FOXBOROUGH — In a stirring finale that will be remembered in his proud hometown for years, PJ Celestino hand delivered Rockland its first football championship in over two decades.
What did the senior captain not do?
He threw an 8-yard touchdown pass. He scored on a 1-yard keeper. And, scooping up a kickoff on his own 1, scampered 99 yards for a dazzling TD to power the Bulldogs to a 23-13 victory over South Shore League rival Abington for the MIAA Division 6 championship at Gillette Stadium.
“Jack of all trades, man,” Rockland coach Nick Liquori said of Celestino, who, amazingly, is also the Bulldogs’ long snapper.
“Coming into the year we didn’t know what we were going to get and we had tryouts like, who can snap? PJ can. He’s just an asset to have in all aspects of it.”
On the game’s first drive, Celestino (209 all-purpose yards) broke off a 41-yard run down inside the Abington 10-yard line before hitting junior Lucas Leander for an 8-yard touchdown pass.
His second touchdown was a sneak from the 1 on fourth and goal in which he dived over the top of the pile.
“Sometimes he asks for a break and I say ‘not today,’” said Liquori.
With numerous responsibilities and the No. 11 on his back, the 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound Celestino looked a lot like another No. 11 that used to roam the sidelines of Gillette Stadium.
But he wears 11 with a heavy heart.
It’s a tribute to his late brother — Michael Johansen — who died at age 27 in July .
“He was a huge part of my life,” said Celestino. “He wore 11 and he played hockey [in Rockland] for years and all throughout his life and through high school and this year I kind of wanted to honor him in any way I could.”
After the Green Wave (11-2) scored their first touchdown of the game — a 7-yard run from junior Isaiah Ricketson for a 13-7 game — Celestino bobbled the ensuing kickoff at his own 1-yard line. But he made a few Abington defenders miss for the 99-yard score and swung the momentum decisively back in Rockland’s favor.
“They’re so close-knit,” said Liquori, a member of Rockland’s state championship team in 1992. “It’s family, it really is. For us to be able to scold some of these guys on the sideline and give them a hug two minutes later afterwards and they appreciate it, too.”
The Bulldogs defense forced five turnovers and two of those were interceptions from sophomore Jacob Coulstring, who also had a team-high 59 yards on 17 attempts.
“It’s crazy just playing where the Patriots play, but you just have to stay contained,” said Coulstring. “You can’t get over-hyped or anything, you just have to stay focused and into the game. That’s what we did a good job of.”
On the other side for Abington stood legendary head coach Jim Kelliher returning from a two-game absence due to a bout with COVID-19. It wasn’t the result that he wanted but he assured that, after 48 years, this was not it for him.
“I’m always thinking I’m coming back, I plan to be coming back,” said Kelliher. “That could change, I know no matter what you say, I’m on my low end of the totem pole. I understand that, everybody understands that. It’s going to be another couple of years before I’m going to be gone.”
Abington was going for back-to-back titles after beating Leicester, 21-7, in the 2019 Division 7 Super Bowl.
Correspondent Lenny Rowe contributed to this story.
Rockland 23, Abington 13
Rockland (10-2) 6 17 0 0 — 23
Abington (11-2) 0 6 7 0 — 13
R — Lucas Leander 11 pass from PJ Celestino (kick failed)
R — PJ Celestino 1 run (Jerry Esposito kick)
A — Isaiah Ricketson 7 run (Dasean Leggett kick)
R — PJ Celestino 99 kickoff return (Jerry Esposito kick)
R — Jerry Esposito 25 field goal
A — Mason Kilmain 4 run (pass failed)
RUSHING — A, Kurtis Lucas-Summers 13-48, Drew Donovan 9-41, Mason Kilmain 4-10, Isaiah Ricketson 3-7; R, Lucas Leander 10-67, Jacob Coulstring 17-59, PJ Celestino 17-44, Brett Armstrong 3-13
PASSING — A, Eddie Reilly 8-19-2-90; R, PJ Celestino 4-9-0-66
RECEIVING — A, Tommy Fanara 2-40, Drew Donovan 4-34, Dasean Leggett 2-16; R, Logan Rogers 2-63, Lucas Leander 2-29.