BUCKSPORT, Maine — As murky fog off Penobscot Bay gradually engulfed Carmichael Field late Saturday afternoon, one thing couldn’t have been clearer for the John Bapst of Bangor football team.
The Crusaders are headed for the state championships.
Derek Smith threw two touchdown passes and caught a third as John Bapst upended previously unbeaten Bucksport 21-14 to win its first LTC football championship since 1976.
“That’s been our goal since we got here, to incrementally improve the program,” said John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell, whose team lost in last year’s Eastern Maine final. “When you have a season like we did last year, the next step is to win it. That’s a lofty goal, but it was a reasonable expectation for us.
“And to culminate it in this weather against a great Bucksport team shows that these kids truly believed, and that’s the thing we’re most happy with.”
The victory advances the second-seeded Crusaders to next Saturday’s Class C state championship game at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland. John Bapst (10-1) will play 11-0 Winthrop, a 34-0 winner over Lisbon in the Western C final.
Bill Wetherbee rushed for 139 yards on 26 carries for John Bapst, while the swarming Crusaders defense held Bucksport star Nate Warren somewhat in check. The Golden Bucks’ senior tailback rushed for 168 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries but managed just four runs of 10 yards or longer on the muddy field.
“We took on Warren like it was our job,” said John Bapst senior tackle Tyler Chamberlain. “He came right at us like it was his job. They came right at us, they tried to drive it down our throat. Our line, our linebackers, our corners, everyone stepped up, and it was almost like he wasn’t getting any yards at times.”
John Bapst scored on its first possession, with fullback Chase Huckestein taking the snap and passing to Smith — a converted wide receiver — along the left sideline for a 14-yard touchdown play with 8:15 left in the opening quarter.
John Bapst threatened again early in the second period, but this time Bucksport’s defense came up big, stuffing three consecutive runs by Wetherbee from the 1-yard line to end a sequence in which the Crusaders ran seven plays from inside the 8 without scoring.
Smith wouldn’t be denied on John Bapst’s next possession, hitting Shane Hass with a 57-yard touchdown pass on third-and-14 with 4:28 left in the first half. Hass raced straight down the left sideline and a Bucksport defender slipped as he turned to look for the football, leaving the John Bapst senior to make the catch at the Bucksport 40 and run uncontested into the end zone.
“A guy was right in my face, as soon as I threw the ball I got killed,” said Smith. “I didn’t see the defender slip but I knew if I just put it in the right spot that Shane would run under it with his speed.”
Bucksport (10-1) gained renewed life just before halftime after Ray Wood’s 18-yard punt return to the John Bapst 30 with 41 seconds left. Warren ran a first-down draw play into the end zone, and Kyle McGeechan passed to Andrew Findlay for the two-point conversion that drew Bucksport within 14-8 at intermission.
“We were trying to keep our heads up, but obviously in the back of our minds we knew they were still in it,” said Wetherbee. “We knew we had to really buckle down and stop them and get another touchdown.”
Both teams struggled amid deteriorating field conditions in the second half.
John Bapst threatened midway through the third quarter, but a fourth-and-7 pass from Smith to Hass from the Bucksport 16 was broken up by Bucksport’s Bobby Alvarado.
The Crusaders padded their lead midway through the fourth quarter on a 20-yard pass from Smith to freshman tight end Max Andrews, and Doug Dieuveuil made his third extra-point kick of the day to extend the lead to 21-8 with 6:59 to play.
To be completely honest, [Andrews’] head wasn’t even turned,” said Smith. “Bucksport’s line was phenomenal, I threw the ball and got killed again, but I knew if I threw it 3 yards to the right where he was going he would eventually look and the ball would be right there.”
Wetherbee, who rushed nine times for 47 yards in the final quarter, sparked that six-play, 53-yard drive with runs of 12 and 19 yards to set up the touchdown.
“It was pretty bad out there, but we didn’t change our game plan at all,” said Huckestein. “We stuck with the pass, we stuck with the run, and Billy Wetherbee can still run in the mud, that much he proved.”
Bucksport answered immediately, driving 60 yards in seven plays with Warren scoring from 1 yard out to close the gap to seven points with 5:28 remaining.
Bucksport had one final possession from its 27 with 4:10 left, but was unable to manage a first down before John Bapst ran out the clock.
“John Bapst played a very, very good game,” said Bucksport coach Joel Sankey. “They’re well coached, and not only did they have to play against us, they also played against the field conditions and they did a better job with that than we did. Today they were the better team.”