High schools

DIVISION 4 NORTH | MARBLEHEAD 24, WILMINGTON 17

Marblehead stops Wilmington

MARBLEHEAD — The ninth-ranked Marblehead football team has found ways to win all season, and Friday night in the Division 4 North semifinals it was the same story.

A spirited second-half comeback attempt by Wilmington was halted when Marblehead senior Seamus Keaney intercepted a pass with less than a minute to play that punched the Magicians’ ticket back to the North sectional finals, 24-17.

Marblehead (9-0) will face off against top-seeded Melrose next week for the sectional title.

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“Tonight is the first night I feel like we are doing things now that ‘OK maybe this playoffs thing could work,’ ” said Marblehead coach Jim Rudloff.

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“I think our whole staff would agree with me that coming into the playoffs we were sort of like, you know, the Red Sox without a pitching staff going into the playoffs. And you are thinking like ‘This isn’t going to be fun.’ ”

Trailing, 24-0, at the half, Wilmington (7-2) got itself back into the contest on two touchdowns within seconds of each other late in the third quarter. Senior John Kenney ran in from 1 yard out, and on the very next play after on onside kick recovered by the Wildcats, senior Justin Fraser reeled in a 40-yard touchdown from classmate Graham Smith to make it 24-14.

Following a three and out from Marblehead, a 47-yard field goal by junior Adam Bishop split the uprights for Wilmington, and with 5:49 left to play it was a one-possession game.

A defensive stop gave Wilmington possession right back, and on a fourth and 16 at midfield, a roughing the passer call gave the Wildcats new life. But three plays later, Keaney came up with his acrobatic interception.

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“I just tried to stay on top of [the play]. I undercut [Tyler Roberts] and made a play on the ball,” said Keaney.

The Magicians put together a stellar first-half performance to take the 24-0 lead. Wilmington’s first drive of the game ended with Jack McGrath’s interception that led to a Phelan Tinti-Kane 32-yard field goal. On the first play of the second quarter, Tim Cronin dashed in for a 24-yard touchdown to make it 10-0.

Marblehead wasted no time going up by 17 on their next drive with an Andy Clough 6-yard quarterback keeper up the middle. The Magicians then put together a perfectly executed 99-yard drive to end the half that was capped off when Cronin found the end zone for the second time with a 22-yard run.

“Without a doubt that was the best first half we’ve had all year,” said Rudloff.

“The best part of it, too, was that they gave us a very tough defense to do some of those things we did against. Our kids executed.”

Karl Capen can be reached at karl.capen@globe.com.