Nick Kenney and his Thornton Academy teammates long looked forward to one moment, when they would be raising the Gold Ball as the Class A state champions. That moment came Saturday with a 37-23 win over Lawrence.
PORTLAND - Thornton Academy scored 14 points in a span of 1:08 midway through the third quarter Saturday and went on to beat Lawrence 37-23 and capture the Class A football state championship at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
The back-and-forth game was up for grabs until the Golden Trojans' spurt.
On the first play after Lawrence stopped Thornton standout Andrew Libby for a loss on fourth-and-2, Bulldogs quarterback Spencer Carey fumbled and Cody Lynn recovered for Thornton, returning to the Lawrence 30.
On first down, Thornton quarterback Eric Christensen ran off the left side and broke clear for the touchdown.
Lawrence couldn't move on its next series and punted. Libby caught the ball at midfield and ran right, scoring behind strong blocking. His 2-point conversion gave the Trojans a 30-17 lead with 5:56 left in the third quarter.
"We decided to turn it up a notch in the second half," said Libby, a junior. "We were in a state championship game. It was time to start playing like it."
Libby added his second touchdown on a 4-yard run late in the game. He finished with 109 yards on 28 carries.
Christensen threw a 47-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dakota Tarbox in the second quarter, then rushed for the 2-point conversion to make it 14-14 at the time.
Turnovers played a key role in Thornton's first state title since 1988, when it also beat Lawrence. The Golden Trojans recovered three fumbles, blocked a punt that resulted in a safety and intercepted a pass in the red zone.
Thornton (11-1) reached the state final by ending Cheverus' two-year reign with a 20-13 victory in the Western Class A final. Cheverus had a three-season, 34-game winning streak snapped.
Asked the difference in the game, Carey said: "Turnovers. They capitalized on them and we didn't. At halftime we wanted to play solid football in the second half because we knew Thornton could explode at any moment."
Trailing by 13, the Bulldogs (11-1) capitalized on a turnover and scored early in the fourth quarter to cut it to 30-23, after Anthony Sementelli intercepted a Christensen pass at the Lawrence 36.
Jake Doolan ran for a first down, and on the next play, Josh Doolan broke loose on a 54-yard scoring run. As it did last week against Cheverus, Thornton blocked the PAT kick.
The Bulldogs then sacked Christensen on second and third downs to force a punt.
Carey swept right end for 19 yards on first down but got hit hard.
On fourth-and-11 from the Thornton 35, Carey threw low for an incomplete pass.
"I got pressure up the middle and just made a poor throw," he said.
Carey went to the air 16 times, completing seven for 121 yards.
After stopping the Bulldogs, Thornton drove 65 yards to score in seven plays, including Dylan Morton's sweep for 48 yards to the 13. Libby scored on fourth down.
Jake Doolan returned the opening kickoff 89 yards through a huge hole to give Lawrence a 6-0 lead.
"The kick was outside the hashmarks, which hurts our coverage, said Thornton Coach Kevin Kezal. "The kid made a great play."
Thornton responded with a 65-yard, 11-play drive, capped when Nick Kenney scored from the 7. The point-after kick was wide, and Lawrence led, 7-6.
The Bulldogs went ahead 14-6 early in the second quarter by taking advantage of a 22-yard Thornton punt.
Taking over at the Trojans' 33, the Bulldogs scored on second down when Carey passed in the flat to Aaron Lafrance, who turned it into a 30-yard touchdown.
The Golden Trojans needed only four plays to tie it. On second-and-1 from the Lawrence 47, Christensen hit Tarbox, who got loose behind the secondary. Tarbox shook off a tackle from Carey to score. Christensen rushed for the 2-point conversion to make it 14-14.
Alex Rizeakos of Thornton then recovered a fumble on the Lawrence 11, but the Trojans couldn't convert on fourth down from the 4.
The Bulldogs couldn't move and lined up to punt from their end zone, but defensive tackle Quinlan O'Brien broke through to block the punt, with the ball going out of the end zone for a safety and a 16-14 Thornton lead.
It was short-lived.
The Bulldogs drove to the Thornton 18 for Chad Martin's 36-yard field goal with 2.8 seconds remaining in the half to give Lawrence a 17-16 lead.
"There were several lead changes," said Libby. "You have to embrace the changes, keep your head high and come back and win it."
Kenney carried 12 times for 66 yards.
"The trap play was working," said Kenney. "We gashed them with it."
Josh Doolan finished with 83 yards on 11 carries.
"We told the players it was going to be a 48-minute game," said Kezal. "My hat's off to Lawrence. They played a heck of a game.
"I thought we did a good job against the run with a couple of exceptions. This feels great. The players and coaching staff put in a lot of energy."
Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at:
Thornton Academy quarterback Eric Christensen eludes a dive by Xavier Lewis of Lawrence and heads into the end zone to score on a 30-yard run Saturday – part of the spurt that produced a 37-23 victory in the Class A final at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Spencer Carey of Lawrence can’t find a receiver while heading down, tackled by Michael Granger of Thornton Academy. Carey completed 7 of 16 passes for 121 yards.