PITTSFIELD — Even after giving up a 63-yard touchdown on the game’s very first play from scrimmage, Friday night belonged to the Maine Central Institute defense.

The second-seeded Huskies rebounded nicely, scoring 46 unanswered points and rolling to a 46-21 win over No. 3 John Bapst in a Class C North football semifinal at Alumni Field. MCI advanced to its fifth regional final appearance in six seasons, after a brief one-year hiatus last season.

MCI (8-2) forced the Crusaders into five turnovers Friday night, including two interceptions, one of which senior Will Russell returned 52 yards for a third-quarter touchdown. John Bapst (7-3) turned the ball over on its first three possessions after halftime, and the Huskies turned them all into points.

Those points took a 12-point game through two quarters and turned it into a 39-7 rout.

“I saw they were running a quick out,” said Russell of his interception return. “I tried to overplay it a little bit, and luckily it was overthrown just a little bit. I had some good blocks on the way back.”

Cole Steeves, Elijah Bagley, Xavier Moss and Ryan Friend each rushed for MCI touchdowns. Friend also threw a 6-yard scoring pass to Dominic Wilson.

The offensive statistics were nice, including Moss’ strong effort with the second-teamers, but it was the defense MCI head coach Tom Bertrand was most impressed with.

“Big plays defensively are more important than big plays offensively sometimes,” said Bertrand, whose team gets the winner of Saturday’s other semifinal between Winslow and Hermon next week. “We really needed to buckle down on third down. We haven’t done a good job on third down, so our defensive coordinator (Lincoln Robinson) set some goals, and that’s one of them — to make plays on third down.”

John Bapst was just 2 for 9 on third-down conversions. The Crusaders also were stopped twice on fourth down tries.

After Max Chadwick opened the game for John Bapst with his long run for a touchdown, it was a tough slog offensively for the Crusaders. The visitors managed just 45 yards of offense the rest of the first half and minus-1 yards in the third quarter.

“We’ve got to keep the mindset that big plays are going to happen,” Russell said. “You’ve just got to bounce back from it. You’ve got to keep focused on the goal at the end.”

One key series early in the second quarter illustrated just how good MCI’s defense was, with the best of three straight John Bapst offensive plays netting minus-5 yards. On first-and-10 from the MCI 42, Huskies’ junior Nason Berthelette clubbed Chadwick for an 8-yard loss, and on the very next play Berthelette hunted Quinn Mitchell down in the backfield for a 5-yard loss. On third-and-28, a fumbled pitch resulted in another negative 13 yards.

“We really came together and started clicking as one,” Berthelette said. “Yeah, it got in our head a little bit. But coach talked to us and we decided to kick it up a notch and play harder.”

“We challenge them to respond week in and week out, and they did,” Bertrand said. “They understood that they needed to step it up, for sure.”

All of that set up an 8-yard punt by John Bapst, and six plays later Friend scored on a 7-yard keeper to set MCI up for halftime.

Steeves finished with 139 yards rushing to lead MCI’s ground attack, and Friend completed 4 of 4 passes for 53 yards and a touchdown.

Rhett McDonald caught a 75-yard touchdown pass for John Bapst in the fourth quarter during running time, and Mitchell ran one in from 2 yards out to keep the Crusaders’ hopes alive late. But a more a drive of more than four and a half minutes from MCI ran out the clock and sent the Huskies back to the regional final.

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