Trailing Pembroke 6-0 at halftime of the Division 3 Eastern Massachusetts semifinals Tuesday night at Franklin High School, Oliver Ames football coach Jim Artz knew his team still had a chance to win.
Ultimately the Tigers, who were playing in the state playoffs for the first time in school history, got the last laugh and turned a halftime deficit into a 20-12 victory.
OA faces Concord-Carlisle in the EMass Division 3 title game Saturday morning. Kickoff is at 9 a.m. at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough.
“I said guys ‘it’s a 6-0 game and we played pretty badly, but it’s only 6-0’,” Artz said about the halftime message to his team. “If we come out and do the things we are capable of we’ll win this game. So I told them we needed to calm down and we’ll be fine. I’m very happy to be going to Gillette.”
Following a 2-yard touchdown run from Pembroke senior Tom Castanha – capping off a 9-play 85-yard scoring drive – and an interception by Colin Craflin towards the end of the first half, the Tigers were looking for answers in the second half.
“We didn’t really get down at all,” senior running back Sam Langston said. “We’ve been in that position before where we fought back. We didn’t let it affect us and we came out focused and we were the more disciplined team.”
Unlike the first half, the Tigers were the better team on offense, defense and special teams.
Langston capped off a 16-play, 90-yard scoring drive with a 2-yard touchdown run to tie things up at 6-6. OA was also helped by four Pembroke penalties on the way to the end zone, including two personal fouls.
“We tried to clean that stuff up early in the season,” said Pembroke coach Bob Bancroft. “But, it reared it’s ugly head tonight. Oliver Ames did a good job tonight and they get to move on.”
Following senior running back Jon Hooper’s 38-yard touchdown run on the very next possession to give Pembroke a 12-6 lead, OA senior Carlton Williamson returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to give OA the lead for good at 13-12 late in the third quarter. It was his third kickoff return for a touchdown this year.
OA’s special teams came through again late in the fourth quarter when punter Nick Cidado forced Pembroke to start from its own 10 yard line following a 61-yard punt late in the fourth quarter.
The Titans were able to drive the ball to the OA 27 with under a minute left in the fourth quarter, but OA junior Brandon Gagliardi (replacing Mike McMillan due to an earlier injury) sealed the victory with an 88-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“I told the kids ‘if you ever need an example of every facet of the game working for you then that was it,” Artz said about his team’s second half performance.
“We made some little adjustments [at halftime] that we needed to do and we go up and make it 6-6. Then Carlton takes one to the house following a quick score and now we have to play with the lead and the defense seals it for us with a pick-6.”
Tuesday’s win was monumental to OA - a program that had never appeared in the postseason.
On Saturday, the Tigers will look to add one more trophy to an already historic season.
“Right now this means everything,” Langston said about the victory. “We’ve been striving for this for the past year. And now that we’re actually here and that we can do this it means everything. We’re so proud of everyone and we’re doing this as a family.”