FITCHBURG - With everything Fitchburg has accomplished this season, few expected it to let up now. But after spotting rival Leominster a 14-point halftime lead yesterday, Fitchburg found itself in the rare position of playing catch-up.
The Red Raiders showed tremendous heart and character as they rallied to close within a point, but in the end, Leominster was able to hold on for a 14-13 decision.
The Red Raiders, after a 5-yard touchdown pass from Jeremy Kimber to Josh Less in the final minute, went for the win instead of the tie, but Kimber was sacked, clinching Leominster's win in the 123d meeting of the schools before 5,000-plus at Crocker Field.
The victory gives Leominster the Division 1 North crown and a date with either Holy Name or Nashoba in Tuesday's Division 1 playoff at Oakmont Regional in Ashburnham at 7 p.m. Had the Blue Devils (8-3, 2-1 in divisional play) lost, they would've been eliminated from postseason competition. Fitchburg (9-2, 2-1) had already secured a playoff spot and will take on Shrewsbury Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the Division 1A tilt in Worcester.
It was Leominster's fourth straight win in the series. Fitchburg still holds the series lead, 58-56-9.
The Red Raiders are enjoying their best season since 2003 and were playing at home. However, a split-back counter trey Leominster added to its playbook baffled the Fitchburg defense in the opening half.
An 89-yard drive in 16 plays culminated with quarterback Justin Kittredge blasting over the goal line from 1 yard, and Leominster had a 6-0 lead after the PAT failed.
The drive was a blueprint of what the Blue Devils had in mind: Their goal was to eat up as much clock as possible and keep the Red Raider offense off the field. The first drive chewed up 8:34.
"We told our kids if we can get the ball and run off five or six minutes, and even if we don't score, we've shortened the game," said Leominster coach John Dubzinski.
Behind senior backs Alex Medina and Alex Rivera, who combined for 169 yards on 33 carries, Leominster added to its lead with just under four minutes to go before halftime. Rivera cut through Fitchburg's defensive front for a 16-yard TD, and Medina followed with a conversion run.
"The running game worked really well for us today," said Medina. "We usually have been running the same formations for years, but today we came out with a new formation that we just put in. I think we caught [Fitchburg] off-guard."
After gaining just 59 yards over the first 20 minutes, the Red Raiders rediscovered their offense. Behind senior Johnny Gomez (135 yards on 28 attempts, 105 in the second half), Fitchburg began to find holes. On third and goal from the 5, Kimber found Matt Fraticelli for a touchdown, and after Luke Arno's PAT, the Red Raiders were down by 7 with 3:43 left in the third.
With only 2:13 to go in the game, Fitchburg got the ball back for one final opportunity. A 16-yard carry by Gomez was followed by a 41-yard reception by Less. From the 5, Kimber hit Less on a slant, bringing Fitchburg within a point with 43 seconds left.
Coach Ray Cosenza did not hesitate to go for the win. But when Kimber dropped back, the senior had no time to do anything as an onslaught of defenders led by Joe Gannon took him hard to the ground.
"We had our chance," Cosenza said. "You can't just play one good half of football against a team like that."