Wahconah Battle-Tested Going Into State Final

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires.com Sports
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When the Wahconah and Holliston football teams punched their tickets for Saturday’s Division 4 state championship game, the teams were a combined 22-0 and coming off wins by 14 and 26 points, respectively, against fellow sectional champions in the state semi-finals.


They are, without a doubt, the two best teams at their level of high school football in the commonwealth.


But even most juggernauts face the occasional test, and Wahconah and Holliston are no different.


The Panthers were scoreless in the first half of their season opener before knocking off D2 Duxbury, 34-20, and needed a last-minute interception to hold off upset-minded Scituate in the first round of the South Sectional playoffs.


Wahconah (11-0) was trailed Agawam at half-time of its West Sectional final and trailed Shepherd Hill in the state semis with 10 seconds left and the Rams knocking on the door with a chance to go ahead by two scores. And then there was Wahconah’s biggest regular season struggle: an 8-7 thriller against Hoosac Valley.


Those close calls show the character of each team and prove that neither is likely to roll over if it finds itself in a hole on Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.


“It gives us confidence, I guess,” Wahconah senior quarterback Nick Clayton said. “We’re together. We counted on each other to make plays and counted on each other to make things happen, and eventually we will.”


Wahconah lineman Marco Anastasio and coach Gary Campbell talked about the sense of family on the team.


“I think one of the differences between us and most teams is we’re experienced,” Anastasio said standing on the field at Gillette during Tuesday’s MIAA Football State Championship Breakfast event. “Those big moments in big games help you build experience.


“When you go through stuff like that with your brothers, it feels like you can pretty much get through anything with them around.”


Two weeks ago in the glow of the Shepherd Hill game, Campbell talked about the kinds of experiences that don’t come on Friday nights or Saturday afternoons.


“They just bonded together, and I’m so proud of them. That’s what sports are all about: playing for your brother, playing for your best friend,” Campbell said. “This is high school football. Nobody’s getting paid to play. It’s your best friend from your neighborhood going out to the park and playing football together. That’s what we did today.


What they have to do on Saturday is find a way to slow down Holliston’s high-powered offense. Not counting a Thanksgiving Day game when Panthers coach Todd Kiley sat his starters, Holliston has scored 96 points in its last three games -- two sectional playoff games and a 26-0 state semi-final.


Kiley characterized his approach on offense as opportunistic.


“We mix it up offensively,” he said on Tuesday. “We are both ends of the spectrum. It’s a matter of what the defense gives us. Our quarterback, Nick Athy, has done a great job of taking what the defense has given him all year long. I don’t expect anything different on Saturday.


“We pound the ball when that presents itself, and we’ll spread it out and throw. We’ve had games where we’ve thrown it 40 times, and we’ve had games where we’ve thrown it six times. It’s really about taking what the defense is giving us what’s gone well for us.”


Wahconah had a full week to see what works for Holliston. Campbell took advantage of the fact that most of Holliston’s games were telecast by its local community access television station and available on the station’s website, hcattv.org.


“They’re quick,” Clayton said. “They’ve got a good offense and a pretty good defense. It’s going to be a good matchup.”


“I think the biggest thing is probably their speed,” Anastasio said. “They’re not as big as Shepherd Hill, but they way they can get around the edge on offense and on defense the way they get to the ball is what stands out.”


Wahconah, meanwhile, has impressed Kiley with its discipline.


“You can tell they’re a well-coached football team,” he said. “They’re a physical team, and they have some speed, too. In watching film, you can see there’s no real weakness there, so you can’t put all your eggs in one basket. On defense, you have to be disciplined.”


And you can’t give up if the going gets rough. Like Campbell and Wahconah, Kiley knows his Holliston squad is battle-tested.


“Although at the time you don’t want to be in those type games -- at the time, you want them all to be blowouts -- looking back on it, those games are invaluable because you know what your team is made of in tight games,” he said. “I couldn’t be more pleased or proud of the way our team responded in those situations.”

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