PORTLAND, Maine — Derek Smith vividly remembers his last flirtation with a championship in 2001 when he sat in the bleachers at Fitzpatrick Stadium as a youngster watching the Bangor High School football team win the 2001 Class A state title.
Now it’s his turn to celebrate — for at last, it’s Bapst.
Thirty-two years after sharing its last state title with Marshwood of Eliot and Jay, John Bapst of Bangor has the 2008 Class C football championship all to itself after knocking off previously undefeated Winthrop 21-14 on Saturday.
“Words can’t really express how this is going to feel when it finally sets in. We shed some tears just going up to get that [gold] ball for the first time in 32 years,” said Smith, now the Crusaders’ senior quarterback. “I don’t know if I’ll stop crying, but this is what I’ve been dreaming for ever since I came here.
“When Bangor won its championship game, I sat right up there in the stands here and said to myself, ‘I want to get there one day, I want to be there, I want to hold that gold ball up,’ and you know, it’s finally happened. It’s a dream come true.”
This was a fairly wide-open contest with the teams combining for 667 total yards and 34 first downs, but a John Bapst offense that featured the pass in recent weeks controlled play by rushing for 259 yards.
Bill Wetherbee led the way with 170 yards on 26 carries behind a dominant offensive line and the crushing lead blocks of fullback Chase Huckestein, who also scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner with 7:39 left in the contest.
“Chase is your true fullback and middle linebacker,” said John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell. “He doesn’t necessarily look like it, but he plays like it. He hits a ton, and he lead blocks as well as anybody out there. Anytime you can get Billy behind him and the rest of that offensive line, we like our chances.”
In contrast, a Winthrop offense that had thrived with its running game became shorthanded when Riley Cobb was suspended for disciplinary reasons before the game and leading rusher Jake Steele was injured in the first quarter.
The Ramblers were relegated to the airways, and while quarterback Jordan Conant completed 14 of 20 passes for 161 yards, it wasn’t enough.
“Our front line stepped up and filled the gaps, and our linebackers came up with them,” said John Bapst tackle Tyler Chamberlain. “We did really good against their run, so they were almost forced to go to the pass.”
Winthrop’s defense entered the game yielding just 3.6 points per outing, but a scoreless initial drive by John Bapst provided the confidence needed to assure the Crusaders that offense wasn’t going to be lacking on this cold, windy afternoon.
Bapst (11-1) drove from its 12 to the brink of the goal line on its first possession, but four runs from inside the Winthrop 5 came up empty — the last attempt quashed by a jarring tackle by Winthrop linebacker Skylar Whaley that not only kept Wetherbee out of the end zone but broke his helmet.
Still, the Crusaders had driven 87 yards against a typically impenetrable defense.
“After we settled down, we realized that we just marched the ball on them very effectively in multiple ways,” said O’Connell, “and we could continue to do that if we stayed committed to what we were doing.”
Winthrop (11-1) took a 7-0 lead when the first of Zach Farrington’s two interceptions set up a 28-yard touchdown pass from Conant to Jason Raymond with 7:19 left in the first half.
John Bapst tied the game with 3:09 left in the half when Huckestein ran into the right flat and caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from Smith — a throw that was deflected by Winthrop linebacker Joe Morey on its way to Huckestein.
John Bapst took a 14-7 third-quarter lead on a 25-yard pass from Smith to Wetherbee in the left corner of the end zone.
“In the locker room at halftime, I told Derek to look off the free safety and I’d be wide open,” said Wetherbee. “He did a great job of doing that, and all I had to do was run my route and he put it right in my hands. It was a perfect ball.”
But Winthrop answered with a 74-yard drive, as a 41-yard pass from Conant to Raymond set up a 4-yard scoring run by Whaley that forged a 14-14 tie with 3:16 left in the period.
Huckestein’s subsequent game-winner, an 8-yard run off left tackle, almost never happened.
He had caught a screen pass from Smith near midfield on the previous play, but was hit from behind as he ran with the ball and fumbled. After several players, including John Bapst center Keith Nelson, scrambled to make the recovery, officials ruled the play a simultaneous possession by both teams — giving the ball back to John Bapst.
“I saw a guy hit [Huckestein] and the ball pop out, and I just sprinted right after it,” said Nelson. “I saw one guy jump on it, then I saw it pop out again. I sprinted over and jumped on it and tried to get it any way I could, and it just so happened that another kid jumped on it at the same time. We wrestled around at the bottom of the pile, and I guess I did just enough to get it for our side.”