By Tris Wykes
Copyright Octopus Athletics 2021
LEBANON – The more daunting the situation for the Lebanon High football team Saturday, the worse the weather became. By the end, with Milford exiting Henry Emerton Field with a 24-14 victory in the NHIAA Division II semifinals, a cold, slanting rain was made all the worse by strong winds and rapidly descending temperatures.
Raiders coach Chris Childs conducted a brief, postgame interview while a pair of portable awnings in the nearby student section blew over, their legs jutting aloft at crazy angles. Reporters’ umbrellas snapped in the gusts as Childs described his second-seeded team’s loss to the third-seeded Spartans.
“It’s hard,” said Childs, whose son, C.J., was one of 13 Raiders seniors, many of whom played together beginning in elementary school. “I told them they had a hell of a (season) and to keep their heads up. They’ve accomplished a lot in high school, but this isn’t what our goal was at the end.”
The game’s turning point came shortly after the second-half kickoff and with Milford leading, 17-14. Lebanon received the ball and senior quarterback Jack Stone ran four consecutive times, gaining a combined 21 yards. It was a clear declaration by the hosts that they were going to utilize their best player and trademark ground game.
Then… disaster. Senior running back Nyeoti Punni ran for 9 yards and lost a fumble, setting Milford up at midfield. The Spartans soon faced fourth-and-3 at the Raiders’ 43-yard line and 5-foot-11, 215-pound bull Caden Zalenski rumbled for 16 yards. Chris Cotsifas powered 8 yards for a touchdown six snaps later and the extra point made the score 24-14 with five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“I thought we had some momentum going and then we put the ball on the carpet,” Chris Childs said. “I think if we go down there and punch that one in, it’s a different game for sure. The turnovers are what hurt us today.”
Lebanon’s first turnover occurred on its initial drive and after Milford’s Colin Gregg missed a 38-yard field goal attempt. The Raiders drove 36 yards in eight plays, all runs, before Stone handed off to C.J. Childs, who lost a fumble at the Spartans’ 41-yard line. The hosts protested vigorously that Childs’ knee was down before the ball came loose, but to no avail.
Milford (8-2) opened the scoring 11 plays later when Gregg booted a 33-yard field goal. The visitors forced Lebanon (9-1) into a three-and-out, regained the ball at their 47-yard line and needed only three plays to produce the contest’s first touchdown.
Logan Barnhill ran up the middle, broke free of cornerback Sawyer Beaulieu’s attempted tackle and reached the end zone on a 45-yard play. Gregg’s extra point gave the Spartans a 10-0 lead a minute into the second quarter.
Lebanon again went three-and-out, but this time Stone’s punt was caught and fumbled by his quarterback counterpart, Chuck Urda. Lebanon took over at the Spartans’ 26-yard line and scored on a 1-yard Stone run eight plays later. Tanner Ames’ extra point pulled the hosts within 10-7, six minutes before halftime.
The Raiders got the ball back three minutes later after a punt, but at their 15-yard line. A holding penalty pushed them back to the 8 and a Punni run lost a yard. Stone then threw towards C.J. Childs in the right flat but Caleb Francoer stepped in front of Childs, intercepted the pass and returned it 10 yards for a touchdown. Gregg added the extra point.
Now trailing, 17-7, Lebanon rallied on one of the season’s most startling plays. Throwing deep from his 45-yard line, Stone watched his pass deflect off Ames’ hands, off Urda’s paws and into the mitts of secondary receiver Justin DeCarlo. The senior scampered 10 yards to complete a 55-yard scoring strike. Ames’ successful conversion kick made the score 17-14 a minute before intermission.
Lebanon was outrushed, 249 yards to 75, and wasn’t able to gain traction on the ground. Milford had the beef to stop runs between the tackles and enough quickness that the Raiders couldn’t turn the corner when they ran outside. The Spartans’ linebackers and defensive backs were outstanding in closing on the ball carrier once he crossed the line of scrimmage.
“They were able to move us off the ball and they won the battle in the trenches tonight,” Chris Childs said. “They cut us down and didn’t let us get to the edge and have any big plays out there.”
Notes: Chris Childs has coached Lebanon for 15 years and said he will wait until after New Year’s to decide whether he’ll return for a 16th campaign. C.J. Childs is being recruited to play NCAA Division III football, so the question of whether his father will want to be free to attend his son’s college games exists. In addition, the Raiders will face a significant rebuilding job during the next few years… Milford was penalized six times for 65 yards and Lebanon four times for 35 yards. What left the Raiders steaming, however, were at least half a dozen plays where they felt a flag should have been thrown… Lebanon lineman Cam Davio played much of the season with a cast on his left hand and wrapped his club in a plastic bag Saturday so it could withstand the rain… Saturday was the 11th anniversary of Lebanon’s victory in the 2010 Division IV state title game. There were six divisions at the time… The star of that 2010 squad, running back and linebacker Cody Patch, attended Saturday’s contest with his two young children. Patch went on to play at Dartmouth College and now works for his family’s orchard business… The local Valley News once went to great lengths to cover in person all local high school teams that reached playoff semifinals, even in the Twin States’ far reaches. Saturday, it sent a freelance photographer but no writer to the Lebanon game, instead publishing a piece by Nashua Telegraph reporter Tom King. The paper has two staff sports writers but recently eliminated its sports editor position… Lebanon’s seniors are C.J. Childs, Stone, Cole Shambo, Zach Whitcomb, DeCarlo, Hunter Grant, Punni, Steve Miller, Sebastian Yates, Davio, Connor Brown, Mason Arado and Zander Davis.
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