Victory from behind sends Milton’s football into the division. 3 semi-finals

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MILTON – These magicians have almost pulled off the most surprising trick of all: making the Milton High football team disappear…at least until Thanksgiving.

Eighth-seeded Marblehead pushed the Wildcats down a 13-point hole in the second quarter Friday night, but the top-seeded hosts responded like the champions they aspire to be. Trailing 20-7, Milton shut out the Magicians in the final 28 minutes and relied on stars such as Jack Finnegan, Owen McHugh and Michael Fulton to come back for a 24-20 Division quarter-final victory 3.

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Milton (9-0) will face No. 4 Hannover (8-2) in a neutral-site semi-final that promises plenty of firepower. Since a Week 1 loss to still-undefeated Duxbury, the Hawks are averaging 38.4 points per game and out a 40-37 shootout victory over No. 5 Walpole. The Wildcats, with McHugh at quarterback, are averaging 35.3 points, starting their offense after a slow start against defending state champion Marblehead.

It should be a good one.

“They pass the ball and direct it (good) and they’re super aggressive,” Milton coach Steve Dembowski said of Hannover. “Walpole are an exceptional football team. We know it will be a battle.”

The top-seeded Milton High football team celebrates with an MIAA Final Four banner after defeating Marblehead, 24-20, in a Division 3 State quarter-final on Friday, November 11, 2022. The Wildcats (9-0) advance to play Hannover (8-2) in the semi-finals.

This one was definitely no pushover. In fact, first-half adversity was uncharted territory for the Wildcats, who had trailed only three times all season:

They lost 7-0 to Scituate in the first quarter of Week 1 and won 33-26.

They lost 7-0 to Needham in the first quarter of Week 6 and won 41-7.

And they lost 7-0 to Minnechaug in the first quarter of last week’s playoff opener and won 46-21.

So, yes, it was a little different.

Eddie Johns’ 9-yard run with 4:38 left in the first quarter gave Marblehead (7-2) a 7-0 lead. Milton matched that as Finnegan capped a 13-play, 70-yard drive that bridged the first and second quarters with a 6-yard run. He kicked the extra point for a 7-7 tie.

Milton's Jack Finnegan, shown here against Walpole, rushed for 122 yards and a pair of touchdowns for the Wildcats in Friday's playoff win over Marblehead.

Then it was all Marblehead for a while as the Magicians used an interception to set up Johns’ 1-yard run for a 14-7 lead and a third sack to set the stage for a 52-yard TD pass from Miles O’Neill to Zander Danforth for a 20-7 lead (the PAT blocked) with 4:16 to go in the first half.

Suddenly the Wildcats were giddy.

That they didn’t fall was a good sign for a team that entered the game with an absurd plus-200 point differential (294 points for, 94 points against).

“It’s amazing,” said Finnegan, who rushed 24 times for 122 yards and two touchdowns. “It’s a great experience to play (from behind and to win). Now in the next round we’re not going to be scared (if we fall) and we’re going to keep fighting.”

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Milton’s comeback started innocently enough as the Wildcats went from their own 20 to a first down at Marblehead 13 heading into halftime. The practice ended there, however, and it almost looked like a win for the Magicians when Finnegan threw a 25-yard field goal to cut the lead to 20-10 with 19 seconds left in the half.

“I thought scoring the basket at the end of the first half to make it a 10-point game was the right decision because of the situation we were in,” Dembowski said. “They had been playing us pretty well inside the goal line. Getting the 3 there, and Finny being as good as he can be with kicks, was a really big play there.”

Milton QB Owen McHugh, shown here against Walpole, threw for 164 yards and a touchdown to lead the Wildcats to a 24-20 win over Marblehead on Friday.

“They were playing good defense (in the red zone),” McHugh said. “They stopped us a few times. (Taking the three points there) definitely worked at the end. It gave us a good boost at the start of the half knowing we were getting the ball (to start the third quarter).”

Milton’s second half was a thing of beauty as McHugh (16 of 24 passes for 164 yards) hit Fulton with a 45-yard TD pass to cut the lead to 20-17 with 3:11 left in the third quarter, and Finnegan plowed 2 yards for the go-ahead with 8:23 left in the fourth quarter.

Meanwhile, all three of Marblehead’s second-half drives ended like this: turnover on the lows, punt, punt. The Magicians collected five first tries after half-time, but the deepest they got was the Milton 38.

“I thought we were hesitant in the first half,” Dembowski said. “We didn’t attack as much as we usually do in defense and we were playing hesitant in attack. (At half-time) I just said, ‘Guys, now we’re the chaser. We were kicked out in the first half and we didn’t handle it well. We have to play aggressively, we have to play our style and be who we are.

“Obviously it really showed in defense in the second half and Juice (McHugh) kind of took over, doing what Juice does. The O line was huge, the D line had pressure. Miles O’Neill is a potential (college) stock player, and we did a good job in the second half without allowing any big plays. I’m really proud that we were able to get our bearings at halftime and move on .

Milton coach Steve Dembowski will lead the Wildcats in a split.  3-state semi-final against Hannover next week.

Milton’s first drive in the third quarter fell through at Marblehead 11 when McHugh’s fourth pass to Finnegan fell incomplete. Still, the Wildcats collected four first downs on the run and set the tone early when Finnegan carried a defender to the sideline at the end of a 22-yard run on the first play from scrimmage.

After Marblehead returned the favor on fourth down – O’Neill (15 of 20 passes for 216 yards, TD) threw wide on fourth-and-2 of the Milton 38 to block the Magicians’ first drive of the second half – The Wildcats have struck. On the third play of Milton’s practice, McHugh saw Fulton (5 catches for 79 yards) dart along the right sideline and hit him in stride for a 45-yard touchdown. Finnegan’s PAT went 20-17.

“We saw something we liked there, so we took a chance,” McHugh said. “Michael runs some great runs. He passes (the cornerback) and was wide open. All I had to do was give it to him and let him run.”

On his retreat, McHugh first glanced down the middle but quickly turned his head to find Fulton.

“It was like a high-low (combination),” McHugh said. “We had an exit (route) so I looked at that first, but they jumped on it so I went to Mike over it.”

Finnegan’s 34-yard punt return to 50 late in the third quarter set up the game-winning drive. McHugh rushed for 17 yards and then hit Fulton for 7 yards on a crushing drive on fourth-and-third to give the Wildcats a first-and-forth at 7.

“We got past that yesterday,” McHugh said of the game. “They were playing soft and they were giving us the bottom lanes. Mike hit a great lane and opened up, so I threw it to him.”

Three plays later, Finnegan crashed out of the 2 for his second touchdown of the night and his 15th of the season (12 points, a strike, a six pick and a punt return).

“It was a regular zone game that we play all the time,” Finnegan said. “I cut and saw a spot and it was wide open in the end zone.”

Marblehead threw the fourth and 20 of their own 48 with 3:23 to go, hoping to stop and win the ball. The Wildcats didn’t oblige as McHugh scrambled for 5 yards on third-and-4 and Finnegan got 6 yards on second-and-2 to help Milton miss time.

Next up is the much-publicized showdown with fellow countryman Hannover, who have won six in a row. Hanover QB Ben Scalzi has unofficially completed 73.3% of his throws for 2,186 yards with 22 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. McHugh, unofficially, completed 65.6 percent for 1,869 yards with 24 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.

Like we said, it should be fun.

“It’s something we’ve been working for for so long,” McHugh said of the still-living dream of a state crown. “We are delighted to have a chance (to win everything). We will make the most of it.”

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