Dec. 3—FOXBOROUGH — Marblehead High's first-ever state championship in football wasn't won in the 13 or so seconds it took Connor Cronin to race 83 yards for the tiebreaking touchdown in Thursday's thrilling Division 3 Super Bowl.
No, it was won over the course of thousands of hours of work put in by the hands of hundreds of players since the first time the Magician program stepped on this turf at Gillette Stadium 13 seasons ago.
Completing a perfect season at 12-0 by holding off North Attleboro, 35-28, for the Division 3 state title made all sorts of history for Marblehead. It's the first Super Bowl victory for a program that's been the class of the Northeastern Conference the last 15 years but hadn't previously reached the top of the mountain.
"We were playing for our whole town ... and we just made history," said junior Connor Cronin, who caught 10 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns in a record breaking Super Bowl performance.
Though Marblehead won or shared 10 NEC titles since Rudloff took over in 2009, they had some playoff disappointments and lost both of their Super Bowls, to Bishop Feehan in '09 and to Falmouth in 2016. Thursday's star, Cronin, was on the field that day five years ago and had been looking forward to taking this stage for himself ever since.
"I was the water boy. I sent coach a picture of myself with the water bottles from that game after we made it and said 'Let's go'," recalled Cronin, whose older brother Tim (now playing for Bowdoin College) was a freshman and dressed for that '16 Super Bowl.
Wearing the same No. 22 that his brother did, Connor Cronin was positively uncoverable Thursday. He caught deep balls — a virtual Hail Mary for a 72-yard score at the end of the first half has to be seen to be believed (do yourself a favor and find it online). He turned short passes into big gains — as he did on the 83-yard game winning screen pass, helped out by great blocks by James Doody and Shane Keough.
Cronin made big tackles, stringing Red Rocketeer workhorse Tyler DeMattio out for short gains on several key downs. He even made an interception, catching North Attleboro's final pass to seal the victory — and he it did all while thinking about his grandpa, Timothy, who passed away in 2020.
"He's truly my inspiration," Cronin said. "I'm always continuing the legacy, for my brother too. Always representing those 2's because I always looked up to him."
Before 2021, Marblehead's last undefeated football season during peacetime was 97 years ago in 1924 (they were also unbeaten during World War II in '42). After going 7-0 in the "Fall 2" season held with no playoffs eight months ago, the Magicians have won 20 straight overall and won more games in the same calendar year (19) than any high school in Massachusetts history.
"(19-0) is a remarkable year and it really is one season because we didn't really take a break. It was right into workouts and getting ready for this," said Rudloff. "The kids who graduated from that spring team ... this is their Super Bowl, too."
Sublime senior quarterback Josh Robertson was under center for every one of those victories. He threw for 290 yards and had a hand in all five of his team's touchdowns in the Super Bowl win, throwing four and running for another. His ability to expand the playbook, read and react to mismatches and stay cool under pressure (he was sacked and hit hard several times Thursday) elevated the Magicians to a state championship caliber team.
"Last year's seniors didn't get the chance to come here to Gillette, and we felt like we had to capitalize for them," said Robertson, who graduates with a school record 65 touchdown passes which ranks third all-time on the North Shore. Over his final two playoff games he threw for 565 yards and eight scores.-
Between practice, informal workouts and summer 7-on-7 tournaments, how many passes had Robertson thrown Cronin's way before Thursday's record-smashing laser show?
"Oh god ... a thousand? Maybe over ten thousand," Robertson marveled. "It's year round for us, and the other receivers as well. Connor is an incredible athlete, maybe the best athlete in Massachusetts. All you need to do is put the ball in his vicinity and he'll make a play."
The state title was the only thing missing for Rudloff, who reached 100 wins faster than any man in North Shore football history. The long winning streaks at Piper Field and in conference play, the league MVP and Coach of the Year awards and slew of statistical records were great ... but if you're in this business, you're in it to win the last game of the season.
"Even with the success we had, there was always that asterisk," Rudloff said. "I felt it on my back that entire fourth quarter. and now that's gone."
More than once during Thursday's back-and-forth battle with North Attleboro, Rudloff flashed back to that first Super Bowl loss to then-Hockomock League foe Bishop Feehan. It took 13 seasons to build a program capable of standing toe-to-toe with a battle tested, physical opponent, after all.
"I remember standing in this stadium in 2009 explaining why we didn't win and thinking it's not about this year. It's about building a program that can beat up a Hock team, not get beaten up, and I say that because of all the respect we have for that league," Rudloff said.
"This is about all the coaches that have been with me all the way, like (offensive coordinator) Mike Giardi. It's about the kids like Will Quigley and Nick Broughton who graduate and come back and help us out (coaching). It's about Josh Robertson and Connor Cronin being students with 3.97 and 3.84 GPA's. Having players like that makes a day like today possible."
Players who make the most of their roles — like Liam McIlory with a game-changing interception or James Galante with a momentum-shifting punt return or Eli Feingold calmly making every extra point — make history possible, too.
To a man, every kid with a grinning, mustached Magician sticker on his helmet wanted to win this Super Bowl for all the guys who came before and blazed the trail.
"We said we couldn't let coach Rudloff lose a third one," Robertson said. "For everything he does for us, all the time he puts in? He's the best coach I've ever had. This win's for him."
It's not just for Rudloff, though. It's for the late Doug Chernovetz, who started the turnaround of a program that was the laughingstock of the North Shore in the 1990s and early 2000s and is now the region's most feared, respected juggernaut.
It's for every kid who's thrown a block, made a tackle, caught a pass or carried the pigskin in a black, white or red jersey.
"It's a brotherhood," said Cronin. "We all play for each other and we always have each other's backs."
Matt Williams has covered North Shore high school football since the 2007 season. You can contact him at MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow along on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.