On a night where BFA-St. Albans honored its seniors, a tall and lanky 6-foot-3 sophomore provided the game-changing play.
Then Doug Saffo and Lucas Kelsey, two of BFA’s 15 seniors, took advantage of the good fortunes created by Matt Sanders, the sophomore.
Sanders, a defensive lineman, made a one-handed interception in the fourth quarter, sparking a 14-point, three-minute turnaround to help BFA rally past Essex, 28-26, in a tense Division I high school football clash Friday night.
Saffo collected 223 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, including a 63-yarder, Kelsey piled up 145 rushing yards and Sanders finished with two interceptions – each coming deep in BFA territory – as the Bobwhites (6-1) overcame early mistakes to hold off the Hornets and gain the inside track to the No. 2 seed for the D-I playoffs.
“We’ve got some of the best fans here at BFA. We just got our heads together and played our butts off,” Saffo said. “It was our Senior Night and we only get one of them.”
And the pre-game ceremony was nearly the only happy takeaway for those senior Bobwhites – until Sanders turned the game into his team’s favor.
Down 20-14 with 11:08 left in the fourth quarter, Sanders reached back to snare Essex quarterback Joey Picard’s pass just inside the 20-yard line. Two plays later, Saffo went 63 yards down the BFA sideline for the go-ahead score.
On its next possession, Essex fumbled, giving BFA the ball at the 20-yard line, where Kelsey preceded to cap a short drive with an 8-yard TD run up the middle for a 28-20 advantage, 8:06 left in regulation.
The Hornets staged a comeback bid behind Picard, who finished with 230 passing yards and 61 rushing yards.
On a drive where Picard converted a pair of fourth-down conversions with his legs, the senior gunslinger fired a 13-yard TD pass on a third and 11 to Ryan Forbes with 4:21 to go, cutting the deficit to 28-26. On the two-point conversion attempt, Picard’s pass into the end zone sailed high for his receiver.
The Bobwhites ran out the clock behind the power running of Saffo and Kelsey. BFA did fumble at the Essex 1-yard line in the closing seconds, but the ball rolled out of bounds.
“Honestly, we were fortunate. We were very displeased with our performance in the first half,” said Murray, who lamented his team’s “uncharacteristic and undisciplined” mistakes. “Essex has a very good team. With the way they throw the ball, run the ball, you just can’t do that.
“It really could have cost us, but we made some big plays at key times to get us back in the game.”
After giving up a short Saffo touchdown run in the first quarter, the Hornets ripped off 20 straight points. Tyler Warren (52 rushing yards) had TD runs of 4 and 1 yards on back-to-back Essex possessions, the latter coming with 10:46 left in the second quarter.
Essex extended its lead when Picard hooked up with James Olsen (five catches, 42 yards), who used his size and speed to fight his way into the end zone on a 12-yard catch and run.
Saffo notched his second TD shortly before the half and Sanders picked off Picard for the first time, an interception that abruptly ended an Essex drive inside the BFA 10-yard line.
“Matt’s a heady player. He reads things very well. It doesn’t take him long to learn,” Murray said. “Once he sees the play going on, he can adjust. Matt made a couple of great catches.”
While Essex, at times, controlled the line of scrimmage behind the efforts of Noah MacGilliray and Joseph Ramada, coach Charlie Burnett said it’s tough to hold down BFA for all four quarters.
“We thought we had a good game plan. It went well for most of the game, but you can’t expect to have your way with BFA,” said Burnett, whose Hornets drop to 5-2. “We’re disappointed of course, but we’re playing playoff-caliber football.
“We’ll lick our wounds and get ready for (South Burlington).”
Willie McSoley led Essex receivers with five catches for 69 yards, including a 50-yarder on a screen pass that set up Warren’s first TD.