Most closely competitive championship games feature a crossroads, a point at which momentum may swing decisively in either direction.
Saturday’s LTC football final between John Bapst of Bangor and top-ranked Bucksport had just such a crossroads, one that in this case the second-seeded Crusaders were able to overcome en route to a 21-14 victory and their first conference championship since 1976.
John Bapst held a comfortable 14-0 lead amid deteriorating field conditions when it got the ball back at its 15-yard-line with 1:11 left in the first half after a Bucksport punt.
The Crusaders had used all of their timeouts, but rather than take the conservative route they opted to remain true to their pass-oriented offense in an effort to extend their lead before intermission.
But two passes fell incomplete, and a second-down run produced just 5 yards before Bucksport called its second timeout of the half.
Bapst ran less than 30 seconds off the clock before being forced to punt, and Bucksport’s Ray Wood returned the kick 18 yards to the Crusaders’ 30-yard-line, setting up a 30-yard scoring run by Nate Warren on the next play that drew the undefeated Golden Bucks within 14-8 by intermission.
“The first thing is the coaching staff was split down the middle, which is never good,” said John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell, “and it backfired on us, it really did.
“Part of the thinking was that we had held them at bay for essentially the whole half, and even if they have to go 35 yards we’d be able to stop them for a minute. But Nate Warren’s a great player, and as bad as it sounds I probably forgot to factor that in. On offense we blocked it, we threw it, we just didn’t catch it and now our backs were against the wall and they put it in.”
John Bapst, which had lost to Bucksport in overtime in the first week of the season, had lost some of the control it enjoyed for most of the first half, but used the 15-minute break at halftime to regroup.
“We knew they had a big play, but we didn’t get down about it,” said John Bapst fullback-linebacker Chase Huckestein. “We were still up six, and the coaches were telling us we’re still up, so why would we be down.”
“I don’t know if the team really faltered at that point,” added O’Connell.
“I was quick to go right to them and say ‘that’s on me,’ but we’ve got to get ready to play a second half and if you win the second half you win the game.”
John Bapst’s defense played a major role in making that happen, stopping Bucksport on fourth-down plays in each of the Golden Bucks’ first three possessions of the second half, twice in Bucksport territory and the third time at the John Bapst 30 on the last play of the third quarter.
“I just think that as the game went on, other than the draw plays with Warren, being able to contain them just pushed their confidence level over the top to a point where we weren’t guessing, we weren’t worrying about anything but our gap responsibilities,” said O’Connell.
“We were wrapping and tackling and just playing one play at a time because we had confidence in the fact that if we did that we could be successful and limit him. But I don’t know if you’re ever going to stop Nate Warren because he’s that good and their line’s phenomenal.”
Warren, who finished the game with 168 hard-earned rushing yards on 35 carries and the season with 2,398 yards, did add a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter, but that came after John Bapst had extended its lead to 21-8 when the hard running of junior running back Bill Wetherbee set up a 20-yard touchdown pass from Derek Smith to freshman tight end Max Andrews.
“We had the experience being there from last year, we knew that going into the game,” said Wetherbee, whose team had dropped a 14-7 decision at Foxcroft Academy in the 2007 LTC final. “[Bucksport] hadn’t been here since ‘04, so it was a good situation for us even though we were coming into their territory.”
John Bapst will play for the state title at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Winthrop at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland.
A grateful Crusader
The postgame celebration after the LTC championship game was especially emotional for all those involved in the John Bapst football program, which claimed its first championship since coach Bob Brennan’s 1976 team went undefeated while outscoring its opponents 320-34.
But perhaps the most emotional of the current-day Crusaders was senior captain Tyler Chamberlain.
The 6-foot, 220-pound lineman was injured during John Bapst’s regular-season game against Bucksport when he tore both the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his right knee.
Chamberlain soon underwent surgery to clean up the knee, but opted to hold off on reconstructive surgery — which would have meant six months of rehabilitation — until after the season.
He missed just three full games before returning to the lineup in Week 5 with the aid of a brace that provides the stabilizing force in his knee that normally comes from the ACL.
Chamberlain was a key part of John Bapst’s success in Saturday’s rematch against Bucksport, helping the Crusaders protect quarterback Smith and provide running lanes for Wetherbee and Huckestein on offense while limiting the long gains of Bucksport star Warren on defense.
“This was one of the most important experiences I’ve ever felt, one of the most emotional,” said Chamberlain after the LTC final. “I hate to talk about it, but they told me I wouldn’t be out here for six months after I got hurt, but I’m out here and we won and now we’re going to states.”