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Cats capture title in OT thriller

Plymouth football sends Lenahan off in style

by Matt Perloff
Editor of The Record Enterprise

Plymouth players, including captains Jared Kuehl (22), John Thomas (26), Collin Sullivan (10) and Kyle Reisert (holding the plaque) celebrate their Division II state championship on Saturday. Joshua Spaulding. (click for larger version)
November 24, 2013
PLYMOUTH — A legendary career deserves a legendary conclusion. No one at Zoulias Field on Saturday could say it was anything less than that.

Head coach Chuck Lenahan's final game at the helm of Plymouth Regional High School football went down as one of the school's greatest thrillers, as the Bobcats won the Division II state title in a 21-14 overtime victory over Portsmouth.

Hundreds of fans packed the Land of Lenahan as Plymouth (11-1) fought for the championship against Portsmouth (10-2), the only team to defeat them this season. The defense-heavy battle had no shortage of close calls, coming down to an overtime showdown where the Bobcats finally prevailed to capture their second straight title.

Plymouth wasted no time drawing first blood. They started on their own 28 yard line and needed five plays to cross midfield, but Collin Sullivan busted things open with a 16-yard keeper, then John Thomas took the next handoff and burst through the middle, stripping off Portsmouth defenders and sprinting away for a 28-yard touchdown run. Jim Nolan came in to kick the extra point, putting the Bobcats up 7-0 just over three minutes in.

The Clippers battled back behind quarterback Donovan Phanor, who continued to give the Plymouth defense grief as he weaved around the field on multiple keepers. The Clippers' passing game also did damage; though the first two attempts would fall incomplete, Portsmouth ultimately completed the drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass, adding an extra point to tie the game at seven midway through the first quarter.

Justin Robinson provided a strong kickoff return to set up another Plymouth attack on their next possession, but a fumble at the Portsmouth eight yard line allowed the Clippers to recover and end the threat. Portsmouth got little out of the possession and were forced to punt, only getting it out to their own 29, but the Bobcats were hit with a 15-yard penalty to open the possession. Despite strong carries by Sullivan and Jared Kuehl, they would ultimately fall four yards short of converting on fourth down, turning the ball over at the Portsmouth 23.

Plymouth's next possession started at their own 31, but got early momentum when Sullivan got off a pass to Kuehl, who bobbled the reception but was able to rein it in for a 17-yard completion. Sullivan would add a 12-yard run shortly after, but the Bobcats were again pushed to fourth down, this time coming up a yard short on the conversion and turning the ball over at the Portsmouth 29. The Plymouth defense retaliated with a big sack by Jason Murray, then put the pressure on two plays later to force a short lob pass, which Sullivan leapt in to intercept. He'd bring the ball back to the Portsmouth 18, but Plymouth would get pushed to fourth down after three plays and the Clippers burst through the middle to stop a quarterback draw and force a turnover on downs, just nine yards shy of the end zone.

Kuehl sacked Phanor to open Portsmouth's next possession, but a 30-yard run by S. Mikel Toar put a spark in the Clippers' offense. They managed another first down two plays later, but two incomplete passes and a stop by Kyle Reisert forced a punt, giving Plymouth possession at their own 29 with 31.7 seconds left in the half. Sullivan's third down pass was intercepted though and the Clippers kneeled to run out the final few seconds to send the game into halftime, still tied 7-7.

Plymouth came out firing to open the second half. A pass interference call and two big tackles by Reisert forced Portsmouth to punt from deep in their own territory, only getting the ball out to their 23 yard line. Robinson turned in his biggest run of the day two plays later, slipping through for a 19-yard gain to bring the ball to the Portsmouth two, and Sullivan finished off the drive with a two-yard run up the middle, followed by Nolan's extra point kick to put the Bobcats back on top, 14-7.

That advantage didn't last though, as Portsmouth bounced right back behind Phanor, who fired off a 37-yard pass to Toar before weaving through the Plymouth defense himself for a 19-yard touchdown run, making it 14-14.

Portsmouth threatened again on its next possession, crossing into Plymouth territory on a big run by Toar and adding another five yards on a penalty. Reisert, who'd already dealt several crucial blows to the Clippers in the half, added another when Portsmouth fumbled on their next play and the senior captain recovered the ball to give Plymouth possession. The Bobcats would also fumble soon after though, and the Clippers resumed their attack. They'd whittle the distance to the end zone to just two yards, but the Bobcats walled up on the goal line, stuffing two runs before forcing a fumble on the third attempt, which Sullivan recovered to stop the drive.

Plymouth's defense got another workout when a strong punt return by the Clippers put them on the Bobcat 32. Big stops by Thomas and Reisert and another by Nolan on a pass forced fourth down with a yard to go, but Portsmouth went for the conversion with a quarterback keeper, only to be stopped by Thomas and Murray for no gain and a turnover on downs.

Portsmouth tried to strike again in the final three minutes, but only got as far as midfield before their momentum ran out, and they opted to punt rather than risk a failed fourth down conversion with 50 seconds still remaining. Plymouth received the ball at their 21, but despite a strong attack, which saw them fight to stop the clock on almost every play, they would ultimately come up short, sending the game into overtime.

In overtime, each team gets four plays to score from the 10 yard line and Plymouth would go first. Sullivan would find the end zone on the first play, but a block in the back would instead put the Bobcats 26 yards out. That only turned it into a two-play drive; Sullivan found Kuehl for a 13-yard pass, then took it in himself for the final 13 yards, this time with no flags thrown as the Bobcats went up 21-14 following Nolan's extra point.

That left it up to Portsmouth to match the effort. They'd get four yards on the first play, but Evan Bolognani stopped them for a loss on the next play, and Cody Vachon slapped away a pass on the third to force fourth down. The Clippers tried to pass on the do-or-die play, but the final throw sailed through the end zone untouched, sending the Bobcats and hundreds of supporters into a frenzy as they locked up the state title.

Sullivan finished the day with 86 yards rushing on 12 attempts, as well as completing four of seven passes for another 42 yards. Thomas gave the Bobcats over 120 yards on 25 carries, while Kuehl and Robinson also ate up yards to boost the Bobcat attack.

The defense had no shortage of heroes, with Sullivan recovering a fumble and intercepting a pass, Reisert smothering the running game in the second half, and Thomas and Kuehl delivering a number of key tackles to lead the way. The Bobcats had key coverage on the line from Murray, Bolognani, Sean Zaikowski, Nate Comeau and Christopher Mignanelli, while Vachon, Robinson, Sullivan, Smith Merrill and Gavin Brickley gave Plymouth support downfield.

It was an intense and fitting conclusion for Lenahan, who concludes his Hall of Fame career with 356 wins, 20 state titles and numerous more records and accolades. He also goes out with a solid core of senior players as well, including captains Sullivan, Kuehl, Thomas and Reisert, as well as Vachon, Mignanelli, Nolan, Merrill, Zaikowski, Brickley, Silas Murray, Dylan McIntosh, John Salivonchik, Cody Avery, Ian McKinnon and Scott Hamel.

It may be a very different atmosphere when the Bobcats return to Zoulias Field in 2014, but the Pride and Tradition Plymouth football is known for will live on through the next generation of players and coaches in the Land of Lenahan.

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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