CASTINE, Maine - Plymouth State University was crowned champion of the New England Football Conference Saturday afternoon, scoring 32 unanswered points to run away from Maine Maritime Academy, 46-16, in the NEFC Championship game at Ritchie Stadium.
Senior Jeff Mack (Milford, N.H.) led the way for the Panthers, rushing for 139 yards and two touchdowns and receiving the William J. Mattola Most Valuable Player Award. Senior John DeMarco (Milford, N.H.) and sophomore Steve Campbell (Northborough, Mass./Algonquin) also ran for two touchdowns apiece for the Panthers, DeMarco rushing for 74 yards on 12 carries and Campbell adding 44 yards on five carries.
PSU captured its 10th NEFC championship, and first since winning nine titles in 10 years from 1981-90. It is also the Panthers' first conference title of any kind since sharing the Freedom Football Conference championship in 2001.
"We got here by working very hard," said an elated PSU head coach Paul Castonia. "It's great for these kids and this program and the fact that we can continue the winning tradition at Plymouth is even more of a plus. This group of players has really done a good job of turning things around for Plymouth State."
The Panthers, who won their ninth straight game and improved to 10-1 overall, receive the conference's automatic berth into the NCAA Division III Championship Tournament, and will find out their first round opponent and site Sunday at 3:00 p.m. on a nationally-televised selection show on ESPNews. It will be PSU's first NCAA berth since back-to-back appearances in 1994 and 1995.
Maine Maritime, which was the Bogan Division representative in the game, finished its season at 7-4 overall.
There were four lead changes in the first 20 minutes of Saturday's title game, but PSU took over midway through the second quarter and never looked back. The Panthers capitalized on several Maine Maritime turnovers, turning them into 21 points.
The Panther defense held MMA to 216 yards rushing, 167 yards below their average, and held the nation's third leading rusher (Jim Bower) to 47 yards on the ground.
Each team scored on its first possession, DeMarco on a 40-yard run for PSU and Jim Bower for MMA on a 14-yard run three minutes later. It was Bower's 25th TD of the year, which ties the school and NEFC single season record for touchdowns in a season. MMA converted a two-point conversion to take an 8-7 lead.
Plymouth State came right back to take a 14-8 lead on a Brandon Clough (Rochester, N.H.) one-yard run, which was set up by a 56-yard completion from DeMarco to sophomore J.J. Brooks (Seabrook, N.H.).
MMA opened the second quarter with a Nick Bourassa (Jay, Maine) touchdown run and a Matthew Rende (Augusta, Maine) two-point conversion, giving the Mariners a 16-14 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tim Nicholson (Franklin, Mass.) ran the ball all the way back to the MMA 22-yard line, setting up another Plymouth State touchdown just six plays later. The short drive was capped off by a Mack 2-yard run. The extra point kick missed wide to the right and Plymouth led 20-16.
PSU struck again after recovering an MMA fumble, marching down the short field to pay dirt, and increasing the lead to 27-16. The fumble was recovered by PSU defensive back Mike Lannon (Sharon, Mass.) and helped set up a Campbell 1-yard run. Seconds later, MMA quarterback Matthew Rende (5 fumbles on the day) fumbled again on his own 32-yard line, and was recovered by Campbell (2 forced fumbles, 1 recovered, and 9 tackles). The Panthers managed the clock, and with just 23 seconds left in the half, DeMarco (12 rushes for 78 yards and two scores) scrambled over the left side and punched it in from 6-yards out. The score gave the panthers the 33-16 lead at the half.
Both teams went scoreless in the third quarter and with barely five seconds gone in the fourth, Mack scored from 9-yards out. With his 139 yards rushing Saturday, Mack broke the PSU single-season rushing record with 1,679 yards.
Plymouth State would tack on another score just minutes later, once again converting off of a MMA fumble. Campbell (five rushes for 44 yards and 2 TD's) rumbled 28 yards to push the lead to 46-16 and round out the scoring.
The Plymouth State defense was impressive, forcing five fumbles and only giving up 243 yards. The Panthers held MMA more than 20 points below their scoring average and shut down one of the nation's top rushing offenses. Leading the way for the Panther defense was Brian Keenan (Hampstead, N.H.) and Steve Campbell who had 9 tackles apiece. Jim Sestito (Foxboro, Mass.) and Alex Battaglino (Avon, Conn.) each had a sack, while Campbell forced two of the five MMA fumbles.
Maine Maritime linebacker Travis Fergola (Mexico, Maine) led MMA with 13 tackles, while Wade Mondoux (Berwick, Maine), Cody Andrews (Holden, Maine), Joel Chadbourne (Westbrook, Maine), and Chris Kates (Lisbon Falls, Maine) each tallied 9 tackles.
(Courtesy of Maine Maritime Sports Information)
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