PORTLAND – Andrew Libby reached for the hands that had tried to take him down. He reached to clasp the upper arms of the players who will make his body ache for a day or two. He drew them closer for his version of a hug.

“I wanted them to know how much I respected them,” said Libby, the Thornton Academy running back. “They gave us a good game. More than we expected.”

Thornton Academy beat Lawrence 37-23 for the Class A title Saturday. That Thornton totaled 37 points and Libby scored two touchdowns was not a surprise. That Lawrence led 17-16 at halftime and kept the score close until the very end was the surprise.

After the game ended and after the initial burst of celebrating, Libby lined up first for the traditional handshake. He isn’t always the lead man.

He worked quickly but earnestly. He even found the Lawrence team manager standing alone and walked up to shake his hand. Libby wasn’t letting anyone from Lawrence walk away unacknowledged.

Then he turned and headed for the end zone until shouts from his teammates stopped him. “Andrew, we’ve got to get the (gold) ball. We’re not going to the end zone yet, bud.”

“We have a meeting there with Coach Kezal after every game,” Libby said later when the championship trophy was passed around. So Saturday’s game was just another game?

“No,” said Libby a little sheepishly. “It definitely wasn’t another game.”

He and his teammates had underestimated Lawrence. Bobby Begin, the senior center and linebacker, said as much. So did senior fullback and linebacker Nick Kenney. Some players and fans thought Thornton Academy had played and beaten its toughest opponent last weekend when it knocked two-time state champion Cheverus out of the playoffs.

Lawrence High and Coach John Hersom didn’t get the respect they deserved coming into the game. Which was another reason Libby lined up first to shake hands. He got the ball 28 times and gained 109 yards. Hard yards. Libby was gang-tackled often. He couldn’t flex or flinch without seeing his shadow in a Lawrence uniform.

All the attention Libby got meant less attention paid to Kenney and Dylan Morton and quarterback Eric Christensen. The three had big gains on key plays. Christensen’s 30-yard run for a touchdown with seven minutes left in the third quarter gave Thornton Academy the lead for good.

“Coach talked to us at halftime,” said Kenney. “He reminded us of our slogan for this week: How do you want to be remembered?”

Thornton had to play like a champion in the second half to be remembered as the 2012 champion. So it did, even if it wasn’t easy.

“This feels better than I imagined it,” said Begin, whose older brother lost in the rain in the playoffs two years ago. “A thousand times better. If we had won the game by a lot, I don’t know that I’d say that.”

Meaning, Saturday’s victory and championship had to be earned. At some point — and it may have been in the locker room at halftime — the Trojans realized Lawrence could take away everything Begin and his teammates thought they accomplished this season.

They were stunned when Jake Doolan of Lawrence ran back the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. Getting the ball back on their first play from scrimmage, Christensen followed the surge of his linemen for a 6-yard gain up the middle.

By calling that play, Thornton sent a message of its own: This is the smash-mouth football we play. It’s not pretty, and it’s simple execution. Think you can stop us? We’ll wear you down first.

The Lawrence defense didn’t blink. No, the Eastern Maine champs couldn’t match Thornton’s greater size up front, but they played effectively as a team, supporting each other. Lawrence pushed back throughout the game.

That got everyone’s attention. It got everyone’s respect.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway