MANCHESTER — With its 31-24 win over Campbell in Saturday night’s overtime thriller, the Trinity High School football team officially took a seat at the table of contenders in Division III.
The Pioneers (4-1) looked like the better team in this one, not necessarily dominating but instead making big plays when they needed them most. That included James Thibault’s 9-yard rushing touchdown on fourth down that gave Trinity the lead for good in the overtime period, during which both teams had four downs to score from the 10-yard line.
It was a play the Pioneers had run a few times over the course of the game. Thibault would line up as a wide receiver before motioning back toward the quarterback to receive a handoff the defense might not have been anticipating. The reverse only picked up a few yards at a time, but Thibault was able to make the most important carry count to hand Campbell (4-1) its first loss of the season.
“The (line)backers were going right and I would just sneak back from the right side and follow my lead blocker,” Thibault said. “He hit the corner and I just had a free lane in front of me.”
It wasn’t totally free. Thibault had to run over a defender at the 5-yard line before he was able to reach the end zone, but the point stands. Without that lead block setting the edge there was no way Thibault was going to find himself in the position to shed that arm tackle at all.
It stands to reason Campbell was probably expecting the ball to go to the other Thibault on the field, John, James’ older brother and the team’s most explosive offensive weapon. John rushed 19 times for 175 yards and three touchdowns in the game, making him an excellent decoy.
“I just looked at my brother and said, ‘We’re faking my way. They’re gonna bite on it, so run and get your butt in the end zone,’” John said. “This is what we play football for. This was amazing. Overtime against a great team. You really couldn’t ask for anything better.”
Campbell’s last chance to score didn’t feature the typical level of play for which the Cougars are known. On first down, Conor Sweeney fumbled the snap out of the shotgun, and though Campbell was able to recover, the play resulted in a 2-yard loss. The next play saw the Cougars go to star running back Keegan Mills, but he was stopped in the backfield for a 1-yard loss, setting up a third and goal from the 13-yard line. Sweeney was able to gain 10 yards up the middle to make it fourth and goal at the 3, but Avery Fraser stuffed him in the backfield to end the game.
“It was all because of my D-line,” Fraser said. “They opened the holes and I shot the gap and I hit him. It was a revenge game from last year (a Campbell victory). We just kept on pushing today.”
Though they allowed Campbell to rack up 307 yards of total offense, the Pioneers’ defense was rock solid, and their ability to hold Mills to 75 yards rushing on 22 carries spoke volumes.
“We just needed a lot of guys in the box and try to play the run, and we did that,” Trinity coach Rob Cathcart said. “There were times where they were doing some things where they caught us. It was actually (Carter) Vedrani that was killing us coming up the middle, so we had to adjust a couple things to try to take that away, and we did. That exposed us a little bit in the secondary, which is how they got that long pass late, but it ended up working out alright for us.”
The play Cathcart referred to was a 48-yard hookup between Sweeney and John Newell down the right sideline that set Campbell up with a first-and-goal opportunity at the 8-yard line with 13 seconds left in regulation. The Cougars were called for a false start on the subsequent play, backing them up to the 18, where their game-winning field goal attempt was snuffed out before Kyle Wark could even kick the ball.
It was just one of those timely plays Trinity was able to make. Another came with 14 seconds left in the first half. Starting at its own 33, Campbell drove down to the Trinity 14 and seemed on the verge of scoring some points before the break.
After throwing an incomplete pass on first down, Vedrani rolled to his right and fired for the end zone but was intercepted by Dantre Taylor. Crisis averted. Trinity led 18-8 at the half.
The Cougars wouldn’t quit, though. Cam Barrett scored on a 2-yard rush with 8:40 to go in the third period to cut the Trinity lead to two points, and a little over seven minutes later, Campbell took the lead, it’s first since going up 8-0 early in the first quarter on a 35-yard pass from Vedrani to Barrett.
“We knew coming into this game that it would be a good matchup,” Trinity’s Jacob Brown said. “We knew we had to work past adversity. If calls were made against us we had to move on.”
To their credit, the Pioneers did. John Thibault tied the game at 24 with 6:30 remaining in regulation on a 14-yard rushing touchdown. Liam McCoy missed the ensuing extra point after converting his previous four kicks in the game, and the stage was set for overtime.
Thibault also had rushing scores of 38 and 47 yards in the first half.
Trinity was far from perfect, fumbling the ball away three times, including on the opening kickoff. The Pioneers gutted it out, though, and want to let everyone know they’re for real.
“It was never a doubt that we were contenders,” Brown said. “We lost to Stevens last year in the playoffs but came back with the same team this year. I think we’ve always been a contender, we’re just misread as an organization.”