Thanksgiving football: Late 2nd quarter flurry helps Athol blow past Mahar, 40-8 (PHOTOS)
Published: 11-23-2023 7:42 PM
Modified: 11-23-2023 10:56 PM
ATHOL — Eighty-seven seconds at the end of the first half Thursday proved more than enough to turn the annual Thanksgiving Day game irreversibly in Athol's favor.
The Bears protected a 14-8 lead over Mahar and went downfield on a 76-yard drive to score again with 1:27 left in the half, building a 20-8 cushion. The Senators then missed out on a potential touchdown on a lost fumble in the Athol end zone for a touchback with 18 seconds to play, and that was enough time for the Bears to drive 80 yards and get a score of their own as time expired.
Instead of nursing a six-point or potentially only a four-point lead, the Bears suddenly led by 20 and were in effect out of the woods. The hosts added a pair of fourth-quarter scores and turned Mahar over four times in all, going on to a 40-8 romp at Thomas J. O'Brien Field.
Following up its 26-16 win at Mahar Oct. 20, Athol (7-4) completed the season-series sweep and ran its overall record in the Turkey Day rivalry to 53-33 with one tie.
"It got dangerous. They're going in to make it a tight game, and we got lucky and hit a quick counter attack and gave ourselves some margin," said Bears head coach Josh Talbot. "They were tough in the first half, and they gave us everything we could handle. We've really responded in the second half of games this year, and to me that's a sign of a good, smart, hard-working football team."
Dominic Curtis was named Athol's Most Valuable Player after a day of five touchdowns and 250 yards of total offense. The senior threw for 143 yards on 9-of-14 passing and three touchdowns, and added 107 yards on the ground with two more scores. The Bears' passing combination of Curtis and Aidan Melanson totaled 14 completions in 23 tries for 219 yards. Six different Athol receivers caught passes. Hayden Barrieau hauled in two touchdowns and Raydin Sousa and Sawyer Lefsyk each had four receptions.
"I missed last year, I broke my collarbone before the season started, and I've been trying to take in every game," said Curtis. "I wish we could play more. We picked up some really good momentum here at the end, and it's been fun to play with these guys."
The Bears finished with 387 yards of total offense (219 passing, 168 rushing) and held Mahar to 163 yards (107 and 56).
Athol had its first chance early when Joey Grant jumped on a Mahar fumble at the Senators' 15. On fourth down, Curtis found Sousa over the middle for the 15-yard score with 7:31 left in the first, although the two-point conversion run failed.
Morgan Softic ran the ensuing kickoff back 38 yards to set up the visitors at the Athol 37 and the Senators needed only four plays and less than two minutes to get on the board. Malaki Grummell's 19-yard run, followed by a conversion pass from Softic to David Vitello at the 5:34 mark, lifted the Senators (4-7) into a brief 8-6 lead.
Curtis then snapped off a 45-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-2, capping a 77-yard drive. Grant added the two-point run to make it 14-8 with 1:05 left in the first, a lead that Athol would hold to the very end.
After another good return by Softic, a 28-yarder, the Senators began at their own 48 and reached the Athol 24 before losing the ball on downs. The Bears then chewed up seven minutes on a 76-yard drive with several key chunk plays; Curtis had a 15-yard run and a 17-yard completion to Aaron Ouellet, while Melanson (5-of-9 passing, 76 yards) had throws of 11 yards to Ouellet, 27 yards to Sousa and 11 yards to Andrew Fitzpatrick. Lefsyk (15 carries, 49 yards) finished it with an 8-yard TD run to bump Athol's lead to 20-8 with 1:27 left in the half.
The Bears' squib kickoff didn't travel the required 10 yards, allowing Mahar to start at the Athol 49. Softic shook off a 9-yard sack with a 14-yard completion to Sean Ramos and converted fourth-and-1 with a 4-yard run. From the Athol 36, Softic then took off down the right sideline and made it inside the 5, but the ball was poked loose from Softic and rolled into the end zone where Athol recovered for a touchback.
With only 18.1 seconds on the clock, Curtis and Sousa connected on a 54-yard catch-and-run to the Mahar 26, and a personal-foul penalty against the Senators advanced the ball half the distance to the goal at the 13. Curtis then zipped a TD pass to Barrieau on a crossing route as time expired, then ran in the two-pointer to give the hosts their commanding 28-8 lead.
"You learn to become a different entity when you're getting close to the goal line," said Mahar first-year coach Percy Eady. "Everything means a little bit more, and you don't get loose with the ball. You take what you can get and live to play another play. Momentum swings, that is the story of the 2023 Mahar Senators. We can put up big plays and we'll give them up as well."
From that point, Mahar's energy seemed zapped. The Senators' four second-half possessions ended in a turnover on downs at the Athol 15, then a lost fumble, an interception and another lost fumble.
Athol tacked on Curtis' second touchdown run, a 6-yarder with 8:20 to go in the fourth, and a 9-yard pass from Curtis to Barrieau with only 1:06 to play.
With 64 yards on 10 carries, Grummell earned Mahar's MVP honors. Softic ran for 45 yards and finished 5-of-8 passing for 41 yards, Aydon Davis completed a pass for 15 yards, and Ramos and Jayden Delgado each had three receptions. Grant and the Senators' Noah Bailey were named the game's most outstanding linemen.
Athol finished strongly with five wins in its last six games, including a first-round appearance in the MIAA Division 8 state tournament.
"As we've gone through the season, we've just grown a lot more confident and we have a lot more trust in each other," said Talbot. "You're trying to give your guys the best chance to win the football game without messing it up. We're not blinking or flinching in those tense situations. You're not nervous any more, you've gone through those moments together."