SOMERVILLE — After recovering consecutive stripped balls in the fourth quarter — including returning one 57 yards for a touchdown — the Latin Academy football team could not have been knocked out of the postseason in more dramatic fashion on Saturday night at Dilboy Stadium in Somerville.
Chinedu Igbokwe's 57-yard fumble return put the Dragons down 1 point with 6:42 to play in their eventual 21-14 loss to St. Clement in the Division 6 North Sectional Finals.
Igbokwe said the last-ditch comeback made the loss easier to swallow even though victory was close enough to taste.
“A lot of teams when something like that happens, when they get down, they break apart and people start to get angry, curse or whatever they want to do,” the senior running back and defensive end said after his team fell to 8-2 on the year. “But to know that we have the people and the personnel, integrity and charisma that we could stay together and keep our cool the whole game, it means so much to us and the coaches and to the fans and to everybody else.”
With 7:07 left in the game St. Clement (9-1) blocked a punt on fourth-and-3 from the 18. The ball rolled out of the back of the end zone for a safety that gave the Anchormen the 15-6 lead. On the first play on the drive after the safety, Duc Nguyen and Igbokwe stripped running back Brandon Williams. Igbokwe scooped up the fumble and returned it 57 yards for the TD. Senior quarterback Kyle Dance added the 2-point conversion run to make it 15-14 with 6:42 left in the game.
"Usually in a more safe situation you just fall on top of the ball but in my head I knew we needed a score, so I knew I had to scoop it and run as far as I could," Igbokwe said. "Luckily my team recognized it and they formed a convoy around me and I pointed the people around me and they picked up the blocks really well. So it was a full team effort.
"[After the TD] I’m thinking 'This is our game, we got the game back. This is our game to win or to lose' but it didn’t pan out that way the way I wanted it to.”
Forty seconds later, Latin Academy stripped the ball again, this time from Deron Hines and took over on the St. Clement 40. But two plays later, Dance’s pass was deflected and intercepted by Will Rennie with 5:36 left. The Anchormen capitalized on the turnover with 3:20 left in the game when Michael Sullivan scored on a 24-yard QB keeper that put St. Clement up, 21-14.
“I have no clue [what happened on the interception], I thought the ball was in the air going to my receiver and I turned around and it’s an interception so …,” said a despondent Dance.
Dance finished the game 8 for 18 for 76 yards passing, including a TD pass and two interceptions. Dance was only playing at about 75 percent after he injured his left hamstring against O’Bryant in the semifinals. He only practiced once last week.
"It hurts because I feel like I let down the team," Dance said. "I didn’t think I was going to be hurt. I thought I would be able to do 100 percent but I couldn’t. It affected us and we lost the game.
“We played as hard as we could and we just came up short. We tried. We did our best and the better team won I guess.”
After St. Clement opened the scoring with an 8-yard TD pass with 3:29 left in the opening quarter, Dance threw an interception in the end zone with 7:16 left in the half. But after a 12-play drive, St. Clement finally punted the ball. During that drive there was a 15-minute delay when St. Clement lineman Connor Sullivan went down with an injury and was carted off in an ambulance.
After the delay ended, Latin Academy finally got on the board three plays into their drive when Dance hooked up with Devaughn Riley on a 39-yard pass. But Dance’s 2-point conversion run failed and the Dragons trailed, 7-6.
St. Clement responded with its own 39-yard TD pass when Sullivan connected with Junior Oyaronbi with 1:33 left in the half. The Anchormen led, 13-6, after they missed the extra point.
Latin Academy made the most of the final moments of the half but missed consecutive opportunities when Dance had two long passes to Riley broken up in the end zone. First Brandon Williams swatted away the pass before Bruce Khaneil blocked the ball on the very next play on third down. Riley was wide open up the seam on fourth and 10 from the 26, but Dance was forced to scramble and his off-balance pass could reach Riley.
“You’re not going to get them all,” Riley said. “They did a pretty good job stopping us. They are probably the best defense we faced all year and they did a good job holding us at the end and keeping us finishing the big plays.
“[It makes us feel] worse because we came so close. It was right there. We were just this close and we lost it.”
The No. 4 seed in the Division 6 North Sectional, Latin Academy defeated Dorchester, 22-14 in the quarterfinals before beating O’Bryant, 20-6, in the semifinals after Dance went down with an injury. Latin Academy coach Rocco Zizza said those two wins were the first in school history since the winner of the Boston City League South Division went straight to the Division 5 Super Bowl under the old playoff system.
Two years ago Latin Academy lost to Nantucket in the Super Bowl.
“Two years ago we went to the Super Bowl but only a handful of teams were in our division,” Zizza said. “This is a massive division [now]. A [MIAA official] beforehand said there are 200 teams that would love to be in our position tonight so I think it was a great opportunity for us.
“Each playoff game was the equivalent of a Super Bowl.”
Zizza also said his team will secure the best record in program history if they beat Charlestown on Thanksgiving morning.
“Usually after a playoff loss it’s really depressing and you say ‘I wish we could play one more game,’” Zizza said. “Well, we will be playing one more game.”
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