MILLINOCKET — The two best teams in the LTC will square off at Alumni Field on Saturday afternoon for the Eastern Maine Class C football championship, led by arguably the league’s top two linemen.
For where Charlie Tapley of top-ranked Stearns of Millinocket and Chris Desmond of second-seeded John Bapst of Bangor have blocked, yards have been sure to follow.
And where they have sought to make tackles, few ballcarriers have advanced.
“They’re pretty similar — big, athletic, and they’ve both got that mean streak,” said John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell. “Chris has got a football player’s mentality, and while that’s such a cliche, the bottom line is that he has that competitive mean streak you’ve got to have. Charlie’s the same way. He’s an intelligent kid, I’ve talked to him a few times and he’s a nice kid, but when you buckle it up, he’s coming after you just like Chris does.”
Desmond is the bigger of the two tackles at 6-foot-4, 285 pounds, while Tapley is 6-1, 220 — and their success doesn’t end with their physicality.
“Charlie doesn’t stop,” said Stearns coach Chris Preble, “and he hasn’t stopped since he was a freshman. He’s the left defensive tackle, and he’ll make a tackle on the right sideline before a lot of other people get there. He can do a lot of things, and he just sets an example. He doesn’t say it, he just goes out and gets it done.
“Chris plays a lot the same way. He’s a big kid, and he’s got good speed, good athleticism. I think for a kid his size, he makes it really tough for you to block him. He’s not just a bull rusher where he comes straight through you all the time, and with his size and balance he slants through gaps and makes plays, and he can chase you down from behind.”
Tapley’s quickness also has enabled him to be an offensive force whether he’s playing along the line of scrimmage or at fullback, which was largely the case during Stearns’ playoff wins against Orono and Foxcroft Academy.
“Most of the time he’s in the backfield, so he’s got a head of steam coming at me,” said Desmond.
Of course, there’s more to these two teams than the Desmond-Tapley faceoff.
Stearns (10-0) boasts the best team defense in the LTC, allowing 117 yards per game and yielding just two touchdowns on drives against its first-team defense. John Bapst (8-2) was second in the conference defensively at 164 yards per game during the regular season, and the Crusaders have followed that up with back-to-back playoff shutouts of Rockland and Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield to reach their fourth consecutive regional final.
Stearns has the conference’s highest-scoring offense at 33 points per game. John Bapst is next at 24 points per contest.
Stearns relies on a running game led by 1,000-yard rusher Billy Eurich, junior Ryan Hibbs and Tapley, each of whom gained more than 100 yards in last weekend’s 14-13 semifinal win over Foxcroft. Quarterback Jared McGreevy passed for 558 yards and nine touchdowns during the regular season, and one of his best games came in Stearns’ 21-7 win over John Bapst on Oct. 30 when the senior battled heavy winds to complete 7 of 13 passes for 88 yards. Five of the completions produced first downs and a sixth went for a touchdown to tight end Brandon Bouchard. Senior split end Brandon McLaughlin is another top receiver for the Minutemen.
“First and foremost, we have to take care of the ball against them,” said O’Connell. “If you give them any extra opportunities, they’re going to make you pay.”
John Bapst has relied more on the aerial game, with senior quarterback Jordan Charpentier passing for 1,450 yards and 21 touchdowns. Max Andrews, Lucas Philippon, Mark Dieuveuil and Andrew Catlin represent a deep and varied receiving corps, while the running game has gotten a boost in recent weeks from senior Jake Leonard, who had a broken thumb early in the season.
“I think they’ve gotten about 20 pounds heavier and four inches taller (since the first meeting),” joked Preble. “They’re a big team. They’ve added a little more to their run game, they do some more things there, but they still spread the ball around, they throw to a lot of people and are able to move the ball that way. They’re dangerous because they can do a lot of things.”
Both coaches believe play along the line of scrimmage will be critical to the outcome of their rematch, with Stearns led by Tapley, Jeremy Bolduc and Josh Studer and John Bapst relying on Desmond, Bill Stoddard, Kurt Massey, John Ashman and Brandon Blustajn.
“If they’re going to throw the ball, we have to get pressure on the quarterback and be able to control the screens and shuffle passes,” said Preble, whose program is playing in its first LTC final since 2003 and seeking its first conference crown since 1998. “If they’re able to spread us out and their quarterback can sit back there and throw the ball, we could have a challenge ahead of us, no doubt.
“And it’s the same for us. We need to be able to throw the ball, but we’re a running team for the most part, so we need to be able to open holes for Billy, Charlie, Ryan, whoever it may be, and keep things going that way.”