Belchertown shuts out St. Joseph, goes to Super Bowl
James Ryan of Belchertown, center left, runs against St. Joseph's Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
Anthony Pellerin of Belchertown, right, runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass, then evading Pat Latini of St. Joseph's, left, Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
Anthony Pellerin of Belchertown, right, runs for a touchdown after intercepting a pass against St. Joseph's Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
James Ryan of Belchertown, right, runs for a gain as Taverick Roberson of St. Joseph's approaches Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
Nicholas Leduc of Belchertown, right, look for a way around a St. Joseph's defender Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
Nicholas Leduc of Belchertown, right, runs for a gain as Myles Lambert of St. Joseph's approaches Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
Nicholas Leduc of Belchertown, front, runs for a gain against St. Joseph's Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
James Ryan, center, and the Belchertown football team face Mount Greylock in the Division 3 Super Bowl Saturday at 3 p.m. at Westfield State University. Purchase photo reprints »
James Ryan of Belchertown, center, celebrates his goal against St. Joseph's with Rene LeFleche Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
Joseph Sarno of Belchertown, center, runs for a gain against St. Joseph's Tuesday at Holyoke High School. Purchase photo reprints »
HOLYOKE — Just five days after its worst performance of the season, the Belchertown football team chose the absolute right time for its best showing.
The Orioles cranked up their running game and the defense pitched its fourth shutout of the year in a 26-0 victory over St. Joseph Central in the Western Massachusetts Division 3 semifinals.
“Considering who we were playing, this was absolutely our best overall performance,” said Belchertown coach John Mayo. “That’s the best we ran the ball against a quality opponent. It was closer than the score would make it look, but we made a number of plays to win the game.”
Behind senior James Ryan (98 yards rushing) and junior quarterback Nick Leduc (77), Belchertown amassed 224 yards on the ground after gaining only 90 total yards in a 30-8 loss to Pathfinder on Thanksgiving.
“We had our best week of practice all season, and overall we’ve put so much time into getting to this point,” said Ryan. “We wanted this more than anything, and after we lost to Pathfinder we became ever hungrier. This was by far our best game all season, against a very good St. Joe’s team.”
The top-seeded Orioles (10-1) will face No. 2 Mount Greylock (10-1) in the Division 3 Super Bowl Saturday at 3 p.m. at Westfield State University. The two-time champions trounced No. 3 Greenfield 62-0 in Tuesday’s other semifinal.
“We have 11 seniors on this team,” said Mayo. “They’ve been to the playoffs three times, they’ve won 32 games in their four years, so to finally get to a Super Bowl is a nice reward. We’re extremely happy to be where we are.”
The No. 4 Crusaders (8-4) lost fullback and linebacker Lavante Wiggins to a leg injury on the first play of the game. He returned in the second quarter for a couple series but never received a carry.
The Orioles limited the remaining two-thirds of the St. Joseph rushing attack — Taverick Roberson and quarterback Jon Bianchi — to only 92 yards.
“Roberson and Bianchi are very athletic, and there were a number of plays where we seemed to have them in the backfield and they escaped to get some yardage,” Mayo said. “But we tackled well and made the key stops when we needed them. Nothing changed (when Wiggins went out), we stuck to our game plan.”
Neither team dented the scoreboard in the first 15 minutes. With just under five minutes left until halftime, St. Joseph punted from its own 43. Bianchi handled the snap off the turf, but his low kick was blocked and Belchertown took over at the Crusaders 32.
After three plays gained 5 yards, the Orioles faced a fourth-and-5 at the 27. Leduc lofted a pass to the left and Jake Bradway leaped to snag it in traffic at the 5.
Ryan rushed for 2 yards, then Leduc ran a sneak for the final 3 to break the deadlock.
“Nick’s a really mature kid, and he showed that” Tuesday, said Ryan. “He’s grown so much from last year to this one. I feel he’s our most improved player both physically and mentally, especially knowing he had to fill in for Chris Ladd.”
In the final minute, the defense extended the advantage. Faced with a second-and 13 from his own 36, Bianchi fired over the middle and was picked off by Pellerin, who found running room to the left and raced 45 yards for the touchdown.
“I dropped into my coverage area and he pretty much threw it right to me,” Pellerin said. “I saw open space on the left side, so I took off and got great blocks. We like to return the ball on turnovers, to either score ourselves or set up the offense to score.”
Belchertown received the second-half kickoff, with Ryan giving them great field position with a return to the Orioles 48. It took them just five snaps and a minute, 43 seconds to score. Ryan had carries of 11, 11 and 12 yards, while Leduc finished the drive with a 1-yard plunge and a 20-0 lead.
“A lot of teams don’t think we’re very physical because we rely more on our speed, so that was a bit of a statement drive that we can run the ball,” said Ryan. “At that point, we scored and chewed up a lot of clock at the same time, so we really finished it off.”
Following a St. Joseph punt on its next possession, the Orioles took over at their own 15 and embarked with one of their best drives of the season. Covering 85 yards on 12 plays over 4:43, Ryan and Leduc accounted for every yard on the ground. Leduc had a weaving 24-yard run on a fourth-and-7 to set up Ryan’s 12-yard touchdown on the next play.
“Those drives were great to see, because we’re not a team that can constantly run the ball every play,” said Mayo. “Usually we need big pass plays to score, but we established the ground game (Tuesday).”
Late in the first quarter, Leduc couldn’t handle a low liner of a punt by Bianchi and the Crusaders recovered on the Belchertown 16. But the Orioles defense stiffened and on fourth-and-2 from the 8, Bianchi muffed the snap and the Orioles had the recovery.
“It might have slipped off his hands on the snap, the weather was tough for both teams,” said Pellerin. “That play fell our way.”
Mayo said, “The defense stopping them there was the biggest point of the night, because if they go ahead there, you don’t know how the game plays out. And clearly Tony’s interception was huge to give us the two-score lead at halftime.”
The Crusaders had a chance to end the shutout when they drove from their own 40 to the Orioles 2 in the final minutes. But on fourth down, a pass to the right side of the end zone was knocked away from the intended receiver and the Belchertown sideline began the celebration.
“That was huge to get the shutout,” said Ryan, also a defensive back. “We’ve hung our hat on our defense all season, and that was a statement as well.”
Belchertown’s defense was at its best in key situations Tuesday night, stopping St. Joseph on three separate fourth downs and coming away with a pair of turnovers.
Pellerin added a sack to his interception, and senior Matt Popowich also had a sack. Steve Boudreau played a solid game at cornerback with a pair of passes defended.
“Coming to this point three years in a row, we didn’t want to lose again,” said Pellerin. “Now we have an opportunity to win the Super Bowl for the first time since 2003.”
Michael Wilkinson can be reached at email@example.com.
Belchertown 26, St. Joseph 0
Division 3 semifinal, at Holyoke High
St. Joseph 0 0 0 0—0
Belchertown 0 14 12 0—26
B-Nick Leduc 3-yard run (Joe Sarno pass from Leduc), 2:45
B-Tony Pellerin 45 interception return (pass failed), 0:34
B-Leduc 1 run (run failed), 8:17
B-James Ryan 12 run (run failed), 0:11
PASSING-St. Joseph: Bianchi 1-4-4-1, Stump 1-3-30-0; Belchertown: Leduc 3-9-29-0
RUSHING-St. Joseph: Bianchi 12-62, Roberson 8-32, Kelly 6-25, Kerr 5-12, Wiggins 1-3, Stump 1-(-6); Belchertown: Ryan 17-98, Leduc 8-77, Sarno 7-24, Cote 1-22, MacDonald 1-3
RECEIVING-St. Joseph: Bianchi 1-30, Roberson 1-4; Belchertown: Bradway 2-26, Ryan 1-3