PORTSMOUTH — It was the fourth quarter comeback that the St. Thomas Aquinas High School football team needed.
That only magnified a heart-wrenching ending.
Trailing 16-6 in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Division II semifinal game against No. 3 Alvirine, St. Thomas senior quarterback Shawn DeKorne engineered a pair of drives that gave the second-seeded Saints a 19-16 lead midway through the quarter.
Down to its final chance, Alvirne marched down the field in the final minute and scored on quarterback Kyle Gora’s 6-yard touchdown run with 24 seconds remaining to secure a 22-19 victory at Portsmouth High School’s Tom Daubney Field.
“This one really stings. I thought we had a real good shot at it,” St. Thomas coach Ryan Brown said. “The way the kids responded down 16-6 in the fourth quarter ... within five minutes we were up 19-16, and I figured maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But what are you going to do? What are you going to do?”
A week after winning it’s first playoff game in school history against No. 6 Milford, Alvirne (9-2) faces two-time defending Division II champion Plymouth (11-0) in next Saturday’s Division II championship game at the University of New Hampshire’s Wildcat Stadium. The Bobcats advanced with a 45-28 victory over No. 5 MIlford (7-4).
“We showed heart and we just made more plays than they did at the end,” Alvirne coach Tarek Rother said.
St. Thomas (9-2) fell into its 16-6 hole after Grady Hudson intercepted DeKorne and returned it 36 yards on the opening play of the fourth quarter. Gora followed with a 14-yard scamper on the next play, and Alex Giuffrida added a two-point conversion run.
DeKorne immediately responded. His 41-yard completion to Jack Benelli helped set up a 10-yard scoring toss to Will MacLean (12 catches, 179 yards) to slice the deficit to 16-12 with 9:51 left in the fourth.
St. Thomas recovered from an Edwin Estevez fumble by forcing a punt, which Henry De Tolla returned 25 yards to Alvirne’s 28. A 25-yard completion from DeKorne to Derek O’Brien helped set up a 1-yard scoring run by DeKorne to give the Saints a 19-16 lead with 6:04 remaining.
DeKorne competed 25 of 45 passes on the day for 298 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“The fourth quarter, down by 10, not one of us quit,” DeKorne said. “I love all of these guys and that last quarter meant a lot to come back.”
Nick Tosatti delivered STA's seventh sack of Gora on third down, killing an Alvirne drive that reached the St. Thomas 46. But the Saints couldn’t chew the remaining 4:18 off the clock, leaving Alvirne with 1:05 to work with.
Gora responded by delivering the biggest throw of the game — a 35-yard sideline completion to Morgan Williams that brought the ball to the STA 18. Gora only completed 6 of 16 passes for 100 yards in the game.
“He wasn’t throwing the ball very accurately all day, but when he needed to make the throws he made it happen,” Rothe said of his quarterback. “That’s a tribute to him having a short memory.”
Then Alvirne’s conservation of its timeouts paid off, as Gora ran the football three times, ending with his game-winning 6-yard run.
DeKorne connected twice with MacLean to move St. Thomas to Alvirne’s 37 with 5 seconds left, but a Hail Mary attempt fell short to end the game.
“They made one more big play than we did,” Brown said. “We knew (the pass) was coming. We practiced it all week. The kid just made a play.”
St. Thomas grabbed a 6-0 lead four minutes into the game on a 9-yard touchdown pass from DeKorne to Benelli, but the Saints stalled in Alvirne territory on their next three possessions, including being stopped at Alvrine’s 8 to end the first half. The Saints held a 315-191 yard advantage on the day.
“We scored on the first drive and then we left some opportunities,” Brown said. “It’s tough to overcome that sometimes. If we at least get something out of couple of those drives, we’re probably in a better situation there at the end. You can’t give them a chance to hang around at all, and that probably was the difference.”
BRONCOS 22, SAINTS 19
Alvirne 0 0 8 14—22
St. Thomas 6 0 0 13—19
STA—Benelli 9 pass from DeKorne (kick failed), 8:00.
Alv—Bertrand 18 run (Gora run), 8:49.
Alv—Gora 14 run (Giuffrida run), 11:39.
STA—MacLean 10 pass from DeKorne (pass failed), 9:51.
STA—DeKorne 1 run (Devost kick), 6:04.
Alv—Gora 6 run (run failed), :24.
RUSHING—Alvirne, Bertrand 7-39, Gora 21-31, Giuffrida 12-13, Pedi 1-8. St. Thomas, DeKorne 19-23, Estevez 2-(minus 3), Lassard 5-(minus 3).
PASSING—Alvirne, Gora 6-16—100. St. Thomas, DeKorne 25-45—298 (2 TDs, 2INTs).
RECEIVING— Alvirne, Williams 3-58, Clark 1-26, Bertrand 1-11, Regan 1-5. St. Thomas, MacLean 12-179, Benelli 3-61, O’Brien 7-43, Zheng 2-14, Estevez 1-1.