WESTFIELD, Mass. -- Saturday’s state semi-final could not have started much better for the Lee football team.
The first half could not have ended much worse.
St. Bernard’s scored 19 points in less than three minutes to close the half -- part of a 44-0 run that sent the Bernardians on to a 44-14 win over the Wildcats at Westfield State.
Tyler Thibodeau ran for 184 yards, and Nico Mancini ran for 154, and St. Bernard’s advanced past a Berkshire County squad for the second straight season on its way to Gillette Stadium. Last year, the Bernardians shut out Hoosac Valley in the state semi-finals before winning a Division 8 state crown in Foxborough two weeks later.
On Saturday, Lee (7-4) stormed out of the gates, taking the opening kickoff and going 52 yards in eight plays for an opening score. Jimmy Purcell hit Luke Patella in the end zone to give Lee a 6-0 lead less than three minutes into the game.
The Bernardians responded with a 61-yard scoring drive that ended in a 12-yard run by Mancini to tie it, 6-6.
The Wildcats looked to be able to hold serve, quickly moving the ball from their 43 to the plus-22. But a first down procedure penalty made it first-and-15, and two rushes for three yards and a pair of incompletions gave St. Bernard’s the ball at its 24.
Lee’s defense held firm, pushing the Central Mass champs back to their 19 with the help of a couple St. Bernard’s penalties.
But on fourth-and-long, Lee was flagged for roughing the punter, giving the Bernardians new life with a first down at their 34 with a few seconds left in the third.
St. Bernard’s then methodically went down the field with 16 running plays to get to the Lee 7. Vaughn Randle kicked a 25-yard field goal to cap a 69-yard scoring drive that chewed up 11 minutes, 59 seconds.
Lee then caught its first -- and last -- break. The Wildcats were forced to punt after a three-and-out on their ensuing possession, but the Bernardians fumbled the punt, and Nick Nicotra recovered at the 38.
Purcell’s first pass went to Nicotra for 12 yards to get the Wildcats to midfield with just more than a minute left in the half of a three-point game.
But his next pass was picked off and by Dominic Cuevas and returned 12 yards to the 48.
Three plays later, Thibodeau was in the end zone and St. Bernard’s had a 17-6 lead.
Gabe Kelley returned the ensuing kick 19 yards, and Lee set up at its own 47 with 26 seconds left. Rather than settling to run out the clock, the Wildcats kept pressing forward.
First, Purcell hit Patella for an 11-yard gain. But then Thibodeau got his team’s second interception in less than a minute and raced 58 yards to 2 with nine seconds left.
Cuevas ran it in on first down, and St. Bernard’s had a 25-6 lead.
“They’re the defending state champs, they get two turnovers and cash in on them, and that obviously knocked the wind out of our sails a little bit,” Lee coach Keith Thomson said. “Football is a funny game. It’s a game of momentum.
“What are you going to do? We came here to win, and we were playing aggressive. Hats off to St. Bernard’s. It’s a very talented football team. We talked about it all week on the films. They found themselves behind and seemed to always respond. We knew that was going to be the case.”
St. Bernard’s opened the second half with another long scoring drive, this time going 66 yards in 7:02 in a 12-play march that featured Cuevas’ only pass completion of the day, a 14-yard hookup to Zackary Legros.
Cuevas needed to throw the ball just twice all day with the Bernardians’ running game dominating.
“I think they did a great job up front,” Thomson said. “We knew trap was coming, and we gave them several different fronts, we gave them several different looks. We made some plays early. But as our energy started to wane, as they seized the momentum, you could see a shift, especially up front. And that’s usually where it starts.
“Give them credit. They played with a lot of energy. They got a couple of breaks there, and they seized the momentum.”
St. Bernard’s score on all three of its second half possessions to go ahead 44-6 in the fourth quarter, which was played under running time.
Lee rallied to score on its final possession of the game. Big runs by Tag Roosa and Kelley keyed a 69-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard run by Nicotra. Roosa ran in the 2-point conversion to provide the final margin.
Fittingly, the two senior backs were the last ones to hang points on the board this fall for a Lee team that overcame a rough 1-3 start to win six games in a row -- including a victory in a rematch with previously unbeaten Hoosac Valley in the sectional semi-finals.
“Those [seniors] provided leadership all year long,” Thomson said. “When they found themselves down -- in tight games early and losing some games -- certainly you could have seen the potential for things to unravel there. These guys were a calming influence all year. It was great leadership from that group. They stayed in the fight, they stayed focused, they kept the younger guys on track.
“We’re going to miss them a lot. But that’s high school football. You’ve always got to replace guys who leave, unfortunately. Hopefully, the underclassmen learned a lesson from them in what it takes to get here.”