SACO – For the past three years, it had been a punchline. In each Shrine Lobster Bowl, the East’s defense had been the movable object, the resistable force, and the path of least resistance for a West team that lit up one scoreboard after another, after another.

With the West loaded with offensive talent again, it was supposed to be the same story. The East defense, however, wrote a new narrative, swarming West ballcarriers, harassing West quarterbacks and turning punter Kyle Glidden into the West’s star player.

The final score was 40-14. It was 6-0 at halftime. And it wasn’t a fluke. Predicted to be pushed around going in, the East defense – led by relentless efforts in the trenches from Konnor Harford, Zeb Leavitt, Tyler Bean, Adam Bertrand and Ryan Fredette – instead couldn’t be budged, setting the tone for a win few saw coming.

“We won this game with grit,” said Leavitt, a Cheverus alum. “It’s in our bones. We’re a rowdy group, we’re a tough group, and we’re going to play smashmouth football every down in this game. … That’s exactly what we did.”

Coach Dan Cooper needed only to look at his roster to get a sense for what his team could accomplish.

“We really had a lot of athletic guys, some tough guys up front,” Cooper said. “Really, our team speed was off the charts. … I knew (defensive coordinator Mike) Marsten would have his troops well-prepared.”

There was some significant history to overcome, however. The East allowed 45 points in a loss in 2015, 58 in a win in 2016 and 55 in a loss last season. And with Bates-bound quarterback Jack Bryant and Fitzpatrick Trophy-winning running back Owen Garrard leading the West attack this time, it looked like the East was on its way to being overwhelmed again.

“That’s motivation,” Leavitt said. “That’s all that is.”

That changed once the teams took the field, and the East, with the West threatening on its first drive of the game with the ball at the East 33-yard line, made its first stand. On a third-and-6 carry, Parker Onorato was first pulled back in the backfield by Bean, and then finished off by Harford for a drive-killing 13-yard loss.

Onorato had barely gotten up when a scuffle broke out, with Fredette giving a shove that helped turn it into a fracas with offsetting penalties.

It was if a message had been sent. This time, the East was doing the shoving around.

“I think the West expected us to be intimidated and fold, and that was quite the opposite,” Cooper said. “We were ready for anything they wanted to throw at us.”

It wasn’t just an early statement. For the rest of the half and the start of the third quarter, West ballcarriers had nowhere to go. The East linemen swarmed to the ball, plugging holes up the middle and beating blockers to the edge on sweeps. West backs gained only 65 yards on 24 first-half carries. At the break, Garrard, at 28 yards on seven attempts, was the leading rusher.

“We’ve got some big guys up the middle, but we’ve also got that speed behind us,” Belfast’s Harford said. “We were playing with our hearts, because a lot of us aren’t even playing next year. This was our last game.”

The swarming defense was impressive, and the East needed it to be. The offense had few answers for a West unit that was nearly as stout, and with each time quarterback and punter Grant Hartley was summoned to kick the East out of trouble, the pressure fell on the defense not to buckle.

It never did. In a game in which the points usually come early and often, the West escaped its own territory on only two drives in the first half, and punted seven times. The East offense wasn’t moving the ball, and yet was earning one victory after another in the field-position battle.

“We played real, real tough,” Leavitt said. “We didn’t want to give them an inch.”

The East offense finally broke through with a 56-yard touchdown pass from Braden Ballard to Jordan Roddy with 9:15 to go in the second quarter. While the East piled on the points in the second half, however, the defense stayed strong, keeping the West off the board until 1:07 remained in the third quarter.

The only thing needed by the fourth quarter was a turnover, which defensive MVP Vinnie Pasquali took care of in the form of a 45-yard interception return for the game’s final touchdown, putting a cap on both the afternoon and what ended up being a resounding statement.

“The kids worked hard every day. It was six days of hard work,” Cooper said. “The kids played really well. They believed all week.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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