LEE, Mass. -- You will never see a shorter punt return for a touchdown than the one that Nic Castillo recorded on Friday night.
But his play went a long way toward sending the Lee Wildcats to a needed victory.
Castillo’s 5-yard return late in the first half gave Lee a 13-point lead en route to a 33-7 win over McCann Tech in the final regular season game for both teams.
With the win, the Wildcats (4-4) made themselves eligible for the Western Massachusetts playoffs, and they will find out Sunday morning in Northampton at the sectional seeding meeting whether they have done enough to pass Pioneer Valley (5-2) for the fourth playoff spot in Division 4A.
“Obviously, it was a must-win situation for us to win to even have a shot of making the playoffs,” Lee coach Keith Thomson said. “We’ll let the mathematicians figure out all the rest from here and see what our fate holds. But, obviously, it’s a huge win. The bigger thing right now is we had two losses in a row against two very good teams [Ware and Mount Greylock]. We wanted to get back on track.
“It’s Senior Night. Our seniors stepped up and played really hard. I’m real proud of them, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may as far as the playoffs are concerned.”
Castillo showed some senior savvy in the final two minutes of the first half.
The Lee defense had McCann (1-7) backed up in a fourth-and-28 from its own 1 after it failed to cash in on a Wildcat fumble at the Hornets’ 19 moments earlier.
McCann managed to get off the punt, but the kick was short and took a nasty bounce back where it came from. As the teams watched it start to settle to a stop at about the 5, Castillo alertly scooped it and scored, untouched, to make it a 20-7 game going into half-time.
“Heads up play by Nic seeing the ball right there to scoop and score,” Thomson said.
The bizarre play gave Lee a cushion after a first half that saw the injury depleted Hornets hold their own against the defending Western Mass champions.
Lee started the game with an 89-yard drive that featured the one-two punch of Castillo and Andrew Ruef out of the backfield. Ruef ran for 42 yards on the drive, and Castillo had 62 on the ground and caught a 9-yard TD pass from Homer Winston. Nico Chacon’s first PAT of the game made it 7-0 midway through the first quarter.
McCann Tech answered with a 69-yard drive of its own. Justin Meczywor completed a 47-yard pass deep down the right side to pick up a third-and-13 and extend the drive. Corbin Richardson capped the drive with a 12-yard run to tie the game.
The Wildcats answered with a 64-yard drive that ended in Castillo’s 3-yard score to put the home team on top for good.
In spite of McCann Tech’s record, Thomson’s Wildcats were not taking them lightly.
“McCann, they’re a depleted team all year, they’ve had a lot of injuries, they had another one tonight, but they came out and they fought hard,” Thomson said. “We talked about it all week. They’re a program with pride. I thought our kids matched it. They had a great drive to start the game. Offensively, I think we set the tone at the line of scrimmage. We were able to run theball and grind it out. I’m very proud of them.”
Ruef led Lee’s rushing attack with 96 yards and a touchdown. Castillo ran for 63 yards, and Lucas Loehr ran for 68. Winston completed four of six pass attempts for 77 yards and a pair of TDs.
McCann was led by Richardson, who ran for 50 yards -- the last 4 on the play that sent him off the field in an ambulance at the start of the third quarter with an apparent leg injury.
Hornets coach Bob LeClair was proud of the way his team fought -- not just on Friday night but throughout a season that saw McCann lose at least one player to injury each week, and that does not count the preseason injuries to projected starters.
“We got down and came back and scored,” LeClair said. “That gave us life. That was great. And we showed more offense tonight and more defense. We really played well. We made some mistakes in the first half, and it hurt us. But we could have been down only one score. I probably should have given up a safety down there, instead they get a touchdown. Who’s ever seen a play like [Castillo’s punt return]?
“But we played with all sorts of heart out there. But, again, guys go down. … We played with a lot of heart with all these young kids we have out there.”
McCann will learn Sunday when and against whom it will open the two-week stretch of non-qualifier games to finish out the season.