The St. Thomas Aquinas football team had revenge on their minds on Saturday afternoon at UNH - they got it. St. Thomas lost last season's Division II championship game in a heartbreaker to Windham. Well not only did the Saints avenge that loss by defeating the Jaguars this time around, but they completed an undefeated championship season in the process.
St. Thomas defeated Windham for the 2015 D-II title 10-6, despite being held without a touchdown the entire game.
"We had a lot of great plays on defense" said St. Thomas senior Nate Grunbeck. "Defense wins championships."
"Since day one we wanted to prove it" added fellow senior Matt Elliott. "To be undefeated champions - it's huge."
It wasn't easy, and it wasn't pretty. But the Saints got it done. They got everything they could handle from a tough, physical Windham team who never once backed down. This game was filled with turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and high snaps. Overall it was a pretty even game. St. Thomas just made one more play than Windham did.
What was that one play? A blocked punt where the Saints recovered the fumble and ran it into the end zone. Windham lined up to punt on their first drive in the 1st quarter. The snap sailed high up over the head of punter Victor Pizzotti. Pizzotti, picked up the ball, and even though a St. Thomas defender was baring down on him he still attempted to punt it away. The kick was block, resulting in a fumble. Junior defensive back Zach Knight recovered the fumble and ran it in 16 yards for the touchdown. The Saints' sideline was sent into a frenzy - they were pumped! The PAT was good, and it was 7-0 St. Thomas with 4:21 left in the 1st quarter.
"I have to give credit to Tom Bouchard for making the block" said Knight. "Then I was in the right place at the right time and took it to the house."
"Special teams and defense was the difference" said St. Thomas head coach Eric Cumba.
Cumba wins his second title as St. Thomas' coach. This one was the first however that he won on the same field that he played his college ball - UNH.
"In games like this you need seniors to step up" said Coach Cumba. "This is a special senior class. They went from a 1-win freshman team to undefeated as seniors. I'm so proud of them - it's a great feeling."
This game went down to the wire. St. Thomas held on to their 7-0 lead into the 4th quarter. But then Windham finally got on the board. Matt Shea rushed for a 1st down, and then QB Ben Emrick (filling in for injured starting QB Griffin Lippold) rushed for a 12 yard gain. On Emrick's run the whole left side of the field was left open - it was a good play call by Windham head coach Bill Raycraft to recognize that. From there Pizzotti bulled his way into the end zone from 9 yards out. The Jaguars went for the 2 point conversion, but Emrick rolled out of the pocket and his pass to the end zone was intercepted by Edwin Estevez. St. Thomas still had the lead, 7-6 with 11:57 left in the 4th quarter.
On the Saints' ensuing drive, junior LB Parker Belsky made a nice tackle. Then on 3rd and 9 from their own 46 yard line, St. Thomas QB Stephen Hedberg completed a short pass to Grunbeck, who then got hit hard and fumbled the ball. The fumble was recovered by Jay Giles for Windham and returned to the STA 39 yard line.
This was a huge drive for the Jaguars. It's in the 4th quarter, they're down by 1 point and have excellent field position. On 3rd and 10 the Jaguars ran the ball, and Shea ((52 rushing yards) picked up just 4 yards, bringing up 4th down and 6 from the STA 35 yard line. St. Thomas got some good pressure on Emrick, who threw it to the end zone for Shane Lafond. The Saints had triple coverage on Lafond though, and the pass fell incomplete - turnover on downs.
So after the defense came up with a big stop, now the St. Thomas offense goes back out there looking to run some clock with just 7:50 left in the 4th quarter. They turned to senior RB Sam Andolina, who came up with some clutch runs late. He ran for a 1st down, and then Hedberg kept it himself for an 11 yard run. Then came a crucial 4th down and 4 play from the WHS 26 yard line. Windham really needed a stop here. Instead, Andolina takes the hand-off and picked up an 8 yard gain. He was nearly down at the line of scrimmage, but he slipped off a couple of tackles.
"The game plan was to give it to Sam" "said Grunbeck. "He played his heart out."
"I credit my staff - they told me that if we were going to win it's by running the ball."
St. Thomas didn't have much choice, since their passing game was struggling. All season long they had a high powered passing attack, but in Saturday's final Hedberg completed just 5/15 passes for only 49 yards. From there Matt Baker kicked a 32 yard field goal, making it 10-6 St. Thomas with just 1:10 remaining in regulation.
Windham ball, with one last chance to win it at the end. Emrick runs for an 11 yard gain. Then Corey Kneeland runs for another jaguar 1st down. With 17 seconds left Windham was down to the STA 28 yard line. Emrick threw it deep, but the pass was picked off by Grunbeck.
"I went through my keys, saw the ball in the air and tried to go up and get it" said Grunbeck.
Hedberg leads the Saints offense back onto the field, takes a knee and St. Thomas wins it 10-6. They are your undefeated D-II champs for 2015.
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