Timely defense and game-breaking runs. Call it a championship combination for Thornton Academy.

The Trojans broke ahead early on big plays from both sides of the ball and kept Oxford Hills at bay the rest of the way Saturday to win the Class A state championship with a 42-27 victory at sunny Fitzpatrick Stadium.

Both teams were coming off exemplary seasons as Maine returned to tackle football this fall after being one of four states to not play the sport in the 2020-21 school year.

It’s the fifth state championship for Thornton Academy under Coach Kevin Kezal, the first since 2018, and the 10th overall for the Saco school. Oxford Hills (8-2) was playing in its second Class A championship game and was looking for its first title.

“We’re going to focus on this (championship) today. So proud of this team,” Kezal said. “The whole situation that these kids have been through, missing all of last year (and) not seeing the kids a lot this past year. The coming back and seeing how hard they had worked and how bad they wanted to get this going.”

Thornton (11-0) jumped ahead quickly when Mason Paulin was in the right spot at the right time to intercept an attempted throwaway by Oxford Hills junior quarterback Eli Soehren.

Paulin, an inside linebacker, raced 50 yards for the first score just four minutes into the game. That play sparked Thornton to leads of 21-0 early in the second quarter and 28-7 at the half.

“I kind of caught it, looked around, and opened my mind and thought, ‘what just happened,'” Paulin said. “And I was, ‘Oh, wait.’ And I just started running and took it all the way. It was a cool moment.”

In a 31-23 win at South Paris during the regular season, Thornton’s defense forced six turnovers and scored two touchdowns. The Trojans didn’t get another turnover Saturday until late in the game, when Dontea Neal intercepted a pass to stop Oxford Hills’ last chance. But Thornton sacked Soehren (20 of 37 passing, 230 yards) three times and held the Vikings to 65 rushing yards.

Soehren, who rushed for 156 yards in a semifinal win against Bonny Eagle, also hurt his hip flexor late in the first quarter.

“That really changed a lot of stuff we were doing. It changed the way we use Eli,” said Oxford Hills Coach Mark Soehren.

Conversely, Thornton rushed for 354 yards and scored on three long jet sweeps – a marked contrast to the first meeting on Oxford Hills’ grass field, when the Trojans could not get anything going on the perimeter.

Anthony Jones scored twice on jet sweeps of 59 and 63 yards, and finished with 136 yards on eight carries. Isaiah Jones, who missed the first game, had two carries for 58 yards, including a 36-yard touchdown.

“The difference was, today we hit our assignments,” Anthony Jones said. “That made it easy for me. Got the handoff, came around the edge and a wide-open hole and just used my speed.”

The first Anthony Jones TD, on just the second offensive play for Thornton, made it 14-0. Isaiah Jones extended the margin to 21-0 early in the second quarter, capping a nine-play, 77-yard drive.

Oxford Hills did get a much needed touchdown on a fourth-down pass by Soehren to Wyatt Knightly with 4:17 left in the half.

But after an exchange of punts, Thornton went 52 yards in 1:33, with quarterback Jack Emerson (18 carries, 90 yards) barreling in from the 2 with 23 seconds left in the half.

Oxford Hills forced two quick fumbles in the third quarter in Thornton territory, but neither resulted in points.

Oxford Hills did score late in the third quarter on a 47-yard halfback pass from Knightly to Teigan Pelletier, cutting the deficit to 28-14. But again, the Vikings were hurt on the outside as Anthony Jones ripped off his 63-yard touchdown run for a 35-14 lead.

Oxford Hills scored on a 1-yard run by Isaiah Oufiero on the first play of the fourth quarter, after two nice catches by Pelletier, who had 10 catches for 171 yards.

But on Oxford Hills’ next possession, the Vikings opted to go for it on fourth-and-10 at their own 25 with 7:30 to play. Thornton held, and Hayden Whitney scored a clinching touchdown with 6:15 to play.

Oxford Hills did score once more, on a 14-yard pass from Soehren to Pelletier.


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