DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Foxcroft Academy had its hands full Friday night with a much different, improved Stearns of Millinocket football team than the one the Ponies handled easily earlier this fall.
The Minutemen experimented with the Wildcat formation, forced five first-half turnovers and held the Ponies off-balance in taking an 8-0 lead at halftime.
But coach Danny White’s club rose to the occasion in the second half, shutting down Stearns while getting its own offense going en route to a hard-earned 28-8 LTC Class C semifinal win at Oakes Field.
The top-ranked Ponies (10-0) will host the winner of today’s other semifinal between No. 3 Mattanawcook of Lincoln and No. 2 John Bapst next Saturday, while No. 4 Stearns wrapped up its season 7-3.
The Stearns secondary gave Foxcroft quarterback Ryan Stroud and his receivers fits in the first 24 minutes, intercepting him four times while also recovering a fumble.
The first of those four picks, by junior cornerback Brandon McLaughlin, set the Minutemen up at their own 48, and nine plays and 52 yards later, Billy Eurich scored from 6 yards out and ran in the two-point conversion rush to give Stearns its advantage.
“They were in good coverage and they were everywhere where our guys were,” White said.
The Ponies had plenty of opportunities to cash in, particularly in the second quarter but turned the ball over twice inside the 20 — once on an interception and the other on fourth down.
“We came out a little slow, I mean it’s playoff time, every team improves and they definitely improved,” said Stroud. “Their secondary was playing great, they were bringing pressure, making it hard to make good reads.”
Fortunately for the Ponies, there are two halves in football, and Foxcroft’s offense woke up in the final 24 minutes while its own defense started putting the clamps on the Minutemen.
“We adjusted and we shut them down in the second half,” said senior halfback-linebacker Ian Champeon, who led FA’s ground game with 103 yards on 20 carries.
It was Champeon who would finally get the Ponies on the board just after the midway mark of the third period.
After a Stearns punt gave FA possession on the S-33, Champeon galloped into the end zone from 25 yards out on a well-executed counter, and Stroud’s conversion pass to Josiah Richard tied the game.
Following a Stearns three-and-out, the Ponies marched 52 yards in eight plays to assume the lead for good, with Champeon scampering in from a yard out off left tackle for a 14-8 Foxcroft advantage.
The Ponies put it away with just under 5 minutes to play in the fourth, as Stroud and Robert Harmon hooked up for a 78-yard touchdown reception, and Stroud and Chase Hutchinson connected from 10 yards out on the next drive.
With Stearns showing a cover-two look defensively most of the second half, the Ponies — who won the first encounter 41-0 — were able to mix things up a lot more.
“We wanted to run the ball to get them to respect the run and once they did that we were able to go back to the pass and that was successful,” said Stroud, who completed 10 of 22 passes for 216 yards and two touchdowns.
Champeon figured Stearns wouldn’t roll over and die for the Ponies, much less in the postseason.
“They brought their game, they’re a very, very good team,” he said. “They came ready to play.”
Coach Chris Preble’s Minutemen were paced offensively by McGreevy, who passed for 68 yards and ran for 48 more while Eurich had 56 yards on 16 carries against a tough Foxcroft defense.
“We prepared all week and our kids watched the film from the last time we played them and I think the mistakes that we made were very cut and dry,” said Preble. “And they were disappointed with the way they played last time, they felt they had a lot to prove. Our kids came out and flew around and that’s what I expected from them.”
Stearns had a hard time moving the ball in the second half, however, as its six second-half possessions resulted in three punts, a fumble, an interception and a turnover on fourth down.
“It really was an emotional check for them,” White said. “(Stearns) had a great game plan coming in, it took us the whole first half to get adjusted and fortunately we were able to make plays.”
Stroud particularly felt much more comfortable in the pocket in the second half after throwing four picks in the first, thanks to tight Stearns coverage in the secondary and a few hurried throws under pressure.
“We were able to execute and we were able to go back to our game in the second half,” White said. “We looked a lot more comfortable on offense, guys got off the ball and we were able to make those plays we couldn’t make in the first half. Hats off to (Stearns), they played a phenomenal football game.”