would they respond?

Windham ball back on their own 36. They were determined to answer back with a score of their own this time. On 3rd and 8 from their own 38 yard line Kellin Bail had the biggest run of the game, breaking loose for a 57 yard carry. It looked like he was going to go all the way in for the touchdown, but give credit to Nate Grunbeck for busting his tail down field to get down there and tackle Bail at the 5 yard line and prevent the TD.

"It was an outside run, I was looking for daylight" said Bail. "I got some nice blocks down field. I thought I was gonna score, but he had a good angle on me."

The rest of the Saints' defense also stepped up, as McInnis tried for a keeper but was stuffed for no gain on 3rd and goal from the 1 yard line. Then it was 4th and goal from the 1 - McInnis rolled right and looked to the end zone where he had 2 receivers. His pass fell incomplete. Windham fans were looking for a pass interference call but didn't get it. Turnover on downs, STA ball. More adversity for the Jaguars.

"We just had to stay focused and not get overwhelmed" Bail pointed out. "We knew we'd come out with the win in the end."

That exactly what they did. There was 14 minutes left in the game, and Windham outscored St. Thomas 17-0 during that span. They got it started on defense. After STA made that goal line stand they got the ball back but were on their own 1 yard line. The Saints mishandled the snap on an attempted running play. They recovered the ball but got tackled in the end zone for a safety. Now it was 28-23, with St. Thomas still leading and 1:20 left in the 3rd quarter.

Was momentum officially shifted back over to Windham's side now? Not quite. The Jaguars got possession back following the safety. Windham fumbled as McInnis attempted to pitch it over to bail. STA recovered the fumble. So now we were headed to the 4th quarter. Windham was still trailing 28-23 and they had just fumbled the ball to give it back over to St. Thomas. Yes, more adversity for the Jaguars.

Fortunately for Windham they owned the 4th quarter. STA wasn't able to take advantage of the Jaguar's turnover. Troy Peters made a good tackle and the Saints were quickly forced to punt.

"We capitalized on some turnovers, but in the end we didn't capitalize on enough of them" lamented Coach Cumba, who was trying to win a state title on the same field where he played his college ball.

Windham ball, and Matt Shea ran for a 1st down. Then McInnis again showed his outstanding arm and mechanics, hitting Gallo for a 29 yard TD pass. It was a perfect throw by McInnis, putting it right on the money. McInnis then dove in for the 2 point conversion as Windham re-takes the lead 31-28 with 10:31 left in the 4th quarter.

"Our coaches preached one play at a time, all year" said Kurtis Jolicoeur. "I fumbled it, we got down, but we just had to get back up and make up for it. We got beat last year and we didn't want to let it happen again."

The Jaguars kept the momentum going on 'D'. Victor Pizzotti (remember the name, only a sophomore but was one of Windham's best defenders) made a good hit on 3rd and 12 to force another St. Thomas punt.

"Coach Byrne is a defensive mastermind" said Bail.

Windham gets the ball back looking to build on their 31-28 lead. Jolicoeur breaks loose for a 22 yard run. Then McInnis rolled right, avoids the pass rush (Quintero was a menace rushing the passer all game) and connected with Joe Frake in the end zone right in stride for a 12 yard TD pass. Another big throw by McInnis - his 5th TD pass of the game.

Just a few minutes ago St. Thomas had control of the game, but how quickly did the momentum shift! Now Windham was on top 38-28 with just 6:00 remaining in the 4th quarter. STA still had a chance but they had to get some more points on the board quick. Instead Hedberg threw interceptions on each of the saints' next 2 drives (one INT by Shea and the other was by Bail). The Jaguars win it 38-28.

Windham celebrated on the field, with the players and coaches all yelling "38! 38!". That's the number of points they scored in the title game, but else was the significance?

"Our high school is 38 miles to UNH" Jolicoeur pointed out. "All year it's been our goal to get here."

Give St. Thomas credit for battling back to even take the 28-21 lead in the 2nd half. Windham jumped out to a commanding 21-0 lead in the 1st half.

"They came out with more emotion in the 1st quarter" said Cumba.

The Jaguars set the tone defensively early on. Pizzotti and Gallo made good tackles. n 3rd and 11 from their own 35 yard line Hedberg looked to pass but got hit by Pizzotti on the throw and it fell incomplete. STA was forced to punt. On Windham's first drive Josh Carlisle made a good tackle but then on the next play Jolicoeur showed grit and toughness on a 24 yard run. Then we got our first look at McInnis' cannon arm, as he threw his first of 5 TD passes on the game, this one a 42 yard bomb to Gallo. A great throw and a great catch. 7-0 Jaguars with 9:05 left in the 1st quarter.

Windham kept rolling. Jolicoeur and Gallo teamed up for a tough hit resulting in no gain for STA. St. Thomas again punted it away. Windham got the ball back, and this time it was Trevor Martin with a strong tackle for STA. Windham was forced to punt. Finally the Saints got a couple 1st downs, as Hedberg found some running lanes. Then Hedberg connected with Gould for a 14 yard completion. But then Gallo made a big play for the Jaguars, picking off Hedberg around his own 25 yard line and returning it all the way to the STA 26 yard line.

Now Windham had excellent field position on the 26. McInnis hit Bail for a 13 yard pass, and then found Frake in the end zone for a 10 yard TD pass. 14-0 Jaguars with 1:15 left in the 1st quarter.

The ensuing kickoff was a short, bouncing kick. St. Thomas fumbled it, and it was recovered by Windham. The Jaguars started their last drive on the STA 26 yard line and this time they got to start on the STA 39 yard line. The Brendan McInnis Show continued, as the big senior from Texas rolled right and threw it on the run, hitting Frake right in stride with another perfect throw for a 38 yard TD pass. Just like that it was 21-0 Windham.

"We've all been playing together since 3rd grade" said Bail. We came up in Pop Warner all playing for the Razorbacks. In 6th grade we were state champs, regional champs and went down to nationals in Florida."

St. Thomas was too good of a team to get blown out. They battled back, and on their ensuing drive Hedberg hit Gould for a 14 yard pass, then hit Grunbeck for another 14 yard completion. Hedberg capped the drive with a 10 yard TD pass to Liam Middleton. 21-7 Windham with 8:06 left in the 2nd quarter.

The momentum continues to swing for STA, as Jolicoeur fumbles on a carry and it's recovered by Quintero. Now it's St. Thomas getting the good field position, on the Windham 35 yard line. Hedberg hits Middleton for a crucial 6 yard pass on 3rd and 4 from the WHS 29 yard line. Then it's Hedberg to Grunbck for an 8 yard TD pass. Just like that we have ourselves a ballgame. 21-14 Windham with 5:08 left in the 1st half.

Jaguars ball, trying to answer back. McInnis makes a tough run for the 1st down. Then Windham goes for it on 4th and 11 from the STA 47 yard line. The Saints clamp down on defense, as McInnis has nowhere to throw and is forced to try and scramble for the 1st down. He picked up a short gain, resulting in a turnover on downs.

St. Thomas ball, but their drive stalled as well. They went for a fake punt, but Daniel Rogrs was brought down far short of the 1st down marker. Windham gets the ball back, but there's only 32 seconds left in the 1st half. McInnis picks up a 1st down on the ground. Now only 4 seconds left on the STA 41 yard line. The Jaguars go for a HB pass play, with Bail attempting a long pass down field for McInnis. The pass is picked off by senior DB Kevin Kaneb and we went into halftime with Windham leading 21-14.

This was a highly competitive, hard fought game. 2 great teams, clearly the 2 best teams in D-II. Both squads gave it their all. St. Thomas had a great season, but just got beat by a better team.

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