St. Thomas ends Spartans’ memorable season
PORTSMOUTH – Milford had its chances.
The fifth-seeded Spartans were matching top-seeded St. Thomas score for score through the first six minutes, 36 seconds of action. However, what appeared destined for a shootout with 34 points scored between the two teams over the first seven minutes of play turned into a 51-20 Saints romp in Saturday’s Division II semifinal at Portsmouth High School.
St. Thomas will now face No. 2 Windham in the final at 2:30 p.m. Nov. 22 at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
St. Thomas coach Eric Cumba had to settle down his Saints (10-0) after Milford (8-2) got within one at 14-13.
"We could score 100, but if they’re scoring 98, we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do," Cumba said. "So we needed a stop. We did. Then things started to level out."
It was St. Thomas’ third touchdown drive – ending on a 10-yard touchdown run by Tim Bouchard – that Milford failed to match, and the Saints began to pull away. Not that the Spartans didn’t have the chance to keep pace.
Milford coach Keith Jones witnessed plenty of opportunities come up short, including a fumble on the Spartans’ next possession after Bouchard put the Saints up 21-13 that ended a chance to close the gap before the first quarter ended.
A nice defensive stand gave Milford the ball to open the second quarter, but again the Spartans failed to finish off a quality opportunity – burning three minutes off the clock only to fumble on first-and-goal on the Saints’ 1-yard line.
"We knew we needed to score when we had the ball," Jones said. "We squandered a couple of opportunities."
St. Thomas added 45-yard field goal off the foot of Matt Baker and a Stephen Hedberg to Nate Grunbeck 38- yard pass to go up 31-13 at the half for extra breathing room.
Hedberg, who was 8 of 17 for 299 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, sealed the deal for the Saints in the second half. The senior quarterback had a 47-yard run on St. Thomas’ first series of the second half to set up Grunbeck for a 6-yard score four minutes into the third quarter for a 37-13 lead.
Milford’s Mark Madigan then pounded it in from the 1 to cut the gap to 37-20 with 4:59 to play in the third quarter, before Hedberg finished things off.
Hedberg connected with Grunbeck for an 85-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the fourth quarter for a 44-20 lead. The duo had also connected for an 82- yard aerial scoring strike midway through the second quarter that was called back due to a clipping penalty on a downfield block.
Nonetheless, St. Thomas was reeling off big plays that Milford was unable to respond too.
"They made big plays when they needed to make big plays," Jones said. "We tackled poorly at times in the first half – and turnovers – you just can’t beat a team like that, with all those weapons, if you’re turning the ball over."
The Saints were apparently game planning for turnovers during the week.
"We created a lot of turnovers today," Cumba said. "That was something we talked about all week. We had a feeling that there would be times they’d give us the ball and we had to capitalize. We didn’t capitalize all the time, but we did pretty often."
St. Thomas finished things off with 6:07 remaining on a 32-yard touchdown run by Bouchard, who also closed out scoring in the crazy first quarter.
The game opened with a 31-yard touchdown pass from Hedberg to Liam Middleton on the game’s fourth play, just 58 seconds in.
Milford charged right back on a 50-yard run by Bryce Walker (29 carries, 225 yards) to the 1, where Teagan Vitali finished the two-play sequence up the gut for a 7-7 tie after the Jack Briggs kick with 10:25 on the clock.
Manuel Paz scored on the ensuing kickoff, getting a favorable bounce on a Milford onside kick attempt and sprinting down the left sideline 48 yards for a 14-7 lead after Baker’s kick with 10:20 remaining in the opening quarter.
Milford quarterback Max Urda led the Spartans on an 11-play drive over the next five minutes that culminated in a 39-yard touchdown pass to Briggs. The point after kick was blocked and Milford trailed 14-13.
Two plays later Bouchard found paydirt and the Saints began to slowly pull away.
"We did a lot of uncharacteristic things to ourselves today," Jones said. "We had penalties, we had fumbles and we gave up big plays. We knew they were going to score. There was no secret that they were going to score.
"They’re a great team and they deserved to win this game."