The play evolved like something Bryce Connor might have done years earlier with some of his buddies on a side field while the older kids were playing nearby on the bigger stage, Tiger Field in Dexter.
Only this time a gold ball was at stake, and by the time the junior quarterback stopped scrambling long enough to pass the ball to teammate Avery Gagnon and Gagnon crossed the goal line late Saturday afternoon — after the horn had sounded to end the fourth quarter — the Dexter Tigers were state champions.
“Senior year, winning a state [champion]chip, it can’t get better than that,” said Gagnon, whose touchdown play gave Dexter a stunning 34-30 victory over Maranacook of Readfield in the 8-player small-school state final at Fitzpatrick Stadium in Portland. “I’m on top of the world right now.”
Dexter (7-2) never led until after time expired, but coach Andrew Shorey’s club took advantage of every last second to capture the program’s first state championship since winning the 1987 Class C crown.
Trailing 30-28, Dexter gained possession on downs near midfield with about 5 1/2 minutes remaining and gradually advanced downfield with the clock running down.
Shorey called time with 40 seconds left, and assistant coach Brian Salsbury gave the offense two plays to run from the 15-yard line in an effort to save the team’s final timeout.
“The first play we got absolutely nothing and we then were supposed to get right on the ball and run a waggle,” Shorey said. “I was hoping [Connor] would get out of bounds or throw it away but he didn’t and then the buzzer went off and he was still scrambling.
“It was just crazy.”
Connor first moved to his left where three receivers were working to get open, but when no one became uncovered and with the seconds ticking away, he reversed direction and scrambled back across the field to his right.
Connor was able to avoid at least one Maranacook defender before he finally spotted an open Gagnon, a senior halfback who was serving as a safety valve option on the play.
“He’s not even in the play and I come back to the other side and he’s an eligible receiver so I hit him and he brought it in,” Connor said. “It’s just crazy.”
Gagnon caught the ball near the 5-yard line and cut back to his left toward the middle of the field to elude several would-be tacklers en route to the end zone.
When Gagnon finally crossed the goal line, it set off a celebration that lingered on the artificial turf and continued with a parade from the Newport exit of I-95 all the way back to Tiger Field.
“I just stood there really, that’s all I did,” Gagnon said. “Bryce made the play. He was running back around and I [saw] him and he threw it right to me.”
Dexter, the No. 3 seed in the North playoffs, had battled through COVID-19 issues and numerous injuries to reach its first state final since 1989.
That injury bug was a major part of Dexter’s story throughout the playoffs, as Gagnon missed two games and senior fullback Nathan Schobel sat out last week’s 22-6 victory over Stearns-Schenck in the regional final with his right ankle in a protective boot after rushing for 307 yards during the Tigers’ 60-32 semifinal victory at No. 2 Houlton.
The state final was a high-scoring affair through the first three quarters with South champion Maranacook (5-4) twice building a 10-point lead, the last time at 30-20 midway through the third quarter.
Dexter held the Black Bears scoreless the rest of the way, setting the stage for a dramatic comeback.
“The defense played much better in the second half,” Shorey said. “The kids really just tackled better and our secondary played a huge part, too. [Maranacook] threw the ball on us a few times in the first half, but it really just boiled down to us tackling.”