LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Understand, Cortez Ludden might have missed a few people when he was listing everyone responsible for his game-winning touchdown in double overtime for Leominster High School.
Ludden somehow didn’t mention the cheerleaders, the band, the principal, the custodians, the cops on the sidelines, the vendors hawking hot chocolate on this chilly Thanksgiving morning, his parents, his future wife and kids. But the junior running back had just about everybody else covered, and given enough time, he probably would have gotten around to the others, too.
“It was amazing,’’ said the gracious Ludden, a 5-foot-8, 225-pounder who is built low to the ground and tough to knock off his feet, as he demonstrated while pushing his way into the end zone from three yards out to score the deciding points in Leominster’s 24-18 win over archrival Fitchburg High in Doyle Field.
“We were the underdogs with the newspapers and everybody, and we pulled through. My offensive line, my defensive line, the whole team, the wide receivers, everyone, the specialists, they all did their job.’’
What Ludden didn’t mention, until prodded, was that in the end, Leominster coach John Dubzinski had the confidence to call his number with the game on the line, after a disastrous sequence earlier in the game had led directly to Fitchburg’s first touchdown.
“It was all in my hands,’’ said Ludden, whose winning score came after the Leominster defense stopped Fitchburg on its second series of extra downs, senior lineman David Ferguson recovering a fumble by Fitchburg’s Steph’fon Teague on a third-down play from the five.. “I had to prove myself right there, show them what I was made of. We put all the energy of the mistakes we had made into that touchdown, and that’s how we got it.’’
Fitchburg, whose do-everything backfield star Quinton Perkins missed much of the first half after taking a shot in the head while making a tackle on defense, had been just stopped at the Leominster one, safety Geraldo Rivera making a touchdown-saving tackle of Fitchburg quarterback Kyle Phillips, with Leominster holding a 6-0 lead late in the second quarter.
But four plays later, an anxious Fitchburg crowd -- whose team had come in as heavy favorites in the 127th meeting in this ancient rivalry of two old mill towns in central Massachusetts -- exploded with unexpected joy when defensive back Tyrie Osby ripped the ball out of Ludden’s hands, and went in untouched from 18 yards out for the game-tying score.
It happened so quickly, it took a moment to register. How did Osby wind up with the ball?
“They were a little dirty,’’ said Ludden, who fumbled again later but was bailed out when teammate Josh Caouette fell on the ball. “They were trying to punch me and stuff in the stomach and I was trying to hold onto it. I thought I was down on one knee but two guys pulled it out.’’
Fitchburg, with a chance to take the lead, failed to click on a pass from Anthony Figueroa intended for D.J. Wilson on the two-point conversion attempt, and Leominster took the second-half kickoff 67 yards for the go-ahead score. Senior quarterback Kyle Ford, who threw sparingly during the game, executed some beautiful sleight of hand before connecting with senior Justin Bailey on a 25-yard play-action pass that gave the Blue Devils a 12-6 lead with 3:49 left in the third quarter.
Perkins, who had scored six touchdowns in Fitchburg’s previous game against a good Gardner team, had watched much of the first half disconsolately from the Fitchburg bench while the team doctor hovered, concerned that the 18-year-old junior had sustained a concussion. Without him, the Fitchburg offense sputtered. “Of course,’’ Ford said when asked whether Perkins’s absence had been a big factor. “He’s a huge playmaker.’’
But after he was re-examined in the locker room at halftime, Fitchburg coach Ray Cosenza reinserted him in the game.
“I kind of had a feeling we’d see him again,’’ Dubzinski said. “He’s a great back.’’
In Fitchburg’s spread offense, Perkins lines up as a wide receiver, a slot back, even a quarterback in the shotgun. And indeed, he showed signs of taking over the game upon his return, ripping off gains of 12 and 18 yards as Fitchburg crossed into Leominster territory. Lined up wide to the left, Perkins ran a fly pattern down the sideline as Fitchburg went for it all from the Leominster 48, but junior Shaunsagh Addo made a leaping interception at the eight.
But there was the inescapable sense that Leominster had not seen the last of Perkins. Indeed, after the Red Raiders got the ball back at their own 34 after a short Leominster punt with 5:47 to play in regulation, he took Fitchburg down the field in just six plays for the game-tying touchdown, going in himself from 10 yards out for the tying score with 3:21 to play.
At that moment, Leominster’s two failed conversion kicks loomed large. “I thought our special teams had gotten us in real trouble,’’ Dubzinski said.
But the Leominster defense once again came up with the kind of stop that made you wonder how the Blue Devils had lost five straight coming into this game. The kind of stop a team makes when it knows a trip to the playoffs does not await, and that this would be its bowl game.
With Perkins prepared to work some more magic after taking a handoff out of the slot, junior Brandon Herrick broke through Fitchburg’s line and flung him down for a huge loss on the two-point conversion attempt.
The Blue Devils, faced with a 4th and 2 on their own 47 with 44 seconds left, elected to go for it rather than punting and putting the ball back into Perkins’ hands. With the Fitchburg defense stacked for the run, Ford put the ball in the air, connecting with sophomore tight end Rocco Daigneault for a 26-yard gain. “We’d been working on that play all week in practice,’’ Ford said.
Two plays later, Nicholas Wilford’s 12-yard gain on a draw play brought the ball to the 11, and Ford spiked the ball, bringing on sophomore Leonardo Trento for a potential game-winning field goal. Teague, however, broke through the line to block the kick, and for the second time in three years, this game would require extra time. Four downs for each team from the 10-yard line, with a two-point conversion try required after any score.
Wilford punched through from a half-yard out on fourth down to give Leominster an 18-12 lead, but was stopped by linebacker Eric Myles on the conversion try. It took Fitchburg just two downs to answer, Teague running it in from eight yards, but he, too, was denied on the conversion.
Fitchburg had the ball first in the second overtime, but after two runs by Perkins gained just five yards, Ferguson made his fumble recovery.
Dubzinski had some trickery left in his playbook -- a flanker reverse by Caouette -- though he credited offensive coordinator Roger Mercier with the call. “Coach wanted to go with it,’’ Ford said, acknowledging initially there was some resistance. “But coach said, ‘Let me do what I want to do.’’’
Caouette gained seven on the trickery. In the huddle, Ludden heard his play called.
“I knew he’d come through,’’ Ford said. “I knew he would.’’
And when Ludden sprawled across the goal line, the Leominster students lined up behind the end zone rushed the field. Tears streamed down the face of some of the Leominster seniors who had just played their final game, as parents alternately hugged and comforted them. A skirmish briefly broke out between the teams. An emotional Perkins hurled his helmet to the field. The coaches decided between them that the Fitchburg team should leave without the traditional postgame handshake.
Fitchburg (7-4) will play again, with a first-round playoff game looming against Holy Name.
Leominster (4-7)? Dubzinski, walking off the field with his wife Donna and daughter Jane, laughed when asked if this win meant he’d been taken off dish-washing duty for the day. “A tough season,’’ he said, “but we told our kids that winning this one would be something for them to savor all winter and spring.’’
Or maybe longer. “The rest of my life,’’ said Ford, the quarterback, flashing a beautiful teen-aged smile. “For the rest of my life.’’
LEOMINSTER 24, FITCHBURG 18
FIT 0 6 0 6 6 0 --- 18
LEO 6 0 6 0 6 6 --- 24
L - Geraldo Rivera 2 run (kick failed) 3:25
F - Tyrie Osby 18 fumble return (pass failed) 1:51
L - Justin Bailey 25 pass from Kyle Ford (kick failed) 3:49
F - Quinton Perkins 10 run (rush failed) 2:49
L - Nick Wilford 1 run (rush failed)
F - Steph'fon Teague 8 run (rush failed)
L - Cortez Ludden 3 run