GREAT BARRINGTON — The 2019 Lee football team never had the opportunity to defend its title of Western Massachusetts champions, and as the Wildcats hit the field this fall, coach Keith Thomson’s message was simple — don’t take this time on the field for granted.
The message was received loud and clear. Lee took care of business on opening night, knocking down the Spartans 24-0.
“We had a lot of players step up to the plate tonight,” Thomson said following the game. “We have a lot we need to correct moving forward, but I’m very happy to get out with a win.”
The Spartans were aggressive on the opening drive, looking to move the chains on fourth and inches. However, the Lee defense held Reece Mullen from sustaining the drive. As a result, the Wildcat offense set up shop on Monument’s 35-yard line.
Senior Hayden Siok earned the starting job for Lee, but it was Tyler Bartini and the ground attack early on. The sophomore carried the rock three times for 14 yards on the opening drive, before Cam Freeman punched it in for six from just one yard out, Lee’s first touchdown of the season. Bartini converted the two-point try and the Wildcats secured an 8-0 advantage midway through the first quarter.
Bartini and senior Elliot Winston each carried the ball nine times for 35 yards. Freeman, however, was the day’s leading rusher with 78 yards on 14 attempts. Additionally, the Wildcats averaged 4.7 yards per rushing attempt and controlled the time of possession 25:59 to 22:01.
The score remained 8-0 at the end of 24 minutes, as defense ruled the first half.
“I was hoping we could string together a nice long drive to begin the second half, but that got snuffed out,” Thomson said. “Our guys stepped up defensively to get us the ball back.”
Despite the roster turnover and injures, QB Hunter DeGrenier and the Spartan offense couldn’t break through the Lee defense. Freeman and Thomas Somerville met at DeGrenier in the backfield for the season’s first sack late in the first half. Freeman and Mason Mihlek registered the team’s second of four sacks later in the second quarter. Ely Simpson was another Wildcat to consistently win in the trenches at linebacker.
Lee executed blitzes up the middle, specifically in the A-gap, which forced DeGrenier out of the pocket. The Spartans entered the season looking to pass the ball more by spreading the offense out and in a sense, run through the air. Friday’s issue stemmed from the fact that when DeGrenier escaped pressure, it didn’t matter if it was to the right or left, half of the field — along with the receivers on that side — were no longer options as the play developed.
“The expectations for opening night are always high,” said Daren Carlson, coach of the Spartans. “Unfortunately, we couldn’t make it happen today, but our kids played tough and I am really proud of them.
“Lee is great at putting a lot of pressure on the A-gap and a lot of pressure on the quarterback.”
While sacks derailed a handful of drives, DeGrenier completed 12 of 18 passes for 67 yards. He connected with Nick Henderson, who caught seven balls on the night, on back-to-back pass attempts in the second quarter. Reece Mullen added an eight-yard scamper and it seemed like the momentum was swinging in favor of the home team. The next two completions went to Arthur Labrie for 11 yards, but Somerville and Freeman ended the drive with their sack.
“They like to set up with three receivers on one side,” Freeman said of Monument’s offense. “During film we picked up they run play action often out of the set.”
“It was all up front, our guys kept grinding,” Thomson said. “Once we got the ball back in the second half, we began establishing the run and started to knock some wind out of their sails.”
Shaun Kinney recovered a fumble on a bad snap, giving Lee the ball on the Monument 34 with three minutes left in the third. The two-minute drive featured 25 yards from Freeman and a five-yard scamper by Winston across the goal line, extending the lead to 16 after Bartini’s two-point try.
Siok took to the air for Lee’s third-and-final touchdown, finding Dylan Ely on a seam route down the middle of the field for an 18-yard touchdown. Freeman’s two-point attempt with six minutes left in the fourth quarter was the last time either team found the end zone.
Mullen finished the day with five carries for 22 yards, but also helped the Spartans escape a tricky situation late in the first half, intercepting a ball in the end zone to prevent Lee from building on its score.
“Our guys are playing great defense and that was true in the spring,” Carlson said. “We’re just going to keep working and it can be little harder to get the offense going early in the season.”
Despite being longtime Berkshire South rivals, this was the first time these two teams met in roughly three trips around the sun.
“We haven’t played this game since 2018,” Thomson said. “It is very interesting to get back out here. We’re excited and it is kind of strange to be honest, this is usually one of the last games of the season, not the first, but it was a great win to get and move forward.”
One test leads to another for Lee, who will play at Wahconah next Friday before hosting McCann Tech on Friday, Sept. 24.
“We’ll keep doing what we do,” Freeman said. “We’ll work hard and keep watching film.”
Monument Mountain will play at Easthampton next Friday before hosting Athol on Sept. 24.
“We talked pregame about how these games aren’t guaranteed,” Thomson said. “Enjoy every minute.”