The Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough football team celebrates after capturing the Division III North Conference championship on Saturday afternoon. The visiting Lakers defeated Gilford High School, 27-14. Kyle Belanger. (click for larger version)
November 11, 2013GILFORD – In a battle of two teams that finished with just one win apiece in 2012, six turnovers proved to be the difference on Saturday afternoon.
Host Gilford High School was the culprit, as the Golden Eagles fumbled the ball away three times – twice inside the five yard line – and added three interceptions that enabled Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough to claim the Division III North Conference championship with a 27-14 victory at the Meadows.
"It means a lot," said an emotional I-L/MA coach Jon Francis of the title afterwards. "It means a lot to both Inter-Lakes and Moultonborough. Last season, to turn around from 1-7 to playing for a conference championship is unbelievable. Hats off to Gilford, excellent program and they also had an incredible turnaround. Like I told their coach before the game, I was extremely excited for both football teams because both football teams had a tough season last season and for both to get to this game in unbelievable. That's an excellent ball club, a hard-hitting ball club and they didn't give it to us by any means. They made us earn it every inch of the way."
The victory moves the Lakers (5-4 overall) into the D-III semifinals, where the squad will meet Bow High School (8-1) this Saturday afternoon on the road.
"At the beginning of the season, our goal was to make Final Four and it seemed kind of far out for the team with the year we had last year," admitted I-L/MA sophomore Nick Brothers. "But now we're here and this is just everything we could ask for."
It was a difficult loss for the Eagles (6-3), who entered the contest on a four-game winning streak. Gilford also won the regular season matchup with the Lakers, 31-20, in Meredith.
"I told the guys after the game that I couldn't be more proud of where they came from last year, one and eight (record), to this year winning the regular season championship for the conference," said Gilford first-year head coach Chris Marden. "Those kids gave everything they had this year and it showed. To make such a turnaround from last year, it reflects upon their character. They're hard workers and I couldn't be more proud of them."
The turnover battle was the big issue on the afternoon, as the Lakers coughed the ball up just once compared to six for the Eagles. Gilford twice looked like it was going to score touchdowns before fumbling inside the I-L/MA five.
"(Turnovers) definitely nipped us in the bud today," began Marden. "Those two turnovers going into the end zone...I can't explain how bad they are for momentum and morale. You go from thinking you're going to score to all of a sudden, we don't have the ball. The turnover bug bit us today and that was the difference in the game."
The tide turned significantly in the fourth quarter. With Gilford clinging to a 14-13 lead after taking advantage of I-L/MA's lone turnover of the game in the third quarter (a 58-yard interception return for a touchdown by Kyle Gaudet (seven catches, 86 yards), the Eagles marched down the field early in the fourth and looked like they was going to add to their slim lead. Facing third down with the ball at the I-L/MA 16, quarterback Jack Athanas' pass was intercepted by Brothers in the flat. The sophomore high-tailed it back the other way, scampering down the left sideline for an 89-yard touchdown that changed the complexion of the game instantaneously with the Lakers grabbing a 20-14 lead with 7:59 left.
"When I was running down to the end zone, I thought it was a dream...I didn't know if it was real," said Brothers. "We practiced pretty much all week on pass coverage because the last time we played them, they burned us bad with the pass. I knew that if I covered my zone right, I had flats (responsibility), that I would have a pick if they threw it to the slant and I was right there ready for it."
Things were far from over at that point however, especially with Gilford's explosive big-play offense capabilities. But the Eagles didn't help themselves with a misplay on the ensuing kickoff, and the squad began its next drive on its own 4. Three plays later, facing a third and 13 from its own goal line, another Gilford turnover sealed the deal. A dump over the middle from Athanas (15-for-35, 169 yards) was picked off by Nick Hurd, who returned the ball to the Gilford 3. Three plays later, Brothers punched it in for a one-yard score that gave the Lakers a two-score lead at 27-14 with 5:57 to play.
"(I-L/MA) mixed it up, they were running some man, some zone," said Marden of the Lakers' defense. "They were able to mix it up and they weren't giving us the same reads every play which makes it tougher for us. All the credit goes to them because they played a terrific game. They really didn't make any mistakes and we did. That was the difference."
Francis had his team out practicing all week under the lights at Prescott Park in preparation for the big game. The Lakers even got a hand from former head coach Paul Lavigne, who stopped by and aiding the defensive game plan.
"We worked really hard this week defensively," Francis said. "We practiced under the lights all week from 4 to 7 at Prescott Park just grinding it out in the dark and going over defensive coverages and what needed to be done. I've got to give a special thanks to coach Lavigne for coming to our defense practice and helping us out a little bit. It all came together nicely today. I couldn't be more proud to my football team."
Gilford would see the ball two more times in the fourth quarter but couldn't get anything going. The Eagles moved as far as their own 47 before turning it over on downs. The Lakers sealed the game when quarterback Josh Blundo took a knee on the final play.
"We turned around the energy completely and everything seemed to go our way the rest of the game," said Brothers of the momentum shift after his 'pick 6.'
Like the first meeting between the two teams back in September, the Lakers jumped out to an early advantage in the first quarter. Hurd (11 carries, 61 yards) scored from nine yards out after Malik Carter intercepted an Athanas pass on the opening drive, and Devante Carter (19 carries, 123 yards) made it 13-0 when he broke free for an 81-yard touchdown run after Kodey Converse recovered a fumble in the end zone on Gilford's next possession.
But like the first game, the Eagles responded. Taking advantage of good field position, tailback Max Troiano (27 carries, 177 yards) put Gilford on the board with a 17-yard touchdown run, tip-toeing along the sideline to make it a 13-7 game with 3:15 left before halftime.
That set the stage for Gaudet's 58-yard interception return for a touchdown with 7:06 left in the third quarter, putting Gilford up 14-13 and seemingly putting all the momentum with the home team.
"We were feeling the same way," said Marden of the similarities between the two meetings. "This happened last time...we felt really confident about where we were with the game plan at that point. We were moving the ball, we had no trouble moving the ball until the end of the game. But not being able to punch it in makes a huge difference in a game. You can gain 1,000 yards in the game but if you don't score, you're not going to win."
When Gilford failed to punch it in early in the fourth, Brothers made the Eagles pay.
"This team has always had that fighting spirit and that refuse to lose spirit," said Francis. "You usually don't have to say much to keep them going. It ain't over 'til it's over and we had some things go our way that we were able to capitalize.
"At any level (momentum) can just shift like that," he continued. "We've been waiting for Nick Brothers to pick one off like that all year and it finally went his way and landed in his hands. He was able to capitalize on it."
The Lakers will now have their hands full with a Bow team that came to Meredith on Sept. 28 and handed I-L/MA a 42-7 loss. The Falcons beat undefeated Pelham in the D-III South Conference title tilt.
"It feels good but we aren't satisfied," said Francis. "Our goal all year was to make the Final Four and we aren't done yet. Once the season is over I'll look back on little accomplishments and things and be satisfied with them but for now it's on to the next one and we've got to get ready to play another game. We actually do really well on the road so hopefully we can keep that going."