FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Not only did Mansfield enter Saturday’s Division 2 state championship against St. John’s (Shrewsbury) minus its injured leading receiver, Brendan Hill, but the Hornets also turned the ball over five times – in the first half alone.
Even though the Hornets only trailed 14-7 at halftime, a repeat of that performance quite likely would have resulted in a Pioneers victory.
“We were in a big, big hole,” Mansfield coach Mike Redding said after his team rallied for an improbable 28-14 victory. “We did everything we could to give it away.
“I thought the big difference was twice when we turned it over in our own end, we came up with stops or this thing would have gotten away from us in a hurry.”
The plays that Redding cited each occurred in the second quarter.
St. John’s Derek Houde recovered a Miguel Villar-Perez fumble at the Pioneers 20. But Mansfield’s Connor Finerty planted Shane Combs for no gain on fourth-and-one from Mansfield’s 23.
Then, after the Pioneers’ Pat Ryan recovered a “pooch kick” that deflected off a Hornet at the Mansfield 17, Aurian Dawkins intercepted an Andrew Smiley pass in the end zone.
Cool, calm and collected: Those plays had much to do with the Hornets’ mindset during intermission.
“We felt pretty good at halftime because we had moved the ball and we hadn’t punted,” Redding said. “We were only down seven. To turn it over five times against a team like this and be down seven, we felt like we still had a good shot at winning it.
“This group has a lot of character. Nobody was rattled at halftime. We felt pretty good and we came to play in the second half on defense.”
Granted, Mansfield (13-0) held St. John’s (9-4) to a modest 161 yards of total offense in the second half. But if there was one sequence that reflected the Hornets’ character it was the one that began at the tail end of the third quarter with Mansfield leading, 21-14.
Commencing on the last play of that period, Mansfield chewed up 68 yards of Gillette Stadium real estate on 13 plays and took a whopping 7:49 off the clock.
The drive culminated with Villar-Perez (18 carries for 120 yards) busting through the right side from the 3 for the game-clinching touchdown.
“I think that was the most crucial drive we’ve had,” Mike Hershman said. “It took up a good portion of the fourth quarter so we kept our defense off the field.
“It was big for us. We just wanted to execute and try not to give their offense another chance to score. To melt so much of the clock and punch it in at the end was perfect.”
Hershman was one of several Hornets who “executed.”
Besides running for 66 yards and one touchdown on eight carries, he also caught six passes for 77 yards.
“We executed very well on offense (Mansfield amassed 384 yards of total offense) and on defense I was trying to give everything I had,” Hershman said. “This was the last game and I wanted to leave it all on the field.”
Fast start: Mansfield began the game with a 66-yard-, 10-play drive that ended with Alex Ruddy diving over from the 2. But St. John’s countered with a 66-yard drive that culminated with Smiley sneaking over from the 1.
The Pioneers took what proved to be their last lead, 14-7, after Jacob Byczko recovered a Mansfield fumble. Shane Combs (14 carries for 100 yards) sped 19 yards to the end zone.
Mansfield’s Mike Barresi intercepted a Smiley pass three plays into the third quarter and that set up an 11-yard touchdown run by Alex Ruddy. But Alex Thompson was wide right on the ensuing PAT so St. John’s still led 14-13.
After St. John’s went three-and-out, Mansfield marched 59 yards with Chris Buchanan blasting over from the 8 and Villar-Perez bulling his way for a two-point conversion.
“It was a very professional-like halftime without a lot of hollering,” Redding said. “We just wanted to keep it going, hold onto the ball and get some stops,” Redding said. “The goal was to have a tie or a lead going into the fourth and we managed to do it.
“To win a championship you have to play defense, which we did in the second half, and you’ve got to be able to run the ball (Mansfield gained 299 yards on the ground) and we did that as well. We’re known for our passing. But today was about defense and running the football.”
MANSFIELD 28, ST. JOHN’S 14
MANSFIELD (13-0) 7-0-14-7 - 28
ST. JOHN’S (9-4 ) 7-7-0-0 - 14
M – Alex Ruddy 2 run (Alex Thompson kick)
S – Andrew Smiley 2 run (John Coveney kick)
S – Shane Combs 19 run (Coveney kick)
M – Ruddy 11 run (kick failed)
M – Chris Buchanan 8 run (Miguel Villar-Perez run)
M – Villar-Perez 3 run (Thompson kick)