Emotional Raiders charge through Mahar for 24-6 win
ORANGE — An emotionally-charged Athol High School football team left the crowd in stunned silence following a 24-6 victory over Mahar in the 80th annual Thanksgiving Day football game, Thursday.
The Raiders hoped to honor late teammate Mark Brighenti Jr. with a victory over their rivals. They delivered with a dominant effort that left the Mahar faithful silent after the game.
“It’s relief for me,” said Athol head coach Bill LaRose. “I think the kids played outstanding football from top to bottom. We were single minded and focused on coming out with a win. Today is a memory of a lifetime for these guys. Whatever life holds for them — good or bad — they know that when the chips were down and they needed a win for their friend, they banded together and did the job.”
With kickoff time approaching, the Raiders had yet to arrive on campus. At approximately 9:45 a.m., Athol emerged from the front side of the school marching in silence with Brighenti’s jersey being held up by senior captains Ryley Saisa and Nick Whelpley.
“I talked to coach (Bob) Robertson about it five or six weeks ago and he said he liked (the idea),” said LaRose who noted the only other person to know of the plan was his father. “I told the kids about it (this morning). To me, it was the right thing to do.”
Athol wasted little time jumping on top of the Senators as sophomore fullback Robbie Nelson took the second play of the game through the middle for a 56-yard touchdown. The Raiders never let up and Nelson punished Mahar with 204 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns to earn the Timothy Donelan “Most Valuable Player” award.
“I think he now how has a target on his chest for next season,” said LaRose. “That buck trap has worked for us all year and it worked nearly perfect today. Robbie adds something to our offense. He’s not the flashiest but, when the money is on the line, he delivers.”
Whelpley, who harassed Mahar quarterback Sam Paul for much of the contest, received the O’Brien Family Award as the game’s “Most Outstanding Lineman.”
“Nick Whelpley was out there screaming around at 100 miles per hour and it was a great day for our defense,” said LaRose.
The Senators were without star running back Clay Richardson due to an ankle injury. Richardson, who amassed 1,394 yards during the season’s first 10 games, was in uniform on the sideline, but did not play. His absence made the Mahar offense much less potent and the Athol defense held them off the scoreboard until late in the fourth quarter.
“Mahar was a little short-handed today,” said LaRose. “I think our defense understood that if they played their game, we were going to win this game. They did a great job of holding that offense in check.”
With Richardson out, fellow 1,000-yard rusher Malik Adams became the focal point. The senior back finished with 24 carries for 102 yards and was named “Most Valuable Player” for Mahar. Senior linebacker/center Ryan Arsenault was the team’s “Most Outstanding Lineman.”
The Raiders, who were wearing special “MB87” jerseys in honor of Brighenti, received the opening kickoff and Nick Casella’s return set them up at their own 41. Junior Tyler Lutz carried for three yards on first down. On second down, Nelson got the call on a buck trap up the middle. Nelson burst through the open hole and was off to the races for a 56-yard touchdown just 51 seconds into the contest. Bryce Melanson’s extra point kick faded wide right and the lead stayed at 6-0.
“You can’t ask for a better situation than that,” said LaRose. “Robbie romps down the field. That was a story book start.”
After the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, Mahar began its first series at their own 30. Adams received touches on eight of the first nine plays with a 20-yard run from Riley Gervais mixed in as the Senators marched to the Athol 5 where they would have first and goal. Ryan Donaldson was stopped for no gain on first down, but Adams took a toss right for what appeared to be a 5-yard touchdown on second down. The score was called back for a chop block, moving the Senators back to the Athol 20. The drive would stall out as a pair of Paul incompletions sandwiched an Evan Saisa sack.
Nelson took the first play of Athol’s second drive up the gut again — this time for 30 yards — and the Raiders were back into Mahar territory. A false start penalty would set Athol back, however, and Shawn Smart punted the ball away.
Mahar went three-and-out on its following possession and a short kick set Athol up at the Mahar 35. Runs by Nelson and Smart set up third-and-inches for the Raiders when Nelson blew through the line of scrimmage for a 25-yard touchdown. The conversion failed, but the Raiders led 12-0 with 7:57 to play in the first half.
The Senators began at their own 38 looking to answer. Facing fourth-and-one, Adams broke through the defense for 12 yards and a facemask penalty added on 15 more. A false start penalty would put Mahar behind schedule and they wound up turning the ball over on downs at the Athol 19.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Nelson exploded up the middle for a 61-yard run. Two plays later, quarterback Trever Mousseau tossed one up for senior wideout Carter Amadon who outleapt a Mahar defender and dove into the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown. Casella’s conversion run failed, but the Raiders led 18-0 with 2:03 to play in the half.
The Senators went into a hurry up attack and were able to move across midfield before Paul was intercepted by Lutz. Athol took a knee with 18 seconds left to play and the Raiders led 18-0 at intermission.
Mahar received the second half kickoff and began the drive at their own 35. The Senators caught a break when an offsides penalty offset what would have been an Amadon interception. Mahar recovered from the break and marched down to the Athol 25 for a first-and-10. The drive stalled out, however, and Donaldson fell a yard short on fourth-and-four to give the ball back to the Raiders.
A 25-yard run by Lutz helped Athol inch back towards midfield. Casella would add an 11-yard run and Smart a 12-yard gallop to give the Raiders a first down at the Mahar 13. The drive stalled and Mousseau was sacked by Donaldson on fourth down to give Mahar the ball at their own 15.
Two plays later, Amadon stepped in front of another Paul pass and returned it to the Mahar 10. On third down, Lutz took a sweep around the left side and sprinted to pay dirt for an 8-yard touchdown. The conversion failed again, but the Raiders led 24-0 with 5:24 left in the contest.
A sack by Jordan Chapalonis killed Mahar’s following drive as they punted it away with 3:53 left in the contest. Athol’s only mistake of the day followed on the first play of the drive as Branden Burke knocked the ball loose and Gabe O’Lari recovered.
Mahar took over at their own 43 and Paul hit O’Lari for a 25-yard gain on first down. Paul then connected with Donaldson on the next play for a 32-yard score, cutting the deficit to 24-6 with 3:05 remaining.
Athol recovered the ensuing onside kick and Casella broke free on the first play of the drive for what would have been a 50-yard touchdown, but the play was brought back due to a hold.
The Raiders wound up punting the ball away as Smart blasted a 46-yard beauty to pin the Senators back at their own 8. Three incomplete passes and a run play followed as Mahar turned it over on downs. Mousseau would take a knee and the Raiders walked off victorious.
Mousseau completed his only two passes for 22 yards. He fired the 17-yard scoring strike to Amadon and added a 5-yard completion to Smart. Smart fired incomplete in his only pass attempt.
While Nelson led the ground attack, Lutz added 38 yards on six rushes. Smart tacked on 23 yards on four totes. Casella chipped in 15 yards on four carries.
Paul completed 7-of-18 passes for 82 yards. He hit Donaldson on a 32-yard score, but was intercepted twice. Donaldson caught three passes for 39 yards. O’Lari had the one catch for 25 yards. Adams snagged two balls for 14 yards while Gervias had one catch for four yards.
Adams carried the bulk of the load on the ground, but Donaldson added 26 yards on seven rushes. Gervais chipped in 25 yards on just three attempts.
Athol wraps up the season with four straight wins to finish 5-6 on the year. The loss was the second straight for Mahar and third in its last four games as they dropped to 7-4 overall.