The St. Mary’s football team underwent its fair share of struggles in the early stages this season. A competitive schedule put the Spartans at 4-3 at the end of the regular season, a somewhat below-average mark for St. Mary’s. Those tough opponents paid dividends when St. Mary’s stepped into the state tournament, as the Spartans ran the table en route to Saturday’s (11 a.m.) Division 7 state championship game at Gillette Stadium.
Standing in St. Mary’s way is a motivated Blackstone Valley team that hasn’t lost since Week 1. The Beavers, 10-1, are looking to redeem themselves after losing last year’s Division 7 state championship game when they lost to Mashpee, 22-16.
“Having been there last year has helped us,” Beavers coach Jim Archibald, in his eighth season, said. “It’s a business as usual approach. Preparing for the playoffs the last two years, it’s something our kids are used to. We pride ourselves in playing in big games. Our kids have been loose in practice, trying to learn what St. Mary’s does and how we’re going to play that. These things don’t happen every year. We’re trying to enjoy that and work hard every day.”
Blackstone Valley’s also playing in honor of the late Derek Yancik, a former assistant coach who died in May after a battle with pancreatic cancer. Yancik was on the sideline during last year’s state championship and received a video message from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady before the game. In the video, Brady shared words of support and wished Yancik luck in his battle.
“Tom Brady sent him a message before the game,” Archibald said. “He sent it to the kids. It was cool. It touched all of us. (Yancik) taught us what it’s like to be a fighter. He was always there. He had a relationship with the kids that goes beyond player-coach.
“We were so proud of him for fighting the way he did,” Archibald continued. “We just miss him so much. We remember him every day. Even though he can’t be on the sidelines with us, we know he’ll be watching Saturday.”
Offensively, the Beavers are led by junior running back J.D. Antaya, who has scored 13 rushing touchdowns. Senior quarterback Scott Mackay has thrown for 1100 yards and tossed 19 touchdown passes. Senior receiver Connor Christensen has caught 19 passes for 312 yards and five touchdowns.
“We have to control the line of scrimmage,” Archibald said. “St. Mary’s is a physical team. They’re tough, they come right at you. We have to limit their success on first and second own and see if we can get out defense off the field. Offensively we have to put drives together. We have to stand drives, move the cains, mix it up and put some drives together.”
Defensively, Blackstone Valley has allowed no more than 13 points in a game this season. The Beavers are led by cornerback Antaya, who leads Central Mass. with five interceptions, senior defensive end Jordyn Amero (60 tackles, 10 sacks) and senior middle linebacker Alex Tashjian (85 tackles).
“The first thing that jumps out to me is their team speed,” Archibald said of the Spartans. “They’re all over the field. They’re very physical. They come right at you. They seem like a well-coached team. They seem to be a run-first team with three good running backs.”
Archibald feels his team came together at the right time after its season-opening loss and is playing its best football.
“It’s all clicking for us,” Archibald said. “Offense, defense, special teams have all been good for us. Our offense has played well. Our defense has allowed 13 points twice, that’s the most we’ve allowed. After that first loss, we’ve played well. We’re happy with how we’ve performed and we’re happy to be back playing for a state championship.”