PORTLAND, Maine — Keith Nelson starts every offensive play for the John Bapst of Bangor football team with the ball in his hands.
But it was a rare play that ended with the ball in Nelson’s hands that proved pivotal to the Crusaders’ 21-14 victory over Winthrop in Saturday’s Class C state championship game at Fitzpatrick Stadium.
Senior fullback Chase Huckestein had just caught a screen pass from Derek Smith in the left flat near midfield and raced down the sideline before cutting back inside to avoid a Winthrop tackler.
That cutback slowed Huckestein just enough so another defender could knock the ball away from behind, and the loose ball rolled forward another 10 yards.
But Nelson, the Crusaders’ starting center, stayed with the play downfield, and wound up with no worse than joint possession of the ball along with a Winthrop player at the bottom of a pile of humanity at the Ramblers’ 8-yard line.
And Huckestein ran the ball into the end zone on the next play for the game-winning touchdown with 7:39 left in the fourth quarter.
“At the start of the play I reached to the left to block the A-gap, and Chase went around on the toss left so I followed him downfield to get some downfield blocks,” said Nelson, a sophomore. “I saw a guy hit him and the ball pop out and I just sprinted right after it. I saw one guy jump on the ball, then I saw it pop out again. I sprinted over and jumped on it and tried to get it any way I could, and it just so happened that another kid jumped on it at the same time. We wrestled around at the bottom of the pile and I guess I did just enough to get it for our side.”
The outcome of the play wasn’t immediately clear, particularly when Winthrop’s Zach Farrington emerged from the pile with the football in his hands.
“One official threw the bean bag for the fumble and another official threw the bean bag for the change of possession,” said John Bapst coach Dan O’Connell, “but what happened was that a Winthrop kid looked like he had covered it up but he rolled over it and the ball squirted out the side, and the side judge nearest the ball realized that while the first official on the play thought he still had it. Then [Nelson] then got on it, and after we had retained possession in the pile they pulled it out.”
Winthrop coach Joel Stoneton briefly argued the decision, and still wasn’t happy with it after the game.
“They told us when both officials came to the fumble situation that both teams had possession and it’s like the tie goes to the runner and they get it,” he said. “I completely disagree with that because we stood up and we had the ball, and I don’t know what happened after that. But that’s part of the game, that’s how it goes.”
As for Nelson, pursuing the play to be in position to recover the fumble is just part of his job.
“You make your block, follow the play, hit anyone you see, and don’t let anyone go by you,” he said. “If you do that it will lead you right to the ball and to the victory. That’s what they teach us.”
Huckestein was grateful to Nelson for a second chance to score a championship-clinching touchdown.
“From 20 yards back he rushed down the field and recovered it,” said Huckestein. “He’s probably the player of the game because of that play.”
Another play with a similar impact led to the Crusaders’ first touchdown of the game late in the second quarter.
John Bapst had driven from its 32-yard-line to the Winthrop 13, where it faced second-and-nine. Smith overthrew a pass intended for Shane Hass to the back of the end zone, and Farrington was positioned to reach up to grab the interception and end the drive.
Farrington got both hands on the ball, but as he came down Hass tackled him and knocked the ball out of his hands for an incompletion.
On the next play, Smith connected with Huckestein for a touchdown pass — on a throw that tipped off the hands of Winthrop linebacker Joe Morey — to rally the Crusaders to a 7-7 tie.
“We tell the receivers that if there’s a situation where you know they have a bead on the ball, you become a defensive back,” said O’Connell. ”I’m not sure if that’s why he did it, but they all did those little things on a daily basis, and I think that’s what brought them here and helped get them a championship.”