DUDLEY, Mass. -- Behind a solid day of running from junior Jahkari Carpenter, and some last minute heroics by senior captains Isaac Yiadom and Luke Brennan, Doherty captured a championship 33 years in the making, defeating Shepherd Hill for the Division 4 Central title.
The come-from-behind 32-28 win sealed the Highlanders' first Central Mass. championship since 1980, when they defeated Marlborough in the Division 1 Central Super Bowl, and completed a year-long goal for this Doherty team.
"From the start (of the year) we always wanted to win a championship for the seniors," Carpenter said. "And we'll always remember the day, 11/27, when we lost to Shepherd Hill last year. We were thinking about that."
Doherty (9-1) got off to a fantastic start, as Carpenter (17 carries, 111 yards, 2 TDs) capped a 60-yard drive with a 26-yard touchdown run. The Highlanders carried that lead into the second quarter, but Shepherd Hill (8-2) would answer just two plays into the second frame with an eight-yard touchdown run from junior Brady Ravenelle. The two point try was no good, but the Rams cut the lead to 7-6.
Doherty answered back on its next drive, going 70 yards on 6 plays, with Brennan (11-of-17, 191 yards, 3 TDs) making two spectacular plays on the fly. First, facing a 3rd and 11, the senior quarterback broke contain and scrambled around long enough to find Shawn Jackson for a 25 yard pass. Then, he again evaded the rush, stepping up and finding Yiadom (3 receptions for 41 yds. and 2 TDs) for a 29-yard passing score to put Doherty up 14-6.
But, Shepherd Hill began to find its offensive rhythm behind senior running back Jake Gelb (17 carries, 92 yards, 2 TDs). The captain powered a drive that went 60 yards in the half's final four minutes, and a four yard score from quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume and two-point conversion tied things at 14 heading into intermission.
Gelb began the second half with a 26-yard touchdown run, and Robbie Brooks' two-point run put the Rams up 22-14 just minutes into the third quarter. But, the momentum the Rams had built was halted, at least momentarily, when Jean-Guillaume was injured on the ensuing kickoff. The star running quarterback had to be helped off the field. He would return on the Rams' next drive, but was largely ineffective running the ball.
The Highlanders made the Rams pay moments later, as Carpenter ran in another touchdown, this one from nine yards out. Still, an incomplete pass on the two-point try kept the Rams up 22-20.
Shepherd Hill seemed content to just grind things out with its double-wing running game, running 10 plays on the next drive, culminating in a four-yard Gelb score. Leading by eight, the Rams would only need an extra point to make it a two score game but, as they have done all season, Shepherd Hill went for two.
The Rams again went to Gelb, but he was met in the backfield by Matt Smalls and a host of Doherty defenders. The two-point try failed, and Doherty had new life.
Brennan wouldn't wait long to respond. After hitting Mitch Celaj for 34 yards down the right side, he quickly called Alfred Adarkwah's number in the red zone, finding the 6-foot-4 receiver for a 10-yard touchdown. It was Adarkwah's fifth touchdown of the postseason on only seven touches.
But again Doherty failed on the two-point try, setting up a chance for Shepherd Hill to run the clock out in the game's final five minutes. After converting a fourth down and advancing to the Doherty 36, the Rams faced 4th and three with two minutes to play.
Going for the win, the Rams put the ball in the hands of Brooks, but he was stopped a yard short by a host of Highlander defenders.
Brennan again went to work, hitting Jackson for 13, then rushing for 11 into Ram territory. After he scrambled to find Carpenter for 15, Brennan was again flushed from the pocket with 23 seconds to play. He ran right to escape the initial pressure, but doubled back nearly the length of the field and found Yiadom in the left corner of the end zone for the winning 8-yard score.
"The initial read was just to go up to Alfred in the (right) corner of the end zone," Brennan said. "And they were kind of doubling Alfred all day, so I didn't want to force a ball in. A turnover down there probably would have ended it. So I stepped around the pocket, probably the whole length of the field, and Isaac was just by himself in the corner of the (left) end zone."
"Once Luke's rolling, I just hide somewhere and he just throws it up, and I go get it," Yiadom said with a broad smile. "I did that and it felt great to catch the ball... It's the happiest I've ever been in my life, and it's the best moment of my life. I can't wait until the next game."
While the Highlanders' goals certainly don't end with a Central Mass title, they made it no secret that they are enjoying this win. After defeating Shepherd Hill-the team that denied Doherty its first playoff win in a generation last season- and capturing the district, the players know how much this year has meant to their school.
"It means a lot to the school," Carpenter said. "Especially after the last few years where we've been struggling. But we're here, we did it. We're champs."
Doherty will now face D4 Western Mass champion Wahconah at Leominster's Doyle Field next Saturday. Game time has yet to be announced.