WORCESTER, Mass. -- If the Wahconah football team had been able to complete an epic fourth-quarter comeback on Saturday, it would have surprised a lot of people.
Just not its coach.
"The senior class: small in numbers and huge in heart," Wahconah coach Gary Campbell said after his team rallied from an 18-point fourth-quarter deficit but fell, 21-18, to Blackstone Valley Tech in the MIAA Division 7 state semi-finals. "They did an extraordinary job this year busting all the way through.
"They met adversity with toughness, with resiliency, with all the attributes that you hope sports teaches. Even today -- today was a perfect microcosm of our season. Tough things happened, and they battled back, battled back, battled back."
Wahconah even got the ball back for one last try with less than a minute left, trailing by three points, at its own 20. But its first pass attempt was tipped and intercepted, and Valley Tech began celebrating its trip to the state title game at Gillette Stadium.
A lot of BVT fans probably thought that trip was a certainty when a fluke turnover on the last play of the third quarter preserved the Beavers' 21-3 lead.
Wahconah (9-2) ended the third by going from its 35 to the plus 42, and a pass deep down the left side from Tim Clayton to Tom Burris appeared destined to give Wahconah its first touchdown of the afternoon.
But a BVT defensive back knocked the ball loose, and it went through end zone, giving the Beavers a touchback.
On its first play from scrimmage after the turnover, Blackstone Valley coughed up the ball itself, and Wahconah took over at the Beavers' 25.
A 21-yard completion from Clayton to Burris got the ball to the doorstep, but BVT's defense stiffened. Twice on third-and-goal at the 1, BVT drew flags. Finally, on its seventh try after first-and-goal at the 2, Wahconah got in the end zone on a second-effort run by Clayton. Patrick Butler's PAT made it 21-10 with 8 minutes, 42 seconds left.
Wahconah's onside kick was unsuccessful, but it held BVT to a three-and-out thanks to sophomore Ethan Scott's stop on third-and-5 at midfield.
Wahconah's offense took over after a punt at its 18 and went all the way down the field on five Clayton passes -- including completions of 39 yards and 34 yards to Dane Campbell. The last 9 came on a throw to Burris in the corner of the end zone with 5:38 on the clock.
Clayton ran in the 2-pointer mo cut the deficit to 21-18.
Blackstone Valley managed just one timeout on its ensuing possession, and Wahconah got the ball back at midfield following a short punt with 3:11 on the clock.
But on 4th-and-5, Wahconah was forced to give the ball back with 2:30 left to play.
Again, Wahconah's defense stiffened, allowing just seven yards on three runs, but was able to drain the clock and punted it back with 18 ticks remaining.
The first half was a defensive slugfest.
BVT went to the air on its second possession and threw for 77 yards en route to taking a 7-0 lead.
But the only other offense came off the left toe of Butler, whose 33-yard field goal late in the second quarter made it 7-3 at half.
Blackstone Valley scored on its only two possessions of the third quarter to take a three-score lead. The second time, it had a short field to work with after a Wahconah try on fourth-and-2 at its 20 came up empty.
Failure to convert in short yardage situations was an Achilles heel for Wahconah all afternoon.
"That first half was just hard to overcome," Campbell said. "Those two fourth downs, not being able to convert fourth-and-1s was a big, big part of us not doing well today.
"I thought they outblocked us today. I say it all the time: It always comes down to blocking and tackling. We didn't tackle well. We didn't block well, and the fourth-and-1 was a perfect example. When you don't do that, you're not going to win many football games."
Wahconah just missed winning the game that would have sent it to back-to-back state title games. But the nine wins and Western Mass title were a testament to how well Campbell's team blocked and tackled all season.
"The perspective, right now when it's raw is just absolute pride in how they handled themselves all year," he said. "Pride in that they worked and worked through adversity and dealt with situations on and off the field.
"I'm absolutely proud to be their coach."