HOLLISTON, Mass. -- Its lead slipping and Rockland charging behind 235-pound senior Mike Driscoll, the Holliston High School football team needed not a stop, but a game-changing blow in its Eastern Mass Division 3A semifinal game on its home turf.
“We like to call it ‘punching adversity in the face,’ ” senior Sean Mayo said.
David Kriegsman did his teammate one better: He knocked it stone cold.
Clinging to a one-score lead, Kriegsman’s fourth-down tackle for a loss early in the fourth quarter Tuesday re-energized Holliston, which rode Mayo’s arm to a score on the ensuing drive and a 35-20 victory over South Shore League champion Rockland.
The victory catapulted the two-time Tri-Valley League champs into their second straight Super Bowl on Saturday at Gillette Stadium, where they’ll meet Cardinal Spellman, a 28-16 winner over Hamilton-Wenham in the other 3A semifinal. The Panthers (11-1) hope to atone for last year’s 38-15 blowout loss to Austin Prep in Foxborough.
“We want to finish it with a win this time,” said Mayo, who threw for a pair of touchdowns and rushed for two more Tuesday.
Kriegsman helped give them that chance. After Devyn Flipp hauled in a touchdown pass between two defenders to slice Holliston’s 20-7 halftime lead to six points in the third quarter, Rockland (10-2) forced the Panthers into a three-and-out before moving the ball back downfield.
That mainly came on the back of Driscoll, a 5-foot-10 rhinoceros posing as a high school senior in shoulder pads, who epitomizes Rockland’s bruising run-control offense. But after Driscoll (176 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries) carried the ball on three of four straight possessions to put Rockland into a fourth-and-one situation just over midfield, Bulldogs coach Ken Owen opted for the unexpected, running a counter to Tim Fitzgerald.
While most of the defense bit on Driscoll charging into the line, Kriegsman did not, wrapping Fitzgerald up for a two-yard loss, a turnover on downs and all the momentum this side of Framingham.
“We knew they were going to run it from the get-go, and I saw an open window and I just filled the hole,” Kriegsman said.
The impact of the play was magnified by the stark contrast between the teams’ styles. Rockland, riding a defense that entered allowing just over eight points per game, has built it season upon tough-nosed victories in the trenches. Holliston, toting around its 40-plus-points-per-game scoring average, has largely won with style.
But Kriegsman drew just as many "ooohs" as any touchdown catch with his punishing hit.
“Huge,” Holliston coach Todd Kiley said of the tackle. “That was huge. They’re going down, I think we were up a score at that point, and they ran a counter play. Kriegsman read it beautifully … and our offense just fed off of that. You could see it. Our team fed off that play.”
A 13-yard catch by Adam Camilli coupled with a late-hit penalty put the Panthers within 21 yards from the end zone, where Mayo hit Brody Ciarcello with an absolute strike on third down across the middle for a 28-14 lead.
Rockland fumbled on its very next offensive play -- an attempted lateral after a catch that Ciarcello recovered -- and Kevin Curry ran for 49 of his 115 yards on the following drive, capping it with a spinning, tackle-breaking 19-yard touchdown run with 5:52 to play.
Fitzgerald scored on a one-yard run after Driscoll left due to injury, and Rockland recovered an onside kick. But the Bulldogs committed their fourth turnover of the second half thereafter, ending any comeback.
“This team battles,” Mayo said.
So does its quarterback. Mayo fought off cramps in the first half and an apparent arm injury in the second to rush for 73 yards, throw for 119 more and score his team’s first two touchdowns.
The second -- which came directly after Driscoll’s five-yard scoring plunge to tie at a 7-7 in the second quarter -- was sheer will. The senior darted to the left sideline on a quarterback keeper and dove headfirst while being pushed out of bounds to catch the pylon.
Later in the quarter, with the Panthers on their own 41-yard line with 1:31 until the intermission, Mayo orchestrated a 68-second scoring drive, either throwing or running it himself on every play. He finished it with a 10-yard slant pass to Camilli, but Mayo needed several moments to pull himself from the turf after cramping up.
“He was outstanding, with his legs, with his arm,” Kiley said of his quarterback. “He’s the guy who’s led this team all season. And he’s a tough kid, mentally, physically. As he goes, we go. … Gusty, gusty performance.”
HOLLISTON 35, ROCKLAND 20
ROC 0 7 7 6 --- 20
HOL 7 13 0 15 --- 35
H - Sean Mayo 13 run (Christian Baker kick).
R - Mike Driscoll 5-yard run (Ricky Witt kick).
H - Mayo 10 run (Baker kick).
H - Adam Camilli 10 pass from Mayo (kick no good).
R - Devyn Flipp 15 pass from D.J. Austin (Witt kick).
H - Brody Ciarcello 21 pass from Mayo (Curry run).
H - Curry 19 run (Baker kick).
R - Tim Fitzgerald 1 run (pass failed).