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Chieftains relish underdog role, all the way to state

Jake Benjamin (22 carries, 135 yards, TD) carried the day for Nashoba as the Chieftains scored the day's biggest upset in the D2 State Final. Jon Mahoney for ESPNBoston.com

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Four weeks ago, there were few outside the Nashoba locker room that believed that the Chieftains could win more than a single playoff game.

But somehow, the wins kept piling up.

After a first-round victory over Marlborough, top-seeded Nashoba headed into their matchup with St. John's as an underdog. After the Pioneers fell by the wayside, surely, there was no shot against Springfield Central. But again, the Chieftains prevailed, earning a trip to Gillette Stadium.

The talk was the same once again entering Saturday afternoon’s Div. 2 title game. With Reading flying high after their victory over Marshfield, the No. 1 ranked team in ESPNBoston's statewide poll, two weeks ago in the Eastern Mass. final, few gave the Chieftains a chance.

But Nashoba coach Jamie Tucker wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I don’t think anyone has given us a chance all year to be honest with you, Tucker explained. “We were probably predicted to lose every playoff game after we beat Marlboro. We beat St. Johns. We beat Springfield Central two hours away, and came here and won.

“We’ve been the underdogs all years and that’s the way we like it.”

The Chieftains certainly didn’t do themselves any favors in changing the public’s opinion early in Saturday’s game. Nashoba fumbled the opening kickoff at its own 10-yard line and Reading’s Carl Gillies fell on the loose fumble in the end zone, handing the Rockets a 6-0 lead just eight seconds into the game.

Falling behind in the worst start imaginable, Nashoba was opportunistic the rest of the way, dialing up big plays in all three phases of the game to outscore Reading 27-7 the rest of the way.

“I just told the team, ‘It’s like they returned the opening kickoff, we can’t start off any worse,’” Tucker said. “The kids did a great job responding to adversity like they did all year and were great.”

Squaring off against a defense that limited Marshfield to just 14 points in the Eastern Mass. final, the early six-point deficit appeared to loom large, but the Chieftains explosive offense tackled the challenge.

The offense relied on big plays throughout the game, taking a 44-yard run from Jacob Benjamin early in the second quarter, and quarterback Robert Atwood hit a wide-open Nathaniel Mansour on a seam route for a 64-yard catch and run to take a 14-6 lead before the half.

“They stopped Danny Dalton, Gatorade Player of the Year,” Atwood said of the Reading defense. “Hats off to them, they played a great game, but we just put more points on the board and were more physical at the end of the day.”

The special teams also got in on the action, as a squib kick in the second half bounced off Reading up-man Michael Sannella, and Kyle Hume fell on it, his second recovery of the day.

“We had a fumble recovery, we had one on the kickoff and had two big plays on offense and broke big runs,” Tucker said. “That’s exactly it, you have to make big plays in big games and our kids did.”

Opportunistic defense: The defense also made big plays when needed, none bigger than Tony Kenyon’s touchdown-saving tackle early in the second quarter, which in turn jarred the ball loose.

Tom White appeared to be off to the races down the right sideline when Kenyon angled him off, stripping the ball and an aware Kyle Hume somehow stayed in bounds to recover the football.

The defense struck again late in the first half, as the Rockets were driving. But defensive end Egan Batchell broke through the offensive line, taking down quarterback Corey DiLoreto and forcing a fumble, and Batchell fell on the loose ball.

“That’s been our mentality all year, no matter what happens they are going to make plays on us but our kids wont quit and that’s why we won the game today,” Tucker said.

Reading refused to go quietly, pushing the Nashoba defense to the brink throughout the fourth quarter. But just as they have all season long, the Chieftains red zone defense featured their bend, don’t break philosophy.

The Rockets had first and goal on two separate occasions as Nashoba held a two-touchdown lead, but each time the Chieftains answered the call.

With pressure in his face in the red zone, mainly from senior captain Michael Curtin, Nashoba forced four straight incompletions to get the ball back on downs at the three-yard line with 3:41 remaining.

Reading once again had a first-and-goal situation in the final two minutes, but the Rockets couldn’t penetrate the Chieftains red-zone defense as Nashoba took over to kneel the clock.

“We really tighten it up when we get down to the goal line,” Quarterback Robert Atwood said of his defense. “I don’t know what it is but we tighten up, we’re a strong group and all believe in each other.”