Western Mass. Division VIII football: Lee gets back to the top with win over Ware

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STEPHANIE ZOLLSHAN – THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
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HOLYOKE — After a successful screen pass was called back because of a penalty, Ware football went back to the well with the same call on the following play just two minutes into the fourth quarter of the Western Massachusetts Division VIII championship game.

The 2019 Lee football team has continued to learn from its mistakes, and when Ware quarterback Dillon Slattery looked to his left with the intention of getting the ball to his running back, senior captain Cole Redstone was there to not only snatch the ball, but return it 67 yards for a pick-six to ice Lee's 35-6 win in the championship bout.

"It was the final nail in the coffin," coach Keith Thomson said of the play. "It was a great job by him and a great job by the whole team. They bought right in by watching all the film and checking their sheets."

The Wildcats made it to the championship game last year, but were determined to return to Lee with a Western Mass. championship trophy on the bus with them this time.

"I think we all knew what was at stake and we were very prepared," senior Nick Nicotra said. "We knew their offense inside and out. Everybody was ready to go and I think that showed right from the get-go."

Ware began the game with the ball and marched onto Lee's side of the field with a fourth-down conversion, but the Wildcat defense stuffed the next fourth-down attempt and forced a turnover on downs.

"Coming into a game like this you're worried that there will be too much adrenaline," Thomson said. "They had a nice drive, but we buckled down, stopped them and everything worked as planned."

Apparently, Lee's plan was to not only score four times, but rack up 302 yards of offense in the opening 24 minutes.

"I was confident in our ability to move the ball down the field," Jimmy Purcell said. "We just had to do our job."

Nicotra did most of the heavy lifting on the opening drive with carries of 11 and 37 yards before Purcell punched his first of two touchdown runs into the end zone from 17-yards out.

"It is huge when you get those points on the board because you're allowed to be a bit more aggressive," Nicotra said. "It gives you confidence and you fly around and that's what we did today."

The fourth-seeded Wildcats entered action as the underdog against No. 2 Ware, but Lee was an underdog far before they arrived in Holyoke for the championship. A 1-3 start to the season had the Wildcats left for dead.

"Every game since Mahar has been a do-or-die because one loss and we were done," senior captain Jack Purcell. "That has been our mentality throughout the last five or six weeks.

"We knew we were down and we knew we were the underdogs and frankly it is where we wanted to be. The underdogs are the best teams in my opinion — everyone wants an underdog to win."

Jack Purcell pummeled into the end zone on a 16-yard run to give Lee a 14-0 lead with a minute left in the first quarter and suddenly the Wildcats were looking more like the top dog.

"They're resilient," Thomson said. "They've been knocked around and discounted several times along the way, but they stay in the fight, keep coming back and never lost faith with each other. It is a testament to them and that is why they are here."

Defensively, the secondary and linebackers showed discipline on outside pitches and the interior was in Slattery's face all afternoon. The Wildcats held Ware to just 54 yards in the first half.

Most teams need to improve each and every week in order to claim a title, but Lee has played at a championship level since a win over Mahar back on Oct. 4.

The Wildcats have won six-straight games, scored at least 30 points in five of them while allowing less than nine points in all six outings.

Jack Purcell finished with a team-high 84 yards on the ground, but Tag Roosa matched him with 84 yards in the air and carried a screen pass 58 yards to the house to give Lee a 21-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Despite the three-score lead, the Wildcats remained focused on defense.

"You have to keep a level head," Jack Purcell said. "We put in the work and everything worked out for the best."

Redstone was deflecting passes at the line, Avrin Paradise recorded a sack on a key third down, Luke Patella record an interception and the defense as a whole shut down Rockeem Handfield and the Ware rushing attack.

Jimmy Purcell pushed in his second touchdown run to make the score 27-0 with six minutes until the half. Patella added to his stout defensive performance with his fourth of five extra points on the day, increasing the lead to 28.

Ware scored near the end of the third quarter on a 10-yard run from Handfield, but the trophy was already in Lee's grasp.

"They had a lot of fight in the second half, but that pick-six locked it all in," Thomson said. "From 1-3 to here — Western Mass. champs."

"All the work these guys did through all our years to finally hold that trophy and say we are champions," Jack Purcell said. "It is the best feeling in the world and it is absolutely amazing,"

Lee's season was never about a handful of stars carrying the load, it was about a 40-man roster building each other up no matter the obstacle.

"We're a brotherhood," Jimmy Purcell said. "There is no doubt about it."

The Wildcats have never gotten too high, despite a win over rival Hoosac Valley in the semifinals and even now, as Western Mass. champions. But the story doesn't end here.

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Next weekend they'll play St. Bernard's, which defeated Monty Tech 49-22 in the D-VIII Central championship, in the first round of the MIAA Tournament. Time and location were not available at press deadline.

———

Lee     14     14     0     7     —     35

Ware     0     0     6     0     —     6

First Quarter

L — Jimmy Purcell 17 run (Luke Patella kick), 5:17.

L — Jack Purcell 16 run (Patella kick), 1:25.

Second Quarter

L — Tag Roosa 58 pass from Jimmy Purcell (Patella kick), 11:01.

L — Jimmy Purcell 2 run (Patella kick), 6:04.

Third Quarter

W — Rockeem Handfield 10 run (pass field), 0:21.

Fourth Quarter

L — Cole Redstone 67 interception (Patella kick), 11:38.

———

Team Statistics

     L     W

First Downs     17     10

Rushes-yards     35-251     35-107

Att-Comp-Int     7-11-0     4-16-2

Passing yards     126     43

Total yards     377     150

Fumbles-lost     1-1     2-0

Turnovers     1     2

Penalties-yards     7-60     3-40

———

Individual Statistics

RUSHING — L: Gabe Kelley 8-66, Nick Nicotra 8-66, Patella 1-10, Jimmy Purcell 4-10, Roosa 3-15, Jack Purcell 11-84. W: Handfield 21-91, Dillon Slattery 10-0, Quintin Davis 3-10, Keith Smith 1-19.

PASSING — L: Jimmy Purcell     7-11-126. W: Slattery 4-16-43.

RECEIVING — L: Nicotra 2-30, Roosa 4-84, Redstone 1-12. W: Handfield 3-24, Smith 1-19.

Jake Mendel can be reached at jmendel@berkshireeagle.com, at @JMendel94 on Twitter and 413-496-6252.


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