WESTFIELD, Mass. -- Down 28-0 at halftime of Saturday's Division 6 state semifinal, the Lee High football team did what it did for the last month: fight from behind.
On this day, the Wildcats could not not battle all the way back, but they could hold their heads up high after taking a 40-16 loss at the hands of Central Mass champion St. Bernard's.
Lee could a small measure of consolation in the fact that it was able to win the second half, 16-12. And it could take a large measure of satisfaction from how it fought back from a 2-4 record over its first six games to finish 6-5 and one win short of a trip to Gillette Stadium.
"Right now, it stings," Lee coach Keith Thomson said. "We had high hopes to get to the next stage. But in time, they'll be able to appreciate what they accomplished this year. They overcame a lot of adversity. They found a way to scrap and claw get themselves in to the picture. Winning Western Mass is a big deal.
"We just kind of ran out of bodies here today. Give St. Bernard's credit. They're a heck of a football team."
And Cooper Bigelow is a heck of a high school quarterback. He ran for 122 yards and threw for 126 and a touchdown to send the Bernardians (11-0) to the state championship game.
Aaron Robichaud ran for 111 yards, and the St. Bernard's defense held Lee to just two first-half first downs on the way to building its big halftime advantage.
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came late in the first quarter.
Lee got the ball for its second possession down, 8-0, but it generated a little offense, moving the chains twice before having to punt the ball from midfield.
The punt went out of bounds at the Bernardians' 29, and on the first play of the possession, Bigelow broke loose on the right side, breaking a tackle at midfield and bouncing off another defender downfield on the way to a 71-yard score.
"That was our fear all along, trying to take away the big play," Thomson said. "They got one there. I still felt down 14-0 or whatever it was at the time, we still had an opportunity. But they shut us down on the next series on offense and came up with some points to make it a three-touchdown game.
"They made the big plays, so give them some credit."
Lee went three-and-out on the ensuing possession, and St. Bernard's answered with a 61-yard drive that ended in a 2-yard Robichaud score.
Another Lee three-and-out led to a 64-yard scoring drive as St. Bernard's scored the first four times it touched the ball to make it 28-0.
The Bernardians tried to sneak another score in before halftime, running a fake punt in midfield to extend a possession with less than a minute on the clock.
But after Robichaud ran it 25 yards to the 1 with 6 seconds left, the middle of the Lee defense came up with a stop to keep it 28-0 at half-time.
St. Bernard's was stopped on fourth down on its first possession of the second half, but a Lee turnover gave the Bernardians the ball at the plus-26. Bigelow then connected with Zachary Bingham for a TD to make it 34-0.
Finally, Lee was able to answer, going 74 yards on its next possession. The big play was a 29-yrd hookup from Cam Abderhalden to Benjamin Harding to put the ball at the 1. Two plays later, Abderhalden took it in to make it 34-6. He then hit Patrick Finnegan for the 2-point conversion.
St. Bernard's extended its lead to 40-8 midway through the fourth quarter, but after the teams traded possessions, Abderhalden provided Lee fans with one last highlight from his stellar career.
On second and 11 at the St. Bernard's 39, Abderhalden rolled to his right, looked down the field and found Josh Sampson near the goalline. Abderhalden's pass was thrown to where only the receiver could get it, and Sampson hauled it in for the final score of the game. Abderhalden ran in the 2-pointer to make it a 40-16 final.
When Thomson says the Wildcats "ran out of bodies" on Saturday, he was not exaggerating. An already depleted Lee roster lost two starters during the game: senior receiver Matthew Reynolds, who was hurt returning a first-quarter punt, and sophomore running back John Castillo, who was carried off after making a tackle late in the second quarter.
"Without our starting center and middle linebacker - we're down with sickness here," Thomson said. "What are you going to do? We just found that one out this morning. Losing Castillo, who was having a nice game for himself. Losing Matthew Reynolds, who was probably one of our top wide receivers all season long, that's tough.
"But a lot of young guys got some valuable experience today, and it's experience they can grow with."