MILLINOCKET — Few things about the LTC football world have been predictable this fall — except for the Stearns Minutemen.
Coach Chris Preble's club used stifling defense and two touchdowns in the final 4 minutes, 6 seconds of the fourth quarter to cap off an undefeated regular season with a 21-7 victory over John Bapst of Bangor at wind-blown Alumni Field on Friday night.
The win secures home-field advantage throughout the Eastern Maine Class C playoffs for 8-0 Stearns, while 6-2 John Bapst will finish second in the LTC standings.
"We've been working hard since doubles started, because this has been our dream since we were younger, to be in this position," said Stearns wideout Brandon McLaughlin, one of 13 seniors on the 29-man squad who were honored before the contest. "We just wanted to keep working hard. This senior class has stuck together and played tough, and to get to this point is one milestone toward our goal of getting to the gold-ball game."
The Minutemen got their toughest test of the season to date, but after battling to a 7-7 halftime stalemate, a Stearns team that has yielded just 21 points this fall limited the Crusaders to 14 total yards over the final two periods.
"We changed our defense in the second half so it gave us two 'backers in the middle," said Stearns linebacker-tailback Billy Eurich, who along with linebacker Josh Studer and end Charlie Tapley helped limit John Bapst to 58 rushing yards in the game. "We know we're a second-half team, so we just stayed physical."
John Bapst matched Stearns defensively for much of the second half, until the Minutemen used a 10-play, 58-yard drive to score the go-ahead touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Jared McGreevy to Brandon Bouchard on a fourth-and-goal play with 4:06 left in the game.
McGreevy faked a handoff to Eurich and then found his tight end behind the Bapst defense in the right side of the end zone.
"We had Brandon go on a release, and he got wide open in the end zone," said McGreevy. "He made a great play."
The toughest part of the play for Bouchard was waiting for the throw to get to him amid the gusty conditions.
"I had to really concentrate to wait for the ball to get to me through the wind," said Bouchard, who then kicked the extra point to give Stearns a 14-7 lead.
Stearns got the ball back almost immediately, as McLaughlin intercepted a second-down pass by John Bapst quarterback Jordan Charpentier on the Crusaders' next possession and returned it 51 yards to the Bapst 7.
"Our coach said 42 (Max Andrews) was their big receiver, so he put me back over the middle to watch for him," said McLaughlin. "I played the quarterback's eyes the whole way, and I saw where he wanted to go to 42, so I sprinted over there as fast as I could and concentrated hard to make the interception."
Stearns scored its final touchdown three plays later on a 2-yard sneak by McGreevy with 2:17 remaining.
Stearns outgained John Bapst 216-88 in total yardage, with McGreevy working through the wind to complete 7 of 13 passes for 88 yards. Five of his completions went for first downs, with a sixth producing the touchdown to Bouchard.
"It's a great accomplishment," said McGreevy of his team's regular-season conference crown, "but there's a lot of tough teams in this league, the LTC is full of battles."
Charpentier, who entered the game as the conference's lone 1,000-yard passer, completed 4 of 7 attempts for 30 yards, while Bapst managed just 2.4 yards per rushing attempt.
"They're aggressive, but they're disciplined," said John Bapst coach Dan O'Connell of the Stearns defense. "We've been able to take advantage of some aggressive defenses this season when they've made mistakes, but that's a testament to Stearns, they didn't make mistakes."
Stearns scored on its first possession of the game on a 38-yard drive after a short John Bapst punt into the wind. Tapley scored on a 2-yard run with 7:30 left in the opening quarter, one play after McGreevy completed a 23-yard pass along the right sideline to McLaughlin on fourth-and-10 to give the Minutemen first-and-goal.
"I knew he was going to come to me," said McLaughlin, "so I just had to focus on on the ball when it was coming down to me and stay in bounds."
John Bapst tied the game with two minutes left in the first half after a pass interception by Charpentier gave the Crusaders possession at the Stearns 48.
Charpentier then hooked up with Jake Leonard for a 23-yard screen pass, and Charpentier later ripped off a 12-yard gain on a quarterback keeper to give John Bapst first-and-goal from the 7.
Leonard ran off left tackle on the next play for the tying touchdown.
John Bapst (6-2) 0—7—0—0— 7
Stearns (8-0) 7—0—0-14—21
S—Tapley 2 run (Bouchard kick)
JB—Leonard 7 run (Dieuveuil kick)
S—Bouchard 9 pass from McGreevy (Bouchard kick)
S—McGreevy 2 run (Bouchard kick)