SACO – The Thornton Academy football team rings the school bell after every win. You can bet the Golden Trojans rang it with a little more gusto Saturday afternoon.

After beating Lawrence 37-23 for the Class A state championship, the Trojans received the Gold Ball trophy at Fitzpatrick Stadium and then returned to Saco for a celebration at the school.

The team received a state police escort to Saco, where the Saco police and fire department took over. It was a royal welcome through the streets, befitting a state champion. The trophy will find a home in the trophy case in the lobby of Linnell Gymnasium.

The bell was rung and the team had a pizza party before the players headed home.

Thornton took control in the second half to complete an 11-1 season and win the school’s first football state championship in 24 years. Lawrence gave the Golden Trojans all they could handle, but Thornton responded like a championship team.

Lawrence, making its second straight appearance in the final, led 7-0, 14-6 and 17-16 in a wide open first half. The Golden Trojans took a brief 16-14 lead on a safety, but Chad Martin’s 36-yard field with 2.8 seconds left in the second quarter gave Lawrence a one-point halftime lead.

Thornton outscored the Bulldogs 21-6 in the second half, getting 14 points in a stretch of just over a minute in the third quarter to take control.

Quarterback Eric Christensen scored on a 30-yard run right after a Lawrence fumble, and Andrew Libby returned a punt 48 yards for a touchdown and rushed for a 2-point conversion.

Christensen ran away from the defense on his score.

“When Eric gets a full head of steam, he’s pretty fast,” said Coach Kevin Kezal.

Libby’s touchdown was his fourth this season on a punt return.

The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 30-23 early in the fourth quarter, but Thornton responded with a seven-play scoring drive covering 65 yards. Libby scored his second touchdown — a 4-yard run on fourth-and-one.

“It’s a great accomplishment,” Kezal said of the state title. “The kids bought into what the coaches were telling them. The seniors were on the team when we lost in the regional quarterfinals two years ago. They were there last year when we lost in the regional final. They took the next step this season.”

With some strong contributions from underclassmen, the Golden Trojans found the right combination.

The win was particularly satisfying for Kezal and his coaching staff, who have had other good teams stumble in the playoffs.

Lawrence came out with plenty of determination and needed only 13 seconds to score, as Jake Doolan returned the opening kickoff 89 yards for a touchdown. The Bulldogs played right with Thornton for most of the game.

Kezal was impressed with Lawrence. Few people gave the Bulldogs much of a chance because of Eastern Maine’s track record in Class A state championship games. Lawrence’s win in 2006 and Bangor’s victory in 2001 are the only Class A championships for Eastern Maine teams since the current class structure went into effect in 1987.

“Lawrence was the most physical team we played this season,” said Kezal. “They’re a good football team. They hadn’t gone to the shotgun or the spread offense this season, but they used it effectively Saturday.

Lawrence is not known as a passing team, but quarterback Spencer Carey showed a strong and accurate arm.

The Bulldogs tested the Golden Trojans, who responded in the only way they know how — with physical, opportunistic football.

“You have to be ready for momentum changes in a game,” said Libby. “When it happens, you just have to play harder to get it back.”

Thornton has some talented underclassmen who should keep the team in contention over the next few years. But Kezal isn’t concerned about the future just yet.

“We want to savor this one before we even start thinking about next season,” he said.

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at:

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Twitter: TomChardPPH