WALTHAM — John Papas ran his fingers through his salt-and-pepper goatee, asked his players to take a knee, and after a brief pause, began a postgame speech that came all too fast.
After 11 years and 77 wins as coach of the Buckingham, Browne & Nichols football team, Papas announced in November the 2013 campaign would be his last. But he agreed to coach one final game — the 36th annual Shriners’ Classic, a showcase of the best senior football players in Eastern Mass.
“You gave me the experience of a lifetime,” he told his North squad. “I loved every second of it.”
Driven by a sterling performance from Reading quarterback Drew Belcher (120 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Beverly’s Isaiah White (5 rushes, 47 yards), Papas finished his coaching career a victor. His North All-Stars never trailed in a 27-18 decision over the South All-Stars at Bentley University Saturday afternoon.
“As I prepared for this game, [I had] the same butterflies, I didn’t sleep last night — the feelings I hate came up,” said Papas. “But to win the game, and go out like this, it’s a dream come true.”
Papas and his North squad watched a 7-point lead evaporate with three minutes left in the second quarter when Natick’s Mike Abbruzzese returned an interception 50 yards for a touchdown.
With the lead down to 13-12, the North found its momentum to end the first half and never looked back.
At its 39 with 2:34 before halftime, Belcher marched the North on an eight-play, 61-yard scoring drive, highlighted by a 37-yard reception by Arlington’s Zachary Thomas. With 30 seconds to spare, Belcher pushed the pile across the line from 1 yard out as the North entered the locker room with a 20-12 advantage.
The South began the second half at the 20, but North’s defense remained relentless. With the South facing third and 14 from its 16-yard line, Northeast’s Marvey Mathurin hauled in an interception after a tip by Everett’s Angel Duarte, giving North possession at the South 27.
Belcher put a stamp on his Offensive Most Valuable Player campaign with 2:09 left in the third, driving North downfield and feeding St. Clement’s Khaneil Bruce with a 7-yard TD.
Wellesley’s John Fadule collected a 45-yard TD pass from Mansfield’s Kyle Winieski with two minutes left in the fourth to cut the deficit to 27-18, but the 2-point conversion failed.
The North sprinted to a 13-0 lead in the first 8:38 of regulation. Belcher logged his first touchdown pass 2:39 into the first quarter, connecting with Central Catholic’s Cody Demers on a 10-yard strike.