Valiant Belfast playoff run comes to endWaterville builds early lead, staves off Lion comeback in football semifinals
Waterville — It was a feline football frenzy.
An Eastern Class B high school semifinal playoff clash between two upstarts who upset higher-seeded opponents in the first round of the postseason.
Two squads that began the day just one victory from a berth in the regional championship game.
That is where No. 7 Belfast and No. 6 Waterville found themselves Saturday afternoon, Nov. 3 at 1 p.m. on Drummond Field.
Then the host Purple Panthers (6-4) built a 17-0 first-half lead and staved off a valiant second- and third-quarter comeback by the Lions (5-5) en route to a 31-14 victory.
Fumbles on two fourth-quarter drives hampered BAHS as the Lions pushed hard to close the gab between them and the Panthers. However, on this day, a complete comeback was not in the cards for the gutsy, hard-working Lions.
Belfast and Waterville did not play each other during the regular season. Previously in the playoffs, No. 7 Belfast beat No. 2, thee-time defending regional champion Leavitt of Turner 20-17 and Waterville bested No. 3 Hampden Academy 25-17.
Waterville advances to face powerful No. 1 Mount Blue of Farmington (10-0, after a 33-21 semifinal playoff victory over No. 4 Gardiner) on Friday night, Nov. 9 on Kemp Field for the regional crown and a berth in the state final.
The Cougars beat Waterville 53-24 in the teams lone regular-season meeting.
Belfast appeared to suffer an emotional letdown at the start of Saturday's game, perhaps still feeling the effects of the exciting, come-from-behind quarterfinal win over host Leavitt as the Lions scored the winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter of that Oct. 26 contest.
Thus, the Lions fell behind 17-0 to the Purple Panthers Saturday but, as they have done all year, they showed heart, a never-quit-attitude and tremendous resiliency (similar to a comeback from a 22-0 halftime deficit to Mount Desert Island during a regular-season game).
In Saturday's playoff, Lions closed its deficit to 17-14 with 8:24 remaining in the third quarter, but Waterville answered that score and Belfast fumbled on two late drives to thwart any comeback bid.
It was a tale of two halves as Waterville carried much of the momentum in the first 24 minutes before Belfast grabbed it for the end of the second quarter and much of the third stanza.
Waterville held Belfast to 24 total yards and led 17-0 before momentum shifted to the Lions as the visitors drove 73 yards in nine plays and Carl Dodge scored from two yards with 17.7 seconds left in the first half. A two-point conversion pass was intercepted and the score stood at 17-6 after the first 24 minutes of play.
That late second-quarter score gave the Lions hope and pushed them into the second half ready to make noise. BAHS did that to start the third quarter, as the Lions drove 63 yards for a touchdown. With 8:24 left in the stanza, Dodge again ran into the end zone from short yardage and Travis Tufo added the two-point conversion rush and the visitors had climbed within 17-14. The score was made possible by a long third-and-short run down the right sideline by quarterback Zach Collier.
However, Waterville answered that scoring drive with one of its on, moving the ball 59 yards on 11 plays. Cameron Thomas had three carries for 14 yards and quarterback Aidan Fitzgerald showed accuracy as he completed two 11-yard passes to Jordhan Levine to keep the drive going. The drive was capped by a 16-yard scoring pass from Fitzgerald to Nick Danner with 3:45 left on a third-and-10 play. The extra-point kick by Levine made it 24-14 and put the Purple Panthers back in the driver's seat.
Waterville made a defensive stand on the next Lion possession and then the hosts went on a 71-yard, backbreaking scoring drive, capped when Racean Wood scampered into the end zone from nine yards with 9:30 left in the fourth quarter. The extra-point kick by Levine made it 31-14.
Then Belfast fumbled twice on what appeared strong drives in the fourth quarter.
Waterville's physically-imposing linemen, including Tom Cox, at 280 pounds, Ben Cox, at 230, and Connor McLeod, 295, played a pivotal role on defense and offense in the hosts' win. The Coxes are brothers.
Wood, who ran the ball 16 times in the first half, finished with 25 carries and 143 yards.
Waterville jumped to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter on a pair of scoring runs by Thomas, who reached paydirt from 16 and three yards. Levine added a 26-yard field goal for a 17-0 Purple Panther lead with 7:44 left in the second quarter.
"I am very proud of the boys this season," said Lion coach Chris Bartlett. "We set a goal in the off season to be a better team than last year and to qualify for the playoffs and they achieved those goals. They played a very tough and physical Waterville team Saturday. Waterville did a nice job defensively and their offense was very effective. They kept the ball out of our hands and didn't allow us to get into a rythm offensively. The one thing we did not realize was their size, not just the lineman but the running back was big too.
"Not playing them at all in regular season and only seeing them on film you don't really get a feel for what they are capable of, how strong they are and quick they were. Against Leavitt we knew who they had and the guys knew who they were going to match up against and what that player was like. We knew we couldn't give up the big plays and how to play them defensively. When you don't see a team at all in regular season it's the first time you see them and [you] only have a short period of time to adjust we knew they were good because they beat a very big Hampden [Academy] and talented Hampden [Academy] team.
"The guys played their hearts out. We just got beat by a good football team. Our players and community need to be extremely proud of the way they played this year and the things they have achieved. As a coaching staff we are extremely proud of them and had a great season with a great group of young men."
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