Chelsmford High linebacker Matt Rabbito would be the first one to admit that his senior season hasn't gone quite as well as he and the rest of the Lions' defense had hoped it would.
Chelmsford entered the season as the defending Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 champion, and started the year with a run of four straight victories before a rash of injuries and three last-minute losses turned optimism into frustration for the Lions.
But on a rainy night in Malden on Friday, the disappointment of the past month was washed away for at least one week, as the CHS defense came up with its best performance of the season and the Lions throttled host Malden High, 24-8.
"It's been a real tough year for us," said Rabbito, a senior tri-captain who starts at linebacker and fullback for Chelmsford. "Especially the last four games. Our defense has played great all game and then it comes down to the last minute and something happens and we get beat.
"We've been working on it in practice, simulating situations like 40 seconds left in a game and we've got to make a stop," Rabbito added. "We were in a tough four-game skid so it was awesome to finally come back and get a win."
The Chelmsford defense held Malden to just 62 rushing yards and 94 passing yards, and did not allow a single touchdown in the game.
Malden's only score came on a blocked punt in the Chelmsford end zone, but the Lions even made amends for that with a special teams touchdown of their own when senior wide receiver Eric Van Gelder returned a fourth quarter punt 55 yards for a touchdown.
Chelmsford's defense created four big turnovers and allowed just four first downs in the game.
"The kids came up big on defense tonight,” Lions coach Bruce Rich said. “We created a lot of turnovers. I thought we hit harder tonight than we usually do and that’s what created those turnovers.”
Malden's offense got nine cracks at the ball, and the Golden Tornadoes ended up fumbling it away four times, punting it four times and handing the ball over on downs once.
"It was a good feeling," said Rabbito. "We were all just jacked up afterward. We were missing some key players and we were still able to step up and keep them (Malden) out of the end zone."
Chelmsford was missing two of its top defenders, brothers Tony (hand injury) and Chris (ankle) Marino, who both play linebacker and captain the team along with Rabbito.
But there was no shortage of Lions who were willing to elevate their game in the Marino brothers' absence. Rabbito had one of the strongest games of his career, recovering a fumble and making half a dozen hard tackles in the game. And senior linebacker Sean Sarault chipped in with the biggest play of the game when he stopped a Malden drive at the Chelmsford goal line, stripping the Malden ball carrier and recovering the fumble himself on first-and-goal at the Lions' one-yard-line.
"The turnover on the goal line was a big play for us,” Rich said. “Overall I thought the defense played very well. (Sarault and Rabbitto) made a lot of big plays for us. Those two guys really stepped up.”
Junior defensive lineman Jonathan Morse also recovered a fumble, and senior nose guard Charlie Calenda made several big stops, as did defensive tackles Patrick Healy, Devan Lekan and John Walsh. Linebackers Chris Robinson and Mark Sousa filled in admirably for the Marino brothers.
Chelmsford's defensive secondary also gave Malden quarterback Jake Martino fits all night. Defensive backs Todd Dowrey, Alex Freker, Matt Sweeney and Joe Fontaine held Martino to just 94 yards on 10-of-20 passing.
The Lions took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter when junior running back Jeff D'Auria capped an eight-play, 52-yard drive with a 14-yard touchdown run, his 15th of the season.
Malden came back to take a brief, 8-7 lead in the second quarter when the Golden tornadoes blocked a Dowrey punt in the Chelmsford end zone and recovered the loose ball for a touchdown. But Chelmsford responded with a 71-yard, 14-play drive in the final minutes of the second quarter. Calenda, who also kicked three extra points in the game, hit a 23-yard field goal on the final play of the first half to put Chelmsford up, 10-8, at the break.
Malden surprised the Lions with an onside kick to open the second half and drove the ball all the way down to the Chelmsford one-yard line before Sarrault made his game-changing play, stripping the ball and recovering the fumble just outside of the Lions' end zone. Rabbito's big fumble recovery came on the next Malden possession, and that seemed to spark the Lion offense back to life.
Sophomore quarterback Jack Campsmith drove CHS 66 yards on nine plays after the Rabbito turnover, with D'Auria scoring his second TD of the game (16th on the season) from five yards out to make it 17-8 in favor of the Lions. Van Gelder, who had a standout game at wide receiver with six catches for 86 yards, put the game out of reach with 7:31 to play when he returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown.
Campsmith finished the game with 12 completions in 23 attempts good for 145 yards. D'Auria carried the ball 24 times for 50 yards and senior wide receiver Gregory Johnson caught five passes for 42 yards. Sarault carried the ball three times for 34 yards in addition to his defensive heroics.
Chelmsford returns to MVC action Friday night at Lowell.