EAST SWANZEY – It was a cold and windy day on a mud-ridden field at Monadnock High School on Saturday – perfect for an afternoon of smashmouth Milford football.
The No. 4-seeded Spartans took to the Division IV championship field for the second year in a row, this time against top-seeded Monadnock and its high-powered offense.
Erasing the memories of last year’s title heartbreaker, the Spartans broke through to gold, upsetting the Huskies for a 27-16 victory in front of approximately 1,500 fans.
Milford senior and Nashoba Valley transfer Ben Fulham rushed for 138 yards on 18 carries (a 7.6 average) as the offensive star of the game, including a 59-yard jaunt in his first carry during the game’s opening drive. A whopping 98 of his yards came in the first quarter alone.
Quarterback Paul Jepson and senior back Jeff Mack also had big games, each running for a touchdown (Jepson passed for another) with 50-plus yards of rushing each. Andrew Hill also scored for Milford, which got a total of 306 yards on the ground.
Milford coach Keith Jones finally got the game he knew his team was capable of, and in convincing fashion Milford scored on its opening drive, piling up 14 points in the first half, all 27 _before the third quarter had ended.
“I was waiting for the day that these kids gelled and put it together,” Jones said of his now 9-2 Spartans. “This is the first time we’ve really gelled all year.”
Two years removed from back-to-back losing seasons and a title game loss to Hanover last year, Milford wins its first title since 1984.
“I told the kids, this is one the best feelings you’ll ever have,” Jones said. “This is a group of seniors that was getting beat by 50 points a few years ago. It’s a tribute to them.”
“Maybe that experience helped them,” Monadnock coach Brian Pickering said of Milford’s title-game experience last year. “We might have been out-matched in experience.”
Big plays hurt the Monadnock defense early, and on the thick mud of its home field, couldn’t get its own offense going. Junior quarterback Josh Grover kept slipping as he went to plant his feet and was sacked two times.
“Our plan with the mud was to stay North and South and we went East and West,” Pickering said.
One of those sacks ended the half as the Huskies were driving deep into Milford territory. After three Grover completions and a pass interference call on Milford, the Huskies found themselves at the 10-yard line. Mack managed to bat down a pass at the edge of the end zone intended for Ryan Redfield. Then on the next play, Paul Charbonneau ended the half by taking Grover to the turf.
Grover, who threw for 16 touchdowns during the regular season, finished just 9-for-23 for 97 yards and was also picked off late in the game three times.
Fulham opened up the game with a 17-yard kickoff return, and two plays later went off tackle to break through the Monadnock defense for a 59-yard gain. During that run, he had to cut back across the mud between the hash marks, almost slipping and falling before a stiff-arm on Redfield helped him stay upright to the Huskies’ 1.
Two more plays, and Andrew Hill plunged in for the game’s first score and the Spartans, who have been typically slow in the first half, were on a roll.
“I think everyone was more fired-up – more aware,” Fulham said.
“We surprised them,” Jepson said. “For us to do that to them (score on the game’s first drive), they were shocked. It set the tempo from the beginning. I had a good feeling today.”
Jepson kept that tempo running strong leading up to the second quarter, when his team drove from its own 26-yard line. Facing fourth-and-6 on the 13, Jepson dropped back, double-clutched the ball, and lofted a pass to the corner of the end zone where first-year senior receiver Tom Mahoney was fading into double coverage.
Mahoney, who had already dropped two passes right off his hands, came down hard, but with the ball for a touchdown after battling for possession in the air.
“You wonder why he dropped them in the first place,” Fulham said of Mahoney. “Sometimes we don’t think he can catch it if he stays on his feet.”
Milford scored 13 more points in the third quarter to take a commanding 27-0 lead while its defense settled in.
Jepson put in a long 48-yard touchdown run for the first of those points in the third on an option play to the right, cutting back across the secondary just as Fulham had done early on.
“We prepared for the run all year. They just did it well.” Pickering said. “We had hoped to contain them.”
Monadnock managed just four pass completions in the first half and only 28 yards on the ground. Clearly, time of possession was keeping the Huskies’ offense on a tight leash.
Jepson also managed to keep Monadnock’s speedy receiver Anthony Fazio under control. A 22-yard gain by Fazio in the fourth quarter, which could have been called a shovel pass or an actual completion, was one of only two times the speedy flanker touched the ball.
The key for Milford’s offense was getting the ball to Mack and Fulham outside the hash marks and let the Spartans’ backs power their way downfield.
“We knew we had to stay on the hash marks,” Jones said. “The field was in tough shape.”
Jeff Mack added the final Milford TD in the third quarter on a 1-yard dive up the middle.
Tom Cote scored both touchdowns for Monadnock, but each came late in the fourth quarter.