GRAFTON – Grafton’s special teams – the third and often-unheralded phase of football – were all-important on Friday night.
The much-anticipated matchup between the No.6 Grafton Gators and No.11 South High (Worcester) Colonels went into halftime scoreless, but on the first play of the third quarter, Grafton’s senior captain Wesley Williams fielded the kickoff, evaded incoming defenders, and ran along the sideline for an 80-yard touchdown return.
Williams’s momentum-shifting play put Grafton ahead 7-0 and laid the foundation for the Gators’ 21-0 victory.
“I just saw an opening… I knew it was going to be there, so I had to take advantage of it,” Williams said after the game.
“Special teams are huge. We made adjustments this week. We told our kids that we needed some big plays, and that was the big play. Today, I thought special teams were phenomenal,” said Grafton Head Coach Chris McMahon.
Williams wasn’t the only special-teams standout. Finn Gilmore, the team’s sophomore do-it-all player, hit booming punt after booming punt, continually pinning South deep into their own territory. With both offenses struggling early – the game featured 11 punts, not including South’s first-quarter fake punt – Gilmore’s punts made an impact.
“South is so physical and tough; they’re relentless, they just keep coming at you,” said McMahon. “[The punts] flipped the field position a couple of times for us. Special teams are huge, especially in a game like this.”
The Gators kept their 7-0 lead until late in the fourth quarter. With 5:53 remaining in the game, Gilmore made another impact play, running to his right for a 15-yard touchdown that put Grafton ahead 14-0. Moments later, the Gators would officially ice the game; Williams made an interception – snagging one of South’s last-minute downfield heaves – and Gilmore promptly scored again. Gilmore’s 44-yard touchdown put Grafton ahead 21-0.
South’s offense never got going during the game, and even after the Colonels drove down the field in the game’s final seconds, Grafton stopped South inside the five-yard line to preserve the shutout.
“The defense played well. Hats off to the kids; I thought they did a nice job in practice. South shows many different looks – they can run the ball effectively, the quarterback can run the ball, they have great receivers. It’s a challenge, and we worked hard this week to adjust to their formations and make sure we were in the right place to make plays,” McMahon said.
The Gators will play No.14 Marblehead in the Division 4 quarterfinals. Marblehead upset No.3 Middleborough in the opening round of competition. The MIAA has not yet announced the time of Grafton’s upcoming matchup.
“We feel great… We’re reaching our potential and getting to the point we need to be,” said McMahon.
Williams echoed McMahon almost exactly.
“We feel great. We’re very confident,” he said. “[South] is a very good team, and we were able to shut them out. It was a good defensive effort, a good offensive effort, and we feel very confident moving on.”