By Jim Fenton, The Enterprise (Brockton)
BOURNE, Mass. -- The Bridgewater State University football team closed out the 2019 season in memorable fashion.
Facing a 21-6 deficit in the final quarter of the 41st annual Cranberry Bowl, the Bears incredibly scored three touchdowns in the last 8:35 to stun the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.
A 10-yard TD pass from Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High graduate Stefano D’Emilia to T.J. Hairston with only 22 seconds remaining gave the Bears a thrilling 26-21 victory over the Buccaneers at windy Clean Harbors Stadium.
D’Emilia, selected the winner of the Lee Harrington most valuable player award, also scored on a 1-yard run with 8:35 remaining and completed a 14-yard TD pass to Nathan Ellis with 4:24 left.
After struggling with the steady wind, the BSU offense got into gear at the right time and helped the Bears finish 6-4, 6-2 in the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference. BSU now owns a 30-10-1 lead in the Cranberry Bowl, which began in 1979.
“I think we just realized what we had to do to win the game,” said D’Emilia, who was 20 of 38 for 174 yards. “Once we realized we needed to move the ball efficiently and get the ball down the field quickly, we were up for the challenge. This was our last ride.”
Said coach Joe Verria: “I’ve never seen anything like that one. It was an unbelievable game. They played their hearts out, we played our hearts out. These kids never quit. They never quit all year.”
After a scoreless first half, the Bears fell behind, 7-0, on a 1-yard run by quarterback Matt Long 4:09 into the second half with Bridgewater resident George Lampros kicking the point after. The score was set up by a 13-yard interception return to the BSU 24 by Kyle Rogers of Abington.
BSU moved within 7-6 on a 1-yard D’Emilia run with 2:35 to go in the third quarter, but Long extended the margin to 21-6 with a pair of TD runs from nine yards and one yard with 14:22 and 11:43 left in the game.
The Bears, who got 139 yards on 25 carries from Nick Santavicca in his final game, had struggled with the offense throughout, but the final three drives of D’Emilia’s career wound up with TDs.
“This was my last game, so I wanted to make sure I left it all on the field,” said D’Emilia. “We didn’t start the season the way we wanted to (going 0-3) and we didn’t start this game the way we wanted to. But both things go to show that we don’t quit and we’ll do anything and everything to get where we want to be. That’s it.”
The first scoring drive covered 58 yards in eight plays, the key one being a 25-yard pick up by Santavicca, before D’Emilia went in from a yard out to make it 21-12 after the kick was blocked.
The Bears forced a three-and-out, and the offense went 56 yards in seven plays to get within 21-19 on the TD pass to Ellis. D’Emilia had completions of 19 and 10 yards to Joseph Leanos and 13 yards to William Watts before finding Ellis.
The Buccaneers had the ball with 4:24 to go, but after picking up a quick first down, were forced to punt again. BSU started the winning drive at its 32 with 3:19 to go.
D’Emilia had eight completions to six different receivers, and there were a pair of third-down conversions before Hairston caught the Cranberry Bowl-winning TD pass on the left side of the end zone.
“It’s tough to play here with the wind howling and it’s cold and it’s adversity,” said D’Emilia, who finished the season with 22 TD passes (52 in his career) and 2,187 yards. “But it’s nothing new to us. We’ve been battling adversity all four years. It’s just good to finish on top.”
Said Verria: “It was 0-0 at halftime and I said to the kids at halftime that this is going to be a special game. Something’s going to happen, somebody’s going to make a big play or a bad play. This team has no quit in it. This is the greatest win I’ve been involved with in a long time. The kids just never quit.”