WESTFIELD, Mass. -- Not once, but twice, did Springfield Central have an opportunity to tie or jump ahead late in the final quarter. But on both drives, Nashoba Regional rose to the occassion, holding its ground and preventing the Golden Eagles from reaching the end zone thus preserving a 28-21 victory in the Division 2 state semifinal played Saturday at Westfield State University's Alumni Field.
The Chieftains' defensive stringency, once deep inside the red zone, has been commonplace of late. Maybe they should write a manual on how to halt opponents from scoring from within that portion of the field.
A few weeks ago, Nashoba halted Leominster from converting a two-point conversion which would have given the Blue Devils the lead in the waning seconds. Last week, they managed to sack St. John's (Shrewsbury) quarterback Tim Cassidy on the final play, inside the 5 yard line, to win the Central Mass. crown.
Against Central, once again, the Chieftains were called upon to show it mettles when they needed to most. With 6:12 remaining, the Golden Eagles mounted a 46 yard drive, having reached the Nashoba 1 yard line. Facing fourth down, Golden Eagles quarterback Tank Walker fumbled the snap from center and was kept a half foot from the goal line.
After forcing the Chieftains to punt on their next possession, and aided by some preserved time outs, Central got the ball back on the Nashoba 22 with 15 seconds to go. A 14 yard completion from Walker to running back Tyreque Estrada-Crapps moved the ball to the 8. The Golden Eagles had enough time for two more plays, but both of Walker's pass attempts fell incomplete allowing the Chieftains (11-0) to escape with the victory.
"That is what this team is all about," said Nashoba third year head coach Jamie Tucker. "You get to big moments and these kids are not nervous or afraid. They just continue to make big plays and I'm real proud of them. These kids feel confident in those (goal line) situations."
Nashoba will now take on Reading, a 20-14 victor over Marshfield in the day's other semifinal, in the championship at Gillette Stadium on December 5. The Chieftains have been to eight Super Bowls prior, winning three of them, including back to back crowns in 2011 and 2012. This will be their first quest for a state championship.
Nashoba's ground game was able to pick apart a fragile Golden Eagle defense that has been hampered by injuries throughout this past week following their Western Mass. title win over Longmeadow a week ago. In fact, several team members were seen walking around in crutches up until Thursday before suiting up and giving it a go. Among them were Estrada-Crapps, who also plays defensive back along with Antoine Williams and Anthony Owens. Central is not offering up any excuses mind you. It knows it had opportunities to win this contest yet failed to do so.
Chieftains senior running back Jake Benjamin did a nice job carving up the Golden Eagles secondary. The senior finished a stellar evening rushing for 175 yards on 23 carries and 2 TDs running behind a vaunted offensive line of William Phaneuf, Sam Keith, Derek Pasquale, Jacob Hicks, Mike Curtin and tight end Jacob Ford.
"We were running counters and blasts pretty much," said Benjamin. "We really trust our offensive line. They have been spectacular all year long. We were just able to run it down their throats. We now go to Gillette Stadium and it is a dream come true. That has been our goal since the start of the season. I knew we could have a chance to get there and now it feels great."
Complimenting Benjamin in the backfield was junior Jacob Fire, who gained 56 yards on 10 attempts, Nathaniel Mansour and Nick Rodgers. As a team, Nashoba finished with 328 yards.
"Our bread and butter all year has been (Benjamin) running with the ball," Tucker said. "That's our guy and when we need some yards we go to him. When we need some other big plays we are able to use a variety of other guys. Everyone came up big tonight but when we needed a big play, Jake is the guy we go behind."
Central (9-2) jumped out to an early 7-0 lead on a Williams' 3 yard. But Nashoba answered on the ensuing possession. Moving 62 yards, mostly behind Benjamin, the Chieftains scored on Benjamin's 2 yard blast, but missed the PAT to trail by a point. However, on the proceeding kickoff, returner KeShawn Steed coughed it up that was recovered by Max Drugge, giving Nashoba the ball on the Central 39. Moving to the 1 yard line, quarterback Rob Atwood took matters into his own hands by diving over the pile at 10:21 of the second quarter to put the Chieftains on top 14-7.
But the Golden Eagles (241 yards), who are never shy at moving the football, stormed back a few moments later. Standing on the Nashoba 37, Walker bolted down field, eluding a couple of tackles in the process, before sprinting into the end zone to tie matters at 14 apiece. Walker was solid on the ground, finishing with 110 yards on 14 attempts. He also threw for 70 yards.
This see-saw affair would show no letdown as the half quickly approached. Following Central's score, the Chieftains took over and marched 86 yards, all on the ground, before Benjamin capped things off with a 3 yard touchdown rumble to send Nashoba into the break leading 20-14.
After forcing the Chieftains to a four and out on their opening series to begin the second half, the Golden Eagles set up shop deep in their own territory. Forced to punt the ball away, Central caught a huge break once Mansour lost the handled and Norman Carroll pounced on it at the Chieftains 47. A 36 yard completion to Williams set up a Walker 1 yard score putting the Golden Eagles back in front 21-20 with 5:00 showing in the third.
After Nashoba got the ball back, it saw an opportunity to re-take the lead fall by the wayside after failing to convert on a fourth and goal from the 10. But the Chieftains got the ball back following a Central punt and didn't disappoint this time. Starting from the Golden Eagles 38, three straight runs by Benjamin netting 21 yards, allowed Rodgers to take a 9 yard pitch and race into the end zone for the go-ahead score. Atwood followed that up with a two-point conversion run to make it a seven point advantage for Nashoba with just over six minutes showing.
Central's final dramatics made things interesting, but the Chieftains defense stood large to secure the triumph.
"We knew we were going to be in a dog fight," Golden Eagles head coach Valdamar Brower said. "We knew we needed to execute better. It was Nashoba's day and they got it. Benjamin is a good player for them. He is well-built and big. You got a chance to look into his eyes at the beginning of the game and you could see that he was ready to play. He is very disciplined and is a real-hard worker."