The Red Riots continued their high-scoring playoff run on Friday night in the eight-player small school North final, defeating Stearns 57-36.
In a physical game, Orono led the entire way over the Minutemen on the road. It’s the third playoff game in a row Orono has won away from home.
Orono will move on to face South champion Old Orchard Beach in the eight-player small school state championship game at Cony High School on Nov. 12.
Orono lost to Stearns in the regular season and avenged the loss in the playoffs, a theme that has emerged over the team’s past two wins against Bucksport and then Dexter last week.
“We’ve been playing good football for a while now and for a while we were under the radar,” Orono coach Bob Sinclair said. “We told our kids after we lost to Bucksport, I told them in the locker room that it’d be a dog fight and that’s what it was. People ask us how we beat Dexter and I don’t know. That’s a good football team and Stearns is a great football team, too. We weren’t going to let our foot off the gas because we know they’re explosive. So this was great.”
Orono quarterback Jack Brewer threw for four touchdowns and ran for another to lead the Red Riots to the victory.
Orono wasted no time getting on the scoreboard.
Brewer and running back Ben Francis led the Red Riots down the field as they went 66 yards and ended the drive with a 1-yard run up the middle by Brewer for a score. Kase Walston hit what would be one of five extra points in the first half to put Orono ahead 7-0.
After a three-and-out by Stearns, Orono followed up with a quick touchdown drive that was capped by a 25-yard touchdown pass from Brewer to Will Francis down the left sideline.
With 5:22 left in the first quarter, Orono had a 14-0 lead.
Pierce Walston picked off Stearns on the next drive then just three plays later caught a pass in the flat, cut middle and made a couple of defenders miss and ran for a 43-yard touchdown that gave Orono a 21-0 lead right before the end of the quarter.
Brewer threw for 173 yards in the first half with two touchdowns in the air and one on the ground.
Stearns’ quarterback Caleb Shearer got the Minutemen on the board in the second quarter on an 18-yard pass to Aidan Sanders. The two-point conversion run by Shearer made it a 21-8 game with 9:50 left in the first half.
Brady Maheu intercepted a Shearer pass with 4:42 left in the first half and brought it back to Orono’s 45-yard line with 4:42 to play.
Ben Francis took the handoff with four minutes left, cut inside to the left and made two defenders miss on his way to a 28-yard touchdown run that gave the Red Riots a 28-8 advantage.
Orono is a throw-first team, but Ben Francis was ready when his number was called and ran for 149 yards and three touchdowns.
“They put some on me to run the ball tonight because all teams know we are a pass-first team,” Ben Francis said. “To be able to know we can run it up the gut and into the end zone, it just enhances that level of skill to what it looked like tonight.”
Stearns was down but not out, and Sanders converted a 17-yard touchdown run with just 78 seconds left to pull the Minutemen within 28-14.
There turned out to be too much time left on the clock, as Will Francis brought the kickoff back 56 yards, which gave Orono great field position. With 35 seconds left, Ben Francis ran a 1-yard touchdown run in to give the Red Riots a 35-14 lead at the half.
“Our guys have really come together,” Ben Francis said. “Our quarterback is coming into his own really well, he’s slinging that ball, and tonight they couldn’t handle the run and the pass. We ran it up the gut, we ran three in running the ball and had a bunch throwing the ball. I wouldn’t be able to do anything without the offensive line, they’re amazing.”
At the beginning of the second half, Stearns bounced back in a big way with a 65-yard touchdown run from Sanders that cut the Orono lead to 35-22.
“I thought offensively the game plan was good,” Stearns coach Cody Herring said. “We stuck to it and it was good. Defensively we just had to tackle better.”
Stearns fumbled the ball on its next drive and Orono fell on it at Stearns’ 19-yard line.
Brewer found Francis on the next play for a 19-yard touchdown pass, giving Orono a 49-22 lead with 3:30 left in the third.
With the game slipping away and Stearns facing a fourth down, Shearer found Sam Jacobs for a 32-yard touchdown pass with Jacobs reaching over Will Francis for the catch.
The two-point conversion run was successful and the Minutemen trailed 49-30.
Stearns let Orono move the ball down the field again but had the Red Riots in a fourth down from the 9-yard line.
Brewer found Francis on fourth down on the left sideline and Francis dove for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was successful and with 5:24 left in the game Orono held a 57-30 lead.
Sanders caught a 7-yard touchdown for the Minutemen with 1:25 left but the lead was insurmountable for Stearns.
“It’s a special team,” Herring said of Stearns. “The kids now have been in this game two years in a row and the best thing I can say about this team is they never give up. They’ve had some weird scores and they find ways to win. They just didn’t find one today. But, that’s OK, Orono is a great football team.”
The victory was special for Ben Francis, who has been on the cusp of multiple regional championships during his time in Orono.
“This is my first year playing football and I lost the Maine soccer championship last year and the basketball regional championship last year so it feels good to come out here and put one away with my guys.”