CHESHIRE, Mass. — The Lee Wildcat football team finally got its shot to play in the Division 6 playoffs after two disappointing years that saw ‘Cats miss the cut despite having strong teams that competed through a tough regular season schedule.
On Saturday, when they got their chance in the championship game they proved themselves by defeating the defending champion McCann Tech Hornets, 13-0, at Hoosac Valley High School.
"There is definitely some vindication for us," said Lee coach Keith Thomson. "Vindication for the last two teams that we've had that were good football teams who never got this opportunity. Our kids, we talked about that during the week. They laid the foundation for us and without the last two years we probably wouldn't be here today. But this is really about these guys right here. I mentioned to them earlier today that what you owe those guys is your very best. Nothing more and nothing less. But the championship is yours.
"We had a tough stretch in the middle of the year. We were still trying to figure some things out and find ourselves. We had a tough loss up at Greylock, and then we knew at that moment we were in playoff mode. It was win or go home. We had to win out. Kids responded and did just a phenomenal job down the stretch. Defense really picked up, and what can I say, Western Mass champs."
"Our goal from the beginning of the season was to get into the playoffs," added senior captain Cam Abderhalden. "We thought we had it with the new system. We got in and made a new goal, Western Mass championship. It sucks because the teams from the past two years went 5-3 and you look in the crowd and see all those kids from those teams. It's sad but at the same time you know they are happy for you so it's a great feeling."
This year's Wildcats proved their toughness and especially on the defensive side of the ball as they shut out the Hornets and limited them to just 96 total yards on the day. Of McCann's seven possessions, four ended with punts and the other three they turned the ball over on downs. Three times the Hornets drove the ball inside the Lee 33 yard line, three times the Wildcat defense came up with big stops on fourth down.
"Defense we focused on a lot this week," said senior captain Tyler Buratto. "We knew they had a couple good running backs and they like to do a lot of different sets. We focused on that a lot and our guys stepped up from the guys on the front line to the guys in the secondary. We all played our part and worked together."
The biggest stop came early in the fourth quarter with McCann driving. Facing third down and 9, the Hornets completed a 19-yard halfback pass from senior Nick Lincoln to classmate Keigan Case down the middle of the field. Lincoln converted to running back from quarterback early in the season after starter Eathan Heller went down with a torn ACL in the first game of the year. The 19-yard catch was one of only four plays that went for double digit yards on the afternoon for McCann.
The pass gave the Hornets a fresh set of downs on the Lee 23 yard line as the clock ran out on the third quarter. But the Wildcat defense held strong and three plays later and incomplete pass on third down gave their offense the ball back with a chance to bleed the clock and make a game sealing touchdown drive.
The offense seized the opportunity on the back of quarterback Abderhalden. "He's our guy," Thomson said. "We talked to him. He came over to the sideline and I said take us home. This is your deal. You got us here, now finish it."
He did just that for the Wildcats with his arm and his legs. Starting on their own 19, Lee drove 81 yards with Abderhalden accounting for 79 of them. He converted three third down plays with the biggest coming with just two minutes and 12 seconds left in the game facing third down and 10 on the Hornet 35. Abderhalden dropped back and found junior Michael Hurley for a 33-yard completion on a beautifully run stop and go route down the right sideline to set up Lee with first and goal on McCann's 2-yard line.
"Cam came over. Thought he saw something and we knew we wanted to take a shot on that drive sooner or later," said Thompson about the play. "He wanted to do it a couple plays before. I said let's just hold on with the clock situation. We thought it was the right down and distance. We thought we had what we wanted. Cam put the ball on him. Michael made the catch and the rest is history."
"Hurley came up to me and said hey their safety's playing way over. They're not really covering deep. They run a cover three and at beginning of the game their corners were deep, playing inside. At the end of the game, they started to shift in. They came down to like seven yards. Hurley told me that he had them beat, " said Abderhalden about what he saw on the play. "I went up to coach and offered up the idea. I think it was like three plays later we put it in and it worked excellently."
On their next play, junior Nick Castillo plowed into the end zone for a 2-yard rushing touchdown, his second of the game. The extra point kick was good and the Wildcats extended their lead to 13-0 with just 2:09 left to play in the game, essentially sealing the victory. McCann could not get anything going on their final drive and Lee would set up in victory formation to kneel out the clock.
"It was a defensive battle," said McCann coach Bob LeClair. "We just couldn't finish drives. We made plays, but they rose up and got big stops when they had to. We were knocking on the door but just couldn't put that one in and credit to Lee for their efforts that they put in.
"We had some of these guys that came in and started as freshman for us and given us four years. The seniors overall have done a super job and have kept things going for us to keep building this program up. Back-to-back years we have been in the championship game and that's a credit to the effort that they put in from their freshman year when we were 2-8 to winning a championship and being in the playoffs three years in a row."
Lee's seniors also played a big part in building up their program from a 1-8 freshman year record said captain Edwin Hernandez, "This group of 14 seniors was able to win the youth league championship and four years later to come back and win the Western Mass championship really feels like a big accomplishment especially after starting freshman year with just one win."
For the Wildcats, the win is very satisfying said Thomson, "Anybody who gets in this thing, we are very satisfied with winning Western Mass. But we want to get ourselves to Gillette and hold up an even bigger trophy this."