West Bridgewater’s Division 8 South title defense hung in the balance during a sectional semifinal matchup against Randolph.
Trailing, 22-15, with a little more than five minutes to play, the Wildcats capped a methodical scoring drive with a 6-yard touchdown run by quarterback Matt Lavoie on a triple-option read with three choices: Hand the ball to the running back, keep it, or pitch it to the wing back.
Time and time again, Lavoie had made the right choice out of that set, so first-year head coach Justin Kogler decided to gamble by putting the game in the hands of his senior, and Lavoie came through once again with the correct read, rushing for a 2-point conversion to earn a 23-22 win.
“Before the 2-point conversion, Kogler was laughing and said, ‘You ready for this moment?’ ” Lavoie recalled. “That was the biggest moment of my high school career so far.”
With Lavoie, senior running back Devin Georgantas, and junior wide receiver Ben Skinner leading the way, West Bridgewater (11-0) went on to clinch the sectional title and defeat KIPP Academy, 19-8, in the state semifinals to earn a trip to the D8 Super Bowl.
The Wildcats will face defending state champion St. Bernard’s (8-3) at Gillette Stadium on Dec. 6 or 7.
It’s familiar territory for Kogler, who led Old Rochester to the D6 Super Bowl last season before taking over at West Bridgewater for 33-year coach Bill Panos.
“Coach Panos was there a long time and [the players] were very comfortable with him,” said Kogler, who spent four years as head coach at ORR after three years as head coach at Bishop Connolly, where he compiled a 65-24 career record.
“There was some controversy when they decided to move on [from Panos] and these kids have been through a lot, but they’ve handled it very maturely and welcomed me,” Kogler said. “Seeing how happy they were on Saturday, that was the high point for me.”
For Lavoie and the Wildcats, it was certainly a big adjustment transitioning from a coach with such an established system. The aforementioned controversy resulting from Panos claiming he was forced to retire by the school administration (which was refuted by school officials) only complicated matters more.
As a freshman, Lavoie backed up his brother, Justin, at quarterback, then started two years under Panos, leading the Wildcats to the D8 state semifinals with help from All-Scholastic running back Christian Keeling.
The biggest adjustment for Lavoie was the new terminology in Kogler’s split-back veer option offense, which puts more onus on the quarterback than the straightforward power run game West Bridgewater employed in recent seasons.
“Playing with that system for three years and changing over to a new system was hard,” said Lavoie, who has excelled with 975 rushing yards, 16 touchdowns, and 8 passing touchdowns this season. “But the team grew a bond with Coach Kogler, and that’s what got us to this point.”
The Wildcats had to replace plenty of pieces from last year’s 10-2 team, including four starters on the offensive line. When that unit began to gel by Week 4, paving the way for a 42-8 victory at Coyle & Cassidy in a rematch of the 2018 sectional final, Kogler said he knew things were starting to click.
A former running back on Durfee’s sole Super Bowl team in 1991, and a three-year player at Bridgewater State University, Kogler has been through plenty of battles. But perhaps his most valuable asset is his recent experience leading Old Rochester to a sectional final and state final over the past two years.
“This year, because of last year, in the big moments I haven’t felt nervous,” said Kogler. “The more you coach in big games, the more comfortable you are and the more prepared you are to make difficult decisions under stress.”
Kogler seems to give the team confidence, but it’s the players making key plays.
Sophomore Joey LeClerc came up with two critical interceptions in the narrow win over Randolph, Georgantas has six touchdowns this postseason and is the lead linebacker on a defense that yielded a state-best 5.6 points per game during the regular season. And Skinner has been doing it all with 91 points this season as a receiver and kicker, to go along with 35 tackles and five interceptions from his defensive back position.
Motivated by a 31-14 loss to Pope John in the state semifinals last year, Lavoie and Co. are on a mission to bring West Bridgewater its third state title, and first since 2006.
“Last year was devastating,” said Lavoie. “But after [the Pope John] game, I told everyone we’d be back. We can do it. We have that heart and it’s great to see it happen. We did it for the seniors who graduated and for West Bridgewater. Hopefully this brings the town up and we have a big crowd at Gillette.”
Super Bowl lineup
The eight MIAA Super Bowls are scheduled for Gillette Stadium. Times will be announced Monday morning by the MIAA, with two games on Friday, Dec. 6, and six games on Saturday, Dec. 7.
Division 1: Catholic Memorial (10-0) vs. St. John’s Prep (9-1)
Division 2: Mansfield (9-1) vs. Lincoln-Sudbury (8-2)
Division 3: Duxbury (9-2) vs. Springfield Central (8-2)
Division 4: Melrose (10-0) vs. Plymouth South (10-1)
Division 5: Swampscott (9-2) vs. Amherst (11-0)
Division 6: Bishop Fenwick (9-1) vs. Ashland (11-0)
Division 7: Abington (9-2) vs Leicester (11-0)
Division 8: West Bridgewater (11-0) vs St. Bernard’s (8-3)
Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.