AUGUSTA—It was a drive straight out of Yarmouth coach Jim Hartman’s dreams.

Sixteen plays, 86 yards and nearly seven minutes off the clock.

With a Gold Ball waiting at the end of the rainbow.

In the eight-man large school state championship game Saturday morning/afternoon at Fuller Field on the campus of Cony High School, the Clippers, who won only one game in 2021, completed their dizzying turnaround with perhaps the sweetest victory in program history.

But the valiant Waterville Purple Panthers made them battle for it for 48 minutes.

Yarmouth took a quick 8-0 lead, when junior Michael McGonagle (remember that name) scored on a 3-yard rush and senior Spencer LaBrecque (remember that name too) added the two-point conversion, but Waterville, which was dominated by Cheverus in this game a year ago, roared back and after sophomore quarterback Dustan Hunter connected with senior Spencer Minihan for a 9-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to two after one quarter, Hunter broke away for a 59-yard touchdown run to put his team ahead, 12-8.

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In a sign of things to come, the Clippers answered late in the first half and went back on top on a 2-yard LaBrecque TD run and a McGonagle two-point conversion rush for a 16-12 advantage at the break.

When LaBrecque scored on an 18-yard run and junior quarterback Sam Bradford connected with senior Kai Sullivan on the two-point pass, Yarmouth threatened to break it open, but the Purple Panthers turned the game on its ear by first getting a 20-yard TD pass from Hunter to Minihan, then taking the lead in stunning fashion, as senior Gage Hubbard intercepted a Bradford pass and took it 60 yards to the house. Hunter hit Hubbard with the ensuing two-point conversion and Waterville took a 26-24 lead to the fourth period.

There, the Purple Panthers had a chance to ice it, but a bad snap on fourth down from the 2 gave the Clippers one last chance and they started at their 14.

Yarmouth didn’t pass the ball once, as McGonagle ran 12 times and LaBrecque carried the ball the other four times. The Clippers twice kept their season alive by converting on fourth down and then, with just 32.9 seconds to play, McGonagle scored from 2-yards out to cap the comeback.

Yarmouth got a huge break on the ensuing kickoff, which was recovered by junior Rufus MacVane, and the Clippers were able to run out the clock and celebrate a palpitating 30-26 victory.

Yarmouth finished the year 10-1, ended Waterville’s season at 6-4 and captured the program’s third Gold Ball and its first in 11 seasons.

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In simply unforgettable fashion.

“This is really beautiful,” said Hartman, who led the Clippers to a pair of Class C crowns in his previous stint with the program. “It’s really good to bring this back to the town of Yarmouth and turn this program around.”

A 48-minute bout

A year ago, Yarmouth managed to win just one game, while Waterville went all the way to the state final.

This season, to suggest the Clippers righted the ship would be an epic understatement, as they won their first seven contests by an average margin of 46-22. After falling at Mt. Ararat, 38-14, in the regular season finale, Yarmouth wound up second in the South, then defeated No. 3 Spruce Mountain (46-0) in the regional semifinals, then last weekend, avenged its loss, holding off host Mt. Ararat, ranked first, 20-18.

“We put in so much hard work after we were a laughingstock last year,” said MacVane. “That didn’t even really stop until midway through this season. People were surprised to look at the scoreboard and see home was ahead. They thought it was broken. We’ve come so far. It’s such an amazing story.”

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“After last year, we worked so, so hard,” said McGonagle. “After last year, I was discouraged and I almost didn’t play this year, but we got (Sam) back (from injury) and we were so much stronger and so much better. To be honest, I didn’t think this was possible until halfway through the season. We spent all our time in the weight room and then I realized we could do it.”

The Purple Panthers, meanwhile, started 3-0, then lost three of four to finish the regular season. As the No. 3 seed, Waterville had to navigate a difficult North division road to the state game, but did so by knocking off No. 2 Morse (22-12) in the semifinals, then beating top-ranked Mt. Desert Island by the same score in last weekend’s regional final.

The Clippers and Purple Panthers did not play this season and had no playoff history in football (they have met in state games in girls’ soccer and boys’ hockey).

Yarmouth had won two of three previous state game appearances in Class C last decade (see sidebar), while Waterville was 1-3 in state finals with an additional championship won in the 1960s, prior to the implementation of playoffs.

Saturday, on a day that featured a downpour in pregame warmups and later sun and unseasonable warmth (kickoff temperature was 66 degrees), both teams played like champions, but ultimately, the Clippers made the plays when they mattered most.

The Purple Panthers won the opening coin toss but deferred possession to the second half.

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Yarmouth began at its 34 and promptly took advantage, marching 66 yards in 11 plays and 5 minutes, 25 seconds to break the ice.

The Clippers started with a big dose of McGonagle, as he ran for four yards, then 18 for a first down at the Waterville 44. After McGonagle gained three yards, then two, he picked up six to move the chains again to the 33. McGonagle then ran for three yards, then two and he fumbled on the play, but senior lineman Rohan Boisvert was in the right spot to recover and keep the drive alive. On third-and-5, the bruising LaBrecque got the ball for the first time and he gained seven yards for a first down at the 21. After McGonagle broke free for 15 yards, LaBrecque ran the ball to the 3 and McGonagle capped the drive with a 3-yard touchdown run with 6:34 to go in the opening stanza. Bradford threw incomplete on the two-point conversion, but pass interference was called, giving Yarmouth another snap and LaBrecque made the Purple Panthers pay by running the ball in for an 8-0 lead.

Waterville would produce a nice opening drive as well, marching 51 yards on eight plays in 3:09.

Hunter got things started with a 21-yard burst to the Clippers’ 30. After Yarmouth jumped offsides, Hunter kept the ball for two yards, then threw incomplete, but on third-and-3, he hit Minihan for 19 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 4. LaBrecque then grabbed Hunter by the jersey and threw him down for a one-yard loss and Hunter threw incomplete before LaBrecque sacked him to set up fourth-and-goal back at the 9. The Purple Panthers wouldn’t be denied, however, as Hunter rolled right and threw into the end zone where Minihan came down with the ball for the touchdown with 3:21 remaining in the first period. The two-point conversion pass failed, but Waterville was back within two, 8-6.

The Clippers began another promising drive at their 37, as LaBrecque ran for three yards, McGonagle picked up three, junior Trent Richard gained a yard and on fourth-and-3, LaBrecque ran for five and a first down at the 49.

“When you have LaBrecque sitting there, fourth down isn’t an issue,” Hartman said.

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After Bradford threw incomplete, McGonagle ran for two yards on the final play of the first quarter (which saw Yarmouth have an 80-51 advantage in yardage).

On the first play of the second period, McGonagle ran for five yards and on fourth-and-3, Bradford kept the ball and rolled right for 17 yards and a first down at the Waterville 27. After McGonagle ran for nine yards, then was bottled up for no gain, LaBrecque had his most impressive run, dragging literally the whole Purple Panthers team with him for 14 yards to set up first-and-goal at the 4.

But the Clippers wouldn’t come away with points, as after McGonagle was dropped for a two-yard loss, a bad exchange put the ball on the ground and Hubbard recovered for Waterville at its 7.

The Purple Panthers promptly went three-and-out, as Hunter ran for five yards, Hubbard gained two, then Hunter threw incomplete, forcing a punt.

With 6:19 left in the half, Yarmouth got great field position at the Waterville 35, but again was stymied, as LaBrecque was held to no gain and Bradford threw three straight incomplete passes.

The Purple Panthers got the ball back at their 35 with 5:21 on the clock and three plays later, had their first lead.

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Hubbard ran for one yard on first down, then Hunter gained five and on third-and-4, Hunter kept the ball to the right, found a big hole, turned on the jets and out-ran the pursuit to the end zone for the 59-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion rush failed, but Waterville was on top, 12-8, with 3:47 left before the break.

That was plenty of time for the Clippers to respond.

Yarmouth got the ball back at its 43 and in eight plays, retook the lead, thanks to the usual suspects, with one exception.

After McGonagle ran for nine yards, LaBrecque picked up four for a first down at the Purple Panthers’ 44. McGonagle then picked up four yards, then seven more for a first down at the 33. After McGonagle ran for two yards, then four, Bradford dropped back and found a wide open Sullivan behind the defense for a 25-yard gain, setting up first-and-goal from the 2. LaBrecque then capped the drive with a 2-yard run and with 37.5 seconds showing, following a two-point conversion rush from McGonagle, the Clippers were up, 16-12.

Waterville tried to answer before halftime, as it started at its 46 after the kickoff went out of bounds.

Hunter first rushed for 11 yards, then gained nine to the Yarmouth 34. After a incomplete pass (deflected at the line by LaBrecque), LaBrecque sacked Hunter for an 11-yard loss. Hunter, who was shaken up, came off for the final play of the half, which saw junior Wyatt Gradi throw incomplete, giving the ball back to the Clippers at their 45.

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Just 9.5 seconds remained, however, so Yarmouth was content to take a knee and take a 16-12 advantage to the half.

In the first 24 minutes, the Clippers had 185 yards of offense, as McGonagle ran for 103 yards, while the Purple Panthers mustered 132 yards, with Hunter rushing for 111 and throwing for 28 more.

Waterville got the ball to start the second half and began at its 19, but went three-and-out, as LaBrecque dropped Hunter for a four-yard loss, Minihan caught a ball for eight yards and on third-and-6, McGonagle dragged Hunter down for a loss of five yards, forcing a punt.

Yarmouth then got great field position after a nice punt return from McGonagle, starting at the Purple Panthers’ 42, and six plays later, extended its lead.

McGonagle ran for five yards, then for two and on third down, LaBrecque moved the chains with a six-yard pickup to the 29. After McGonagle ran for six yards, then five more, LaBrecque took the ball in from the 18, running a counter to the right, then breaking tackles en route to the end zone. A Bradford-to-Sullivan two-point conversion pass made it 24-12 Clippers with 7:10 left in the third quarter.

Waterville needed to answer and thanks to a couple big pass plays from Hunter managed to do so.

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The Purple Panthers started at their 40 and began with a 17-yard pass play from Hunter to Gradi After freshman Adam Pelotte dropped Hunter for a one-yard loss, Bradford knocked down a deep pass to Minihan and Hunter threw incomplete again, setting up fourth-and-11. Waterville coach Isaac LeBlanc rolled the dice and went for it and Hunter threw up a pass that a leaping Minihan came down with for a big 26-yard pickup to the Yarmouth 18. After Pelotte and McGonagle dropped Hunter for a two-yard loss, Hunter went back to the air and hit Minihan with a quick hitter which saw Minihan break a couple tackles and take it into the end zone to complete a 20-yard scoring play. The two-point conversion pass was incomplete, but with 4:36 on the clock, the Purple Panthers were right back in it, down, 24-18.

Waterville’s defense would then produce a huge play to not only stall the ensuing Clippers’ drive, but to put points on the board as well.

Yarmouth got the ball back at its 44 and quickly moved across midfield, as after LaBrecque was dropped for a one-yard loss, McGonagle ran for three yards, then LaBrecque picked up six. On fourth-and-2, Bradford again caught the Purple Panthers off-guard by rolling left and gaining eight yards for a first down at the Waterville 40. After a false start penalty backed the Clippers up five yards, McGonagle ran for six yards, then another false start set the stage for a game-turning play.

Bradford dropped back to throw, rolled left and fired the ball across the field where Hubbard was waiting to pluck the ball out of the air at the 40 and he had open sailing in front of him. Hubbard returned the ball all the way to the end zone for a 60-yard score and with 30.5 seconds to go, the Purple Panthers had all the momentum, even more so when Hubbard caught Hunter’s ensuing two-point pass for a 26-24 lead.

On the final play of the third quarter, McGonagle ran for two yards and to start the final stanza, LaBrecque gained six. LaBrecque was then held to no gain and on fourth down, Bradford threw incomplete, giving Waterville the ball at the Yarmouth 40.

The Purple Panthers had a chance to extend the lead and potentially even put the game away, but they would fall just short.

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After Hunter kept the ball for 14 yards, he ran for nine and then six for a first down at the 11. Hunter ran again, this time for four yards, then he threw incomplete under pressure. On third-and-6, Hunter ran for four yards to the 3. LaBrecque then jumped offsides, setting up fourth-and-1 from the 2.

Waterville could have gotten a first down or a touchdown, but instead, got nothing, as the center snap was high over Hunter’s head and while he fell on it at the 14, the ball went over to the Clippers on downs with 7:14 remaining.

“Once I saw (the bad snap) happen, I knew it was ours,” LaBrecque said. “I was 100 percent confident.”

“I think the Lord was with me on that one,” Hartman said. “That saved the game for us. It was crucial.”

With the championship on the line, Hartman, who subscribes to the old Woody Hayes theory of passing that says three things can happen when you throw the ball and two of them are bad, put the ball exclusively in the hands of his two most trusted backs.

Riding the blocking of his line and LaBrecque, McGonagle twice gained six yards for a first down at the 26. McGonagle then spun for nine yards before rushing for five more for a first down at the 40. After LaBrecque gained five yards, McGonagle was held to no gain by sophomore Donovan Porter. LaBrecque then picked up four yards, but Yarmouth was a yard short, setting up a critical fourth-and-1. With the line keying on LaBrecque, Bradford pitched wide to McGonagle, who found room to his right and raced 19 yards to the Purple Panthers’ 32.

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McGonagle then picked up six yards, followed by three and on third-and-1, LaBrecque moved the chains once more with an eight-yard gain to the 15. With the clock under two minutes, McGonagle ran for two yards, then was held to no gain and while McGonagle got the 5 on a third-and-8 rush, he was stopped inches shy of the first down.

After a timeout with 54.2 seconds showing, the Clippers turned to LaBrecque, who bulled forward for three yards, setting up first-and-goal at the 2.

“It’s not like they popped off big plays on us,” LeBlanc said. “That’s the best ground-and-pound team I’ve seen in eight-man football. They’re really good at it. There were a couple situations where we could made a play and gotten the ball back, but they made just a couple more clutch plays than us today.”

And then McGonagle did the rest. fighting his way in from the 2, with a little help from behind, as LaBrecque gave him a timely shove and with 32.9 seconds on the clock, Yarmouth was on top to stay.

“I didn’t see anything. All I saw was victory,” McGonagle said. “I just had to get in there. I was confident we’d score. I knew we could do it. We got it done with heart. That’s been the name of the game all year.”

“I blocked the D-end down, then I pushed him in,” said LaBrecque. “I watched (Michael) cross over and I was so happy.”

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Bradford’s two-point conversion pass to Sullivan was incomplete and the margin remained at four after a drive no one in Yarmouth will ever forget.

“That’s how you play football, son,” said Hartman. “That’s why we don’t throw it. Just run the rock. I felt really comfortable with my two studs back there. LaBrecque is unbelievable and Michael too. This is what we preach in practice. That’s not a first for us. We’ve had four or five 90-yard drives this year. You don’t get used to it, but you learn how to do it.”

Waterville figured to get one more chance with the ball, but on the ensuing kickoff, which was supposed to go deep, the ball came off sophomore kicker Cam Boone’s foot at an odd angle and squirted toward the right sideline, as if it were an onside kick.

It wasn’t, but did it ever result in a fortuitous bounce for the Clippers, as the ball rolled right to MacVane, who fell on it at the Purple Panthers’ 49 and while several Waterville players tried to wrest the ball free, MacVane held on to give Yarmouth possession.

“I was told the ball was going (deep), so I started going down the field, then I saw the ball right in front of me and I dove on it,” MacVane said.

“That was unbelievable,” said LaBrecque. “I watched the ball go into Rufus’ hands. They kept trying to dig it out, but I knew it was our ball.”

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“The kicker missed the ball,” added Hartman. “It was supposed to (be deep). We had a funny style on the tee, so it’s easy to do that. Rufus got it. He always does something special.”

All that was left to clinch the title was for Bradford to take a knee and at 1:09 p.m., the celebration began.

Clippers 30 Purple Panthers 26.

“I’m at a loss for words,” said MacVane. “We couldn’t have done it without the team bonding we had this year. Nobody on this team is going to quit. I’m just so happy for the seniors. What a way for them to end.”

“We’ve worked so hard for this and it’s just pure joy,” said McGonagle. “I’ve never been happier in my entire life. I’ve won lacrosse state championships, but I never had to work this hard. I got a little discouraged at times, but I realized it was our last game and we all felt we had to dig deep and forget about being tired and the pain we were feeling and we got it done.”

“Waterville is my hometown, so this is unbelievable,” said LaBrecque, who moved to Yarmouth in the third grade. “It was a combination of our hard work and dedication. We really turned it around. It was just heart. We had nothing to lose. It was the seniors’ last game. Winning this means everything. We all played for each other. We never lost focus.”

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“It’s a mentally tough group,” added Hartman, who was doused with water in a postgame celebration. “(Waterville) had some serious advantages on us personnel-wise. They were bigger than us in front. They play good football. They’re coached well. They played their heart out.

“This is great for our kids, great for the program.”

McGonagle, who had a transcendent season, was superb again, rushing a whopping 39 times for 198 yards and two touchdowns.

“Spencer and my incredible line put in the work,” said McGonagle. “Kai, Trent, Brayden (Kloza), Wyatt (Gawtry), Rohan, Eddie (Kim). They play every play 100 percent.”

LaBrecque, who truly did it all for Yarmouth, ran 18 times for 93 yards with two scores.

“Spencer is immense,” Hartman said. “He’s the sweetest, most humble kid you’ve ever met, but he’s one tough son-of-a-gun. He’s carried us all year. I don’t think we’d be here without Spencer.”

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Bradford completed 2-of-8 passes for 31 yards with an interception and ran twice for 25 yards.

Sullivan caught two passes for 31 yards.

Richard ran once for 1 yard.

The Clippers finished with 332 yards of offense and overcame two turnovers and four penalties for 16 yards.

So close

The Purple Panthers were paced by Hunter, who ran for 132 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries and completed 6-of-13 passes for 99 yards and two TDs.

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Minihan had five catches for 82 yards and two scores.

Gradi caught one ball for 17 yards.

Waterville tallied 217 yards of offense, didn’t turn the ball over and was only penalized once for 1 yard, but fell just short of its first Gold Ball since 1974.

“Our guys battled all game,” LeBlanc said. “There’s nothing for me to say we should have done. We battled our hearts out and lost a close game. I hate losing, but I’m not disappointed in my team at all. They battled every snap.

“We had a will to get better. We knew we had to get better in a lot of areas to get back to this game. We tried to get stronger and be in a better position to compete. The guys did great in the offseason and came into the season strong. We faltered a bit toward the end of the regular season. We had to look ourselves in the mirror and we went on a great run and our guys left it all on the field today. It was a pleasure coaching them this year.”

On to 2023

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Yarmouth graduates the irreplaceable LaBrecque, along with Boisvert, Sullivan and Asa Jordan.

“Our seniors were the heart of the team,” McGonagle said. “We couldn’t have done anything without them and I’ll be sad to see them go.”

But with McGonagle back running the ball at will and Bradford another year older and stronger at quarterback, the Clippers figure to be a daunting foe once again.

They’ll look to run it back in 2023.

“I think we have a good chance again next year,” said MacVane. “We’ll be in the weight room in the offseason and I don’t see why we can’t see the same results again.”

“The future is bright,” said Hartman. “We had some freshmen play today and we have a good eighth grade group coming up. We just have to get some linemen. We’ll have to run a different offense without Spencer, but everything is moving in our direction right now,”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

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