FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The black painted beneath his eyes had turned into a muddled mess of smears, smiles, lines and tears by the time Ethan Rayner got his hands on the MIAA Division 3A Super Bowl championship trophy Saturday.
Cradling the hardware like a newborn -- fitting, considering Holliston coach Todd Kiley likened the feeling to having a child -- Rayner started to speak of what made the Panthers’ 21-7 victory over Cardinal Spellman so emotional when he peered off to what could have only been a far-flung friend.
“Absolutely, 100 percent, this is for Joey,” the senior lineman/linebacker said following the 3A Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium. “He was definitely present here today. We did it his way.”
A junior at Holliston in September 2008, Joey Larracey died after sustaining a hit during a scrimmage in Lakeville, a tragedy an autopsy later revealed stemmed from an undetectable heart abnormality. Coupled that month with the loss of 10-year-old Timothy O’Connell, a student of Kiley’s and honorary member of the team who succumbed to a lengthy battle of leukemia, the Panthers have since played with their memories on their minds and Larracey’s No. 73 stitched on their chests.
Last season -- one dedicated to Larracey -- ended here with a 38-15 loss to Austin Prep in the 3A title game.
Saturday, the Panthers (12-1) lined up for the national anthem by spelling out ‘73’ on the field. They carried the familiar red flag with Larracey’s number on it on the sidelines. And they finished the day by dominating Cardinal Spellman on both sides of the ball, including 323-56 in total yards and 283-6 on the ground.
“We got it done Joe’s way all season,” senior quarterback Sean Mayo said, his team huddled around him following the trophy ceremony. “That’s how we’re gonna end it!”
Somewhere, Larracey had to be smiling.
“He’s what we want all our players to be modeled after,” senior Kevin Lamarque said. “He was a great kid, a nice kid, worked hard in the classroom, worked his (butt) off in practice. He was everyone’s brother. When that (his death) happened, we turned from a team into a family.”
It’s a family with lots of older brothers. The Panthers boasted 22 seniors this year, the majority of whom spent the day after last year’s Super Bowl loss in the school’s weight room.
It’s a moment Kiley and several of his players pointed to Saturday. Yearning to return to Foxborough for a calendar year, there was no “star-gazing,” Mayo said, when the team walked into Gillette Stadium this time. Just business and hard work, all of which translated onto the field.
Though Cardinal Spellman’s tall offensive line limited Mayo to 6-of-19 passing for 40 yards -- several times batting down passes at the line -- the speedy Panthers chewed up yardage by the chain-full. Kevin Curry rushed 36 times for 182 yards and a touchdown, and Mayo added 69 yards and two scores. Defensively, they were even more dominant, holding the Cardinals to a total of one yard in the third quarter.
All the while, hundreds of Holliston fans packed the stands behind the Panthers’ sideline -- “almost the whole town” Mayo estimated.
“It’s not just for us,” Kiley said of the title. “It’s for all our brothers that have played before us, Joey Larracey, Timmy O’Connell, kids who have passed away the last couple years, their families. They’ve been a huge part of what we do, and they’ve been an inspiration to us.”
You only had to talk to one of the seniors to know how much.
“I was thinking about what we all went through two years ago, how hard we worked and how much we all wanted it,” Lamarque said. “This is the way it had to end for us. There was no other way.”
It was Joe’s way.