FITCHBURG, Mass. -- When it came time for Tom Bingham to address his St. Bernard's football team back in August during the first day of practice, he asked them a simple question: "How far do you want to go this season?''
The first one to speak up was Cooper Bigelow.
Without hesitation, the senior quarterback, to paraphrase, answered, "all the way to the state championship".
While some locals would have probably snickered at such a connotation, not a single St. Bernard's player or coach offered even a hint of a chuckle. For them, the response was genuine and realistic.
With that being said, the yes we can, yes we will tour was officially underway. Four months later, it remains alive and well. Having won all 11 of its previous contests, St. Bernard's has finally reached the football apex. The Bernardians will square off against Mashpee (9-3) in Saturday's Division 6 state final set to begin at 11 a.m. It is there, within the confines of Gillette Stadium, that Bigelow and company will look to continue in their amazing accomplishments and secure the championship trophy.
So, who's laughing now?
Bigelow has been the face of this program throughout the season. Small in stature, he stands a mere 5-foot-3 1/2, 145-pounds. But his desire, talent, heart and toughness have gone unmeasured. Without stating the obvious, he will be looked upon, yet again, to endure on his mastery under center against a very formidable opponent.
Those who say you need to stand well above 6-feet to play the quarterback position have never seen Bigelow do his thing. While he is considered most effective as a runner, Bigelow has no qualms throwing the football.
Neither does his head coach.
"Right across the board for someone trying to prepare to defend our offense, we have multiple kids who do well with the football in their hands starting with Cooper," said Bingham. "One of the things we always try to put into our game plan is a run/pass option for him. In high school football you are trying to put the ball in your best athlete's hands and that is something we certainly believe in."
If you are able to overlook the height differential, then you would quickly discover that Bigelow has emerged as one of the better dual threat quarterbacks in the state. He has rushed for 881 yards and 11 touchdowns, while passing for 1,118 and 14 more scores. He also patrols the secondary quite well on defense.
With a front line that averages over 6-feet, Bigelow says he is at his best when he is able to slip outside the pocket. It is there where he is given green light to either throw to a receiver or carrying the ball himself.
"I feel like I have a better vision of the field when I roll to the outside," Bigelow said. "My receivers know that I'm probably not going to see them right away if they are crossing over the middle. But they do a great job at getting open on the outside so that I can hit them in stride.
"Being a previous running back, I knew what I was capable of doing as a runner. I just didn't really know how well I was going to throw the ball because my hands are kind of small. I thought that was going to be a disadvantage but it hasn't been. I think I have been able to overcome the difficulties of being limited due to my height."
Bigelow got his first taste at quarterback while playing in the Lunenburg Pop Warner system. When he first arrived at St. Bernard's as a freshman, he was asked by his coaches to remain at the position. During his junior year, Bigelow finally had his opportunity to be the starting signal-caller.
"We've never had the height advantage in either of our favors," said junior wing back/linebacker/special teams expert Parker Bigelow, who stands 5-foot-4 and is Cooper's younger brother. "But what I have seen from him over the years, I've known he could do what he does for a while now. When he is throwing the ball to me, a lot of times I just see the ball and not him. Yet I still know he is going to get the ball to me. So seeing him do what he does is not really surprising to me. But It does make a difference in our game."
The relationship between Cooper and Parker is no different than most brothers around the same age. Yes, there are arguments but those are coincided with high-fives and pats on the helmet when things are going well.
Incidentally, there is another Bigelow on roster -- youngest brother Max, who is a freshman.
"Being brothers can be a good thing but it also can be a challenge at times," said Bingham. "I certainly believe some of the connections Cooper and Parker have made is when they are throwing and catching the ball to one another."
But, mind you, St. Bernard's is in no way a one man show. This team has an abundance of talent, especially at the skill positions. Running backs A.J. Robichaud, a senior, is a solid downhill runner, who has rushed for 764 yards and 11 TDs. Junior back James Xarras, mostly known for his blocking ability, also plays physical with the ball in his mitts. Limited last season due to an ACL injury, Xarras has gained 378 yards and has scored 7 times this year.
Then you have the receiving threats. Besides Parker, Zach Merchant and Zach Bingham have also been favorite targets of Cooper, as well as Connor Wironen. But everything starts with the quarterback.
"Another reason why we want to see Cooper break containment and get to the outside is because it puts opposing defenses in conflict," Bingham explained. "As a defense, do you come up and take him away or do you draw back and defend the pass? We feel either situation is a win for us. You just get that feeling that during the course of a game that Cooper is due to break one off.
"Having such a low center of gravity, he is tough to tackle and obviously, his toughness speaks for itself. I think that elusive, quick burst that he has is a challenge for defenses. Tackling out in open space is tough for any high school player and when you have someone like him, with that great burst of speed, it becomes a major challenge to defend against. Once we do get him out in the right position, a lot of the things he does you just simply can't coach. That is just him doing what he does best."
As a school with only 88 boys in Grades 9-12, 32 of them play football. Cooper says sometimes that works in your favor and other times, not so much.
"There are some days during the year when we didn't even have 30 kids suited up for practice because of various injuries," he said. "This past week (having not played a Thanksgiving game) we were able to rest some kids and I think that is only going to help us come Saturday. Because of the small numbers that we have here, I think we know each other a lot better than teams that carry 50 or 60 kids. I feel like when you have a smaller team, you have the ability to count on your teammates a lot more to make plays during a game and if you happen to screw up, you know the rest of your teammates will have your back."
In the history of this program, the Bernardians have won only one Super Bowl, a Division 6A triumph over Madison Park in 1997 when St. Bernard's played a predominantly Eastern Mass. schedule. Now, 18 years later, they sit on the threshold to make history once again, and in the process, make believers out of those critics who felt they were too small a school to reach such heights.
"I think at the beginning of the year there were some who doubted us," Cooper Bigelow said. "But I feel that we have started to turn a few heads and put a spark in some people's eyes. As a team, we definitely believed we could do this right from the start."
Adds Bingham, "Being 8-3 the last two years and knowing the caliber of kids we had coming back, we truly did believe in ourselves throughout this whole entire year. It didn't matter who we played, it only mattered about us. We knew if we could play to our ability we felt like we could get it done and every one of these kids has continued in that belief."