READING — As he led his team in a raucous celebration befitting of a thrilling tournament upset, North Andover star Freddy Gabin delivered a message to the doubters.
“I know people were jumping ship when we started the season 1-3,” said Gabin. “This year was a new challenge, but here we are. We’re back in the North championship game, and it feels so sweet.”
Gabin broke off two long touchdown runs to give his team the lead, Ricky Brutus added a long score and led a defense which forced four turnovers, and No. 4 seed North Andover shocked top-seeded Reading 21-18 in the Division 2 North semifinals on Friday night.
“This is crazy!’ said defensive back Jadynn Mencia, who had an interception and recovered a fumble, both in the red zone. “It’s crazy to be going back to the North finals. No one expected us to be here. Everyone slept on us. We want another championship ring.”
Defending Division 2 state champ Scarlet Knights (6-3) advances to face No. 2 Lincoln-Sudbury (7-2) in the Division 2 North championship game for the third straight season. The Knights won last fall, while L-S won two years ago.
A victory would earn North Andover a return trip to the Division 2 state championship game at Gillette Stadium.
“I’m so proud to be here,” said Brutus, who transferred from Methuen High in the offseason. “This is the furthest I have ever gone in the playoffs, and this team is just incredible.”
Reading (7-2) opened the game with a bang. Freshman QB James Murphy, son of ex-Reading and Northeastern great Jim Murphy, threw a 36-yard touchdown on the Rockets’ second play from scrimmage.
But on North Andover’s first play on the ensuing drive, Gabin broke free for a 68-yard touchdown run.
Then, after the two teams exchanged punts, Gabin struck again, this time slipping a tackle and going 46 yards to make the score 13-6.
“I had been waiting for that first score since Monday,” said Gabin, who finished with a game-high 182 yards on 19 carries. “I knew they would be keying on me, and that’s fine with me.
“On the second one, I took the pitch, saw the hole right away and I was gone. Hearing everyone calling my name was so great.”
Reading responded by driving to the North Andover 3-yard line just before halftime. But Brutus punched the ball free and Mencia jumped on it for the turnover.
“The runner was about to cross the goal line and Ricky stripped it,” said Mencia. “I knew I had to jump on it. It was huge.”
The Rockets drove inside the North Andover red zone on their first drive of the second half. But Max Wolfgang pressured the QB into a bad throw that Jake Wolinski picked it off.
Reading was able to score a drive later, but went for the 2-point conversion to take the lead, and again Wolinski was there to intercept the pass.
Brutus then delivered another big play, breaking a 65-yard touchdown run on his second carry of the game.
“I actually ran the wrong way,” he said with a laugh. “That’s not the way the play was supposed to go. But it worked out.”
Reading had two more shots, and North Andover squashed both chances. First, Mencia intercepted a pass, then on a desperation throw, Brutus tipped the ball into the air and Jack Carbone pulled down the pick.
“Our defense really stepped up,” said Gabin. “We had a few minor mistakes early, but we came through and shut then down.”
The Scarlet Knights now hope to repeat last year’s North Final success against Lincoln-Sudbury, this time as the away team.
“We have wanted L-S since the summer,” said Gabin. “We wanted the rematch, and we want to beat them again.”
North Andover 21, Reading 18
Division 2 North Semifinals
North Andover (6-3): 7 6 0 8 — 21
Reading (7-2): 6 0 0 12 — 18
R — Patrick Harrigan 36 pass from James Murphy (rush failed), 7:13
NA — Freddy Gabin 68 run (Seth DiSalvo kick), 6:55
NA — Gabin 46 run (kick failed), 6:35
R — Colin DuRoss 45 pass from Murphy (pass failed), 9:32
NA — Ricky Brutus 65 run (Gabin rush), 9:09
R — Dan DiMare 16 run (rush failed), 4:02
RUSHING: North Andover — Freddy Gabin 19-182, Ricky Brutus 4-64, Will Schimoeller 9-26, Sebastian Vente 1-9; Reading — Dan DiMare 20-68, Trevor Thornton 5-26, James Murphy 1-5, Nick Bates 2-8
PASSING: North Andover — Schimoeller 0-3-0; Reading — Murphy 10-22-3, 114
RECEIVING: Reading — Colin DuRoss 3-111, Patrick Harrison 4-66, Dan DiMare 2-34, Nick Perez 1-3
Contact David Willis at @DWillisET