Wahconah football claims another Western Mass. title, drops Frontier in Division VII title game
This story has been updated with the time and location of the state semifinal game.
HOLYOKE — In early September, Tim Clayton was Wahconah's backup quarterback. In November, he has led the Warriors to a Western Massachusetts football championship.
Clayton threw four touchdown passes — three to Tom Burris - and ran for one more as the top-seeded Warriors rolled to a 45-20 win over No. 2 Frontier Saturday. The win gave Wahconah the Division VII championship.
Clayton was nearly perfect. He completed his first nine passes before finishing 9 of 10 for 211 yards. He threw touchdown passes of 36, 67 and eight yards to Burris, who caught six passes for 158 yards.
"It feels great this year, especially because I'm playing," said Clayton, who was a sophomore last year when Wahconah made it to the state Division IV championship game at Gillette Stadium. "It's just awesome."
Clayton had to step in when senior Jeremy Girard suffered a season-ending injury in the first game of the season.
Matt Fortin, a member of the Wahconah offensive and defensive lines, and one of the team's captains, eventually gave up his hold on the trophy.
"It shows the hard work that we put in all season. We start in January every year. We're in the weight room in the summer, every day, bustin'," Fortin said. "I think it's where we expect to be, because we put in the work to be here."
The win marked the fifth time in six years that the Warriors (9-1) have won a Western Mass. title. In the now five years of the state football playoffs, Wahconah has won four Western Mass. crowns.
"It's such a joy for the kids, it is. That's what it's all about," Wahconah coach Gary Campbell Jr. said. "Everybody goes year-after-year, 'How does it feel?' You can see the overwhelming joy. It does not matter. This is their moment.
"Last year is the furthest from the point, and next year is the furthest from their [minds]. Every year is a reset."
With the win, the Warriors advance to the state Division VII semifinals at Foley Stadium in Worcester on Saturday. Wahconah will play Blackstone Valley, after the undefeated Central Mass. top seeds knocked off No. 2 Leicester, 21-14, with an 11 a.m. start time
Campbell used the term reset, referring year-to-year. Wahconah needed to do a reset before the first quarter ended.
Having won the toss and electing to take the ball in the second half, the Warriors kicked off. A fumble on the kickoff gave Wahconah the football on the Frontier 33-yard line. It took the Warriors eight plays to score, with Clayton sneaking in from a yard out. Patrick Butler's point-after kick made it 7-0.
The Red Hawks were not, however, ready to go away. They started on their 22, and marched right down the field. Stephen Worthley, who had a game-high 114 yards rushing on 18 carries, scored on a 32-yard run. Of the 10 plays, Frontier coach Don Gordon called nine running plays, including one on fourth down that the Red Hawks converted. Less-than-stellar tackling on that drive led to the touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jake Gai took the ball 60 yards to the Frontier 31. A five-yard penalty pushed the Warriors back, but Burris got behind defensive back Sam Hebert on a sideline pattern. Burris, like Clayton only a junior, took it 36 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.
It is said that it's not a football game until the visiting team scores. So that Frontier touchdown made it a game.
"I didn't have to say anything" in the huddle after Worthley's touchdown, the Wahconah quarterback said. "Everybody knows what to do. We just had to go out and put up points."
To say Wahconah put up points would be an understatement. After Worthley's touchdown, Wahconah scored 31 unanswered points. Three of them came on a 43-yard Patrick Butler field goal as the second quarter ended. It would have been good from 48.
Wahconah turned a Frontier fumble into a 32-yard TD pass to Dane Campbell, and on the next series, scored on one play. Wahconah's defense held Frontier on downs, and for the second time in the half, Burris beat Hebert on a fly pattern down the right sideline. This one went for 67 yards.
"The receivers were catching all the balls. [Frontier] was pressing, so we knew we could beat them deep," said Clayton. "They were catching everything. The line was giving me all the time. All we had to do was fake it to the running backs, and we knew they'd be wide open."
As lopsided as the final score made it seem, the Red Hawks got up every time Wahconah proverbially punched them in the mouth. It is possible that the 306 total yards Frontier put up against the Wahconah defense was the most the Warriors had given up in a a 25-point victory.
"Two things that we've got to take forward — No. 1 is our overall tackling. No. 2, I thought we had a little bit of that let down in the second half," the Wahconah coach said. "You could see it in our body language. You get up a little bit, and the kids didn't have that fire. Credit to Frontier, they played hard the whole game."
Seven different Wahconah players gained yardage either on the ground or through the air. Only once, in the third quarter, did Wahconah have a negative yardage play. Running back Tanner Hastings carried the ball 21 times for 90 yards, scoring Wahconah's final touchdown.
"The long pass plays. You work so hard to move the ball, and they come back and get it all in one throw, that's tough to take," Frontier coach Don Gordon said.
The veteran head coach said the Warriors were the best team he had seen this year.
"Oh, absolutely," he said. "I bet they'll win the states. They're good."
Frontier 7 0 6 7 — 20
Wahconah 14 17 7 7 — 45
W — Tim Clayton 1 run (Patrick Butler kick), 6:47.
F — Stephen Worthley 37 run (Matt Hildreth kick), 2:32.
W — Tom Burris 36 pass from Clayton (Butler kick), 2:14.
W — Dane Campbell 32 pass from Clayton (Butler kick), 5:10.
W — Burris 67 pass from Clayton (Butler kick), 1:11.
W — Butler 43 FG, 0:01.
W — Burris 8 pass from Clayton (Butler kick), 6:14.
F — Worthley 22 pass from Hildreth (Pass failed), 2:05.
W — Tanner Hastings 1 run (Butler kick), 7:38.
F — Aaron Landry 18 run (Hildreth kick), 5:08.
First Downs 20 18
Rushes-Yards 41-247 40-195
Passing yards 59 211
Comp-Att-Int 4-11-1 9-10-0
Punts-Avg. 0-0 0-0
Fumbles-Lost 2-2 0-0
Penalties-Yards 3-15 5-55.
RUSHING — F: Stephen Worthley 18-114, Aaron Landry 10-70, Alec Kirkendall 8-28, Corbin Blight 1-4, Matt Hildreth 4-31. W: Tanner Hastings 21-90, Nate Zink 8-26, Tim Clayton 8-36, Dane Campbell 3-43.
PASSING — F: Hildreth 4-11-1 59. W: Clayton 9-10-0 211
RECEIVING — f: Landry 2-33, Worthley 1-22, Kirkendall 1-11. W: Burris 6-158, Tanner Hill 1-10, Campbell 2-39, Bob Archambault 1-4.
Howard Herman can be reached at email@example.com, at @howardherman on Twitter, and 413-496-6253.