PORTLAND, Maine — The Nokomis defense was stout but its offense was struggling and the Warriors were in desperate need of a touchdown as time wound down during Saturday’s Class C football state championship game.
Tyler Pelletier needed only a matter of seconds to solve that crisis.
Pelletier, one of 13 seniors who began their varsity careers with back-to-back 0-8 seasons in 2015 and 2016, returned a punt 68 yards for a touchdown with 4:19 left in the fourth quarter as Nokomis of Newport rallied past Fryeburg Academy 13-12 at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
With the Warriors trailing 12-7 since late in the first half, Pelletier caught Nathan Knapp’s punt at the the Nokomis 32, then headed toward the right sideline behind teammate Chance Graves.
A wall of blockers was waiting, and Pelletier sprinted behind it down the sideline, avoiding the final Fryeburg defender at the Raiders’ 20 before racing to the end zone.
“Chance told me I was going to get it, and I got it and took it to the right and there was a big lane,” said Pelletier. “I got to the end zone and my eyes teared up.”
This particular return play was a late addition to the Nokomis playbook, in great part because of the amount of practice time it required.
“It goes back to my days (as a player and assistant coach) at Lawrence (of Fairfield), a wall return, just old school,” said second-year Nokomis head coach Jake Rogers. “We scored a lot of touchdowns that way at Lawrence and gave up a few, too, but we knew it would be a good weapon to have and it paid off today.”
Fryeburg (10-2) had one last chance, advancing from its 38 to the Nokomis 43 before two personal foul penalties against the Raiders — the second after an 11-yard sack of quarterback Oscar Saunders by Alex Costedio — ended the threat.
“It’s just amazing how the kids persevered,” said Rogers. “(Fryeburg’s) defense was just phenomenal. We struggled to gain a yard at times but it’s just amazing how our kids weren’t willing to quit and they weren’t going to get down. They knew we were one score away, and they believed.”
Not only is the title the first in the 12-year history of the Nokomis varsity football program, it’s just the second state championship won by any boys team sport at the Newport school since it was founded in 1968 — joining the school’s 1985 outdoor track squad.
“There are just so many emotions going through my mind right now,” said Pelletier. “We’ve all grinded so hard, we all deserve this so much.
“We’re going to bring this (gold ball) home and party up.”
After each team scored on its first possession of the game to leave Nokomis (8-4) with a 7-6 lead less than eight minutes into the contest, it quickly turned into a defensive battle.
Fryeburg Academy, which had allowed only 59 points during its 10-game win streak entering this contest, outgained Nokomis 221-145 in total yardage but couldn’t capitalize on a field-position advantage it maintained for much of the game.
One big reason was Nokomis senior linebacker Quinton Richards, a presence around the football throughout the afternoon whose contributions included a fourth-quarter interception that set up the Warriors’ best offensive scoring threat of the second half.
“He just flies around, hair on fire,” said Rogers. “He’s a fast linebacker laterally and covers a lot of ground. He did his job today, just like all 11 of them did.”
Pelletier also scored Nokomis’ first touchdown on the game, taking a bubble screen pass from senior quarterback Andrew Haining and following Brock Graves’ lead block to the end zone to stake the North region’s fourth-seeded team to a 7-0 lead 1:28 into the game.
Haining was 3-for-5 passing for 63 yards during the seven-play, 65-yard march, including completions of 29 yards to Pelletier and 21 yards to Costedio.
“Because they were such an athletic defensive team we tried to take our shots down the field early and make them back up a little bit so we could have more success running the ball,” said Haining. “When we got down near the goal line we threw a quick screen out to Tyler who’s a great athlete and he did the rest.”
The early touchdown provided an immediate dose of confidence to the Warriors.
“We were identical, two teams that lean heavy on defense,” said Rogers. “Their defense was big, fast, athletic and they don’t mistakes, so just to get that first score on the board really told our kids that we could win this.”
Yet Fryeburg responded immediately, driving 54 yards in 12 plays with its first possession to pull within 7-6 when Calvin Southwick took a pitch from Saunders and scored from 12 yards out with 4:33 left in the quarter.
Fryeburg, seeking its first state championship since sharing the Class B crown with John Bapst in 1965, took its lone lead after a 30-yard Nokomis punt gave the Raiders’ possession near midfield with 7:14 left before intermission. That led to a six-play, 51-yard drive that ended with Saunders scoring on a 4-yard keeper to make it 12-7 with 4:47 left until intermission.