By Scott Roche, The Enterprise (Brockton)
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- It has been an up-and-down 12 months for the Bridgewater State University football team.
After finishing last season at 2-8, the Bears began the 2018 season 1-2 before finishing the regular season winning six of their final seven games, which allowed Bridgewater State a berth in the 2018 New England Bowl.
The Bears forced five turnovers and turned three of them into third-quarter touchdowns on their way to a 34-19 victory over Salve Regina at Swenson Field on Saturday to finish the season at 8-3.
"It's tremendous to win this game," Bridgewater State coach Joe Verria said. "(Former Bridgewater State) Coach (Peter) Mazzaferro always would say that you want to win the first game of the year and the last one, because the first one starts you off and the last one sends you into the offseason with a look toward next year. These kids have been working hard all year, trusting everything we have been telling them and week after week we got better and better. This is a great way to end the season."
Leading 12-5 at halftime, the Bears' defense went to work in the third quarter when New England Bowl MVP Chris Easter picked off a pass and returned it to the Seahawks' 16. Two plays later, Bridgewater State junior running back Nick Santavicca scored on a 2-yard run. Jack Lavanchy caught the two-point conversion pass from Brad Thiltgen for a 20-5 lead.
On the next Salve Regina possession, Bridgewater State freshman defensive back Jaren Alves picked off a pass and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown and a 26-5 Bears lead.
Bridgewater State forced the third consecutive Seahawks turnover when Maxwell Kroll recovered a fumble, setting up a 44-yard touchdown pass from Bridgewater State junior quarterback Stefano D'Emilia (19-for-26, 232 yards and three touchdowns) of Bridgewater to Lavanchy for the second touchdown connection of the game. Stephen Miranda rushed for the two-point conversion and a 34-5 Bears lead with 9:24 left in the third quarter.
"It was big turning those turnovers into points," said Verria. "Salve Regina averages 350 yards a game on offense, so we knew they were never going to be out of it. We played well today against a very good football team.
"Stefano and Jack have led the offense all season long. Jack is the No. 1 receiver in the league and offensive player of the year. Jack transferred from Merrimack and did a tremendous job and we'll miss him. Stefano is a junior that will be back next and a captain that will help lead us in the offseason."
"Our defense came to play today and Chris could have had a few more interceptions realistically, but those guys came to play," said Lavanchy, who finished with nine receptions for 131 yards to go along with two touchdowns. "The coaches put me in the right spot and I just needed to catch the ball. Whether it was Stefano or Brad at quarterback, they put it right there for me. They had a good defense and pressed a little bit, but we were able to get some things."
Salve Regina (7-4) cut the deficit to 34-19 on two touchdown pass from Tyler McGovern to Brendan Nunes for 28 yards and Joey Mauriello for 30 yards, before the Bears' defense held in the fourth quarter forcing a punt and two turnovers on downs as well as Alves' second interception of the afternoon
"We played a different type of defense in the fourth quarter, something (Salve Regina) didn't see," Verria said. "I thought we did a good job with it. We denied all the underneath stuff and didn't give up the deep ball. They had trouble going deep on us and they were forced them to nickel and dime us and eat up some clock. We were around the ball and our defensive scheme is tough to throw against, which allowed us to make some plays."
After a 45-yard field goal by Angelo DiSanto gave the Seahawks a 3-0 lead in the first quarter, the Bears took the lead for good on a 1-yard touchdown pass from D'Emilia to Joseph Leanos on fourth down for a 6-3 lead.
Salve Regina recorded a safety in the second quarter, before D'Emilia connected with Lavanchy for a 12-yard touchdown pass with 3:07 left in the second quarter for a 12-5 lead.
"This is just icing on the cake for us," said D'Emilia. "We worked so hard this offseason and returned 40 guys from last year with about 60 new guys. We came together and worked hard with the 40 and then when the other 60 showed up over the summer, we worked harder. We really tried to change the culture from last season.
"That's one of the best defensive lines we have played. I owe it to my offensive line that protected me and they deserve a lot of the credit. I'm a lucky guy to play behind a great offensive line and throw the ball to some of the best receivers in the league."