ASHBURNHAM -- For five years, the Groton-Dunstable football team has been knocking on the Super Bowl's door. For the fifth year, the Super Bowl didn't answer.
Behind the all-around play of quarterback Randy Harrington (105 rushing yards, 118 passing yards, two scores) and a defense that held the Crusaders to just 34 yards on the ground, Tantasqua pulled off a 21-13 upset to advance to the Division III title game.
"This is a tough end to what really has been a great season," said Groton-Dunstable coach Derek Asadoorian. "Coming into this year, we didn't know what to expect with all the losses we had from last year's team, but this group came together and produced the best season in school history. We picked up our first league title and really wanted to get our first playoff win, but it wasn't meant to be I guess."
The first break of the game went the way of the Crusaders as a blocked punt set them up just 33 yards from the end zone. Despite the great field position, Groton-Dunstable could not take advantage, as the Warriors defense held two runs to just 2 yards and forced a pair of incompletions for a turnover on downs.
On the ensuing possession, Tantasqua got things going as they moved from their 31 down to the Crusaders 30 behind 35 yards rushing from Harrington. After a six-yard completion set up fourth-and-three, Joey Orlando came up with another big play for Groton-Dunstable, registering a sack of Harrington to end the threat.
Over the next five drives, the defenses took over as only 29 yards were gained and it appeared the game would go to the half scoreless. But the Warriors had other ideas as they broke the ice with a three-play, 42-yard drive. On third-and-seven, Harrington delivered a perfectly thrown pass on a post play to Jon Beaudry, who snuck behind the defense and covered 39 yards for a score. Beaudry added the PAT to make it 7-0.
After picking up just 13 yards on their first 13 plays of the game, the Crusaders struck for a big play in the closing seconds of the second quarter. Mack Eberhardt (10 of 23 for 205 yards and two scores) connected with Matt Manning on a wheel route for a 44-yard gain down to the Tantasqua 26-yard line with just four seconds to play. A pass into the end zone as time expired was intercepted by Beaudry, keeping the Warriors 7-0 advantage intact.
Midway through the third quarter, Groton-Dunstable's offense came alive to tie the game. Starting at their own 33, the Crusaders went to the air as Eberhardt hooked up Drew Moore on consecutive pass plays down the right sideline for gains of 25 and 39, respectively, to set up first-and-goal from the three. On second-and-goal from the one, Eberhardt called his own number and snuck into the end zone from a yard out. Corey Romich kicked the extra point to knot the game at 7-7.
"Mack made two good throws, but you have to give Drew a lot of credit for those catches," said Asadoorian. "I thought Drew did a great job of fighting for position and came up a pair of big plays at a time when we needed it badly."
A surprise onside kick did not catch Tantasqua off guard as they recovered the ball at their own 45. Two plays later, Harrington broke loose, keeping the ball on an option read and going untouched for a touchdown covering 50 yards. Beaudry added the PAT to put the Warriors back ahead 14-7.
"When I called the onside kick, I thought that (Tantasqua's) defense was playing pretty well and we needed to try to make something happen," said Asadoorian. "You just never know when you are playing a good team how many chances you are going to get."
With just under six minutes to play, the Crusaders drew within one with their second scoring drive of the night. Starting from his own 43, Eberhardt connected with Joey Stewart for gains of 15 and 19 to move the ball down to the 23. On the next play, Eberhardt bought some time by rolling to his right before firing a strike to a wide open Moore for a touchdown. Asadoorian went for two and went to his bag of tricks, calling a Statue of Liberty play. The hand-off went to Matt Manning, who shook off a tackle in the backfield and made it down to the one before being stopped short to keep it a 14-13 game.
"We went for two because that is the way we have played throughout this year," said Asadoorian. "I liked the play we had lined up and would make that call again if given the chance."
Another onside kick was recovered by the Warriors and as they had done the time before, they wasted no time taking advantage of the short field. On third-and-six, Harrington dropped a screen pass off to Spencer Duncan in the right flats. Duncan did the rest, moving his way through the defense and going 46 yards for a score. Beaudry was true again to make it 21-13 with 3:56 to play.
Groton-Dunstable had two chances to draw even, but on the first drive, Harrington intercepted a pass at the eight-yard line. After a defensive hold, the Crusaders picked up a first down on an Eberhardt to Quintin Forbes 15-yard gain down to the Tantasqua 36. But that was as close as they would get, as four incompletions forced a turnover on downs. Harrington took a pair of knees to run out the clock and complete the Warriors win.
"We made some mistakes that came back to haunt us, but you have to give Tantasqua credit, they played a great game," said Asadoorian. "Tonight, we just couldn't establish a running game. I thought we did some nice things passing the ball, but we just didn't have the balance we needed. Defensively, we played pretty well except for three breakdowns. When you get to this point though, you can't have breakdowns. We have been here five years in a row and we just can't seem to get over this hurdle."