Wahconah started strong but fell to Doherty in the state semi-finals on Saturday.
LEOMINSTER, Mass. — Wahconah's game plan worked like a dream in the first quarter of Saturday's football state semi-final.
The second quarter was a nightmare.
Worcester's Doherty scored 22 second-quarter points to erase a 16-0 lead and held on for a 22-16 victory in the state Division 4 semis at Doyle Field.
Jahkari Carpenter ran for 111 yards and a touchdown, and the Doherty defense made two key stops deep in its end to advance to the first-ever state championship game on Dec. 7 at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
Wahconah scored on its first two possessions, and after a fumble at midfield it went 41 yards in two plays to get to the Doherty 6 as the clock ran out on the first quarter.
But a holding call on the first play of the second quarter pushed the Western Massachusetts champions into a second-and-15 at the 16. A run for a loss of 1, a delay of game penalty and two incompletions denied Wahconah a chance to make it a three-score game.
Wahconah coach Gary Campbell said that at the time, he did not realize what a major momentum swing had occurred.
"At that time, no," Campbell said. "I don't think so. At that point, we were moving the ball, doing some good things here and there. So you almost figure you're going to get that opportunity again — which we did."
But before Wahconah saw the red zone again, the red-clad Highlanders stormed back as the second-quarter nightmare was just beginning for Wahconah.
On first and 10 at the Doherty 22, Carpenter took an inside handoff and broke up the left side for a 59-yard run. Luke Brennan took it the last 19 yards on a keeper to the right side to make it 16-6.
Wahconah mishandled the ensuing kickoff, which it recovered on its 2. After another delay of game call pushed the ball to the 1, Doherty tackled QB Ethan Wells in the end zone to make it 16-8.
A short free kick gave the Highlanders possession at the plus-31, but Wahconah stopped Doherty on downs to regain possession.
After Wahconah had to punt the ball away, Carpenter made a sensational 42-yard run that saw him go from one sideline to the other before crossing the goal line. A 2-point conversion tied the score with 4 minutes, 47 seconds left in the half.
The teams then traded turnovers, and a 4-yard punt by Wahconah deep in its end gave Doherty the ball on the plus-16 with 22 seconds left. Brennan hit Alfred Adarkwah in the end zone for what turned out to be the winning score with 16 seconds left in the half.
In the third quarter, Doherty threatened to up its lead with a drive that went 36 yards to the Wahconah 15 before Wells' hit on Carpenter forced a fumble that gave Wahconah possession at its own 9.
Wells then directed a 85-yard march that came up just short of tying the game.
"That was awesome," Campbell said. "The kids played tough, like I said."
Two plays by Sam Harris in the end zone broke up pass attempts that would have knotted the score, and Doherty took over on downs at its 6.
A 25-yard run by Brennan and a personal foul on Wahconah got the ball to midfield, and Doherty chewed up the next four minutes of clock with short gains, forcing Campbell to start calling his timeouts.
Brennan then made perhaps his biggest run of the game with 1:38 left and his team facing fourth-and-2 at the Wahconah 26. He appeared to be stopped deep in his backfield but stiff-armed his way out danger and went 5 yards for the first down, and all the Highlanders had to do was take a knee to escape with the win.
"The quarterback is a tremendous athlete," Doherty coach Sean Mulcahy said. "We gave him a chance to win the game for us, and what a play he made."
For Wahconah, Wells is a pretty good athlete in his own right.
The senior converted tailback ran for 126 yards and threw for 94 in a losing effort.
He had 27 yards on the ground on Wahconah's first possession and capped it by rolling to his left and hitting Ryan Washburn deep down the field for a 26-yard TD.
Darrow Brown scored Wahconah's second touchdown on an end-around to the right side from 10 yards out.
On Wahconah's third possession, Wells hit Brown deep down the right side for a 36-yard completion that got the ball into Doherty in the closing moments of the first quarter.
Wells is one of just a handful of seniors graduating from a Wahconah team that next fall will look for its third straight Western Mass championship.
"We've got great kids," Campbell said. "We have only five seniors, and those kids fought like heck in the last quarter, and we showed them we can play with anybody, and we can be physical, and we can play tough football.
"That fourth quarter was all guts and determination. We just didn't finish it."