Cougars, Huskies ready for title game rematch at UNH

Staff photo by TOM KING Campbell's Keegan Mills jars the ball loose from Monadnock's Tim Hart (25) as Cougar Nicholas Boucher (32) looks on during the locals' Division III title win on Saturday at UNH.

LITCHFIELD – Let’s flashback to a year ago on a chilly Saturday morning at the University of New Hampshire.

You had two unbeaten teams getting ready to battle it out for the Division III football championship at Wildcat Stadium. One, Mondadnock Regional, you would have been amazed they made it there with a roster that was in the 20s in terms of numbers as those players warmed up on one side of the field.

On the other side of the 50 were the Campbell Cougars, with a group that resembled an army. You could pretty much tell why they were there, and in the end, the Cougars prevailed but in a rough, tough 12-8 game that belied the numbers and went down to the wire.

And fast forward to this Saturday at 11 a.m., when the two programs get ready to tangle again. They’ve almost reversed roles. The 8-2 Cougars are decided underdogs, with one of their losses at the hands of the 10-0 Huskies, a one-sided 36-14 decision in Swanzey. Campbell doesn’t have the huge numbers from a year ago, while the Huskies’ have increased.

“This is definitely a big challenge,” Campbell defensive back/wideout Justin Rubino said. “We’ve played them, we know a lot of their schemes but we don’t know what else they may throw at us.

“They know this is a big game for them too, coming back after losing to us last year. They’re definitely going to come back with a lot of vengence; they want revenge on us and we know that. They’re a very good program and they’re very well coached and have great players.

“But over here, I believe we’re better coached and have better players. As long as we do what we’re told to do and win the turnover battle, it’s definitely going to be a good game.”

But the Huskies truly believe this is their year. After they beat the Cougars back on Oct. 19, they reportedly broke the post-game huddle with a shout of “Our time.” And why not? They’ve manhandled everyone, outscoring the opposition 374-67. The Huskies’ closest game was an 18-13 win over Trinity, which entered the playoffs as the second seed but were upset by Stevens.

They have a dynamic backfield led by senior Tim Hart and Chandler Matson, and a capable quarterback in Tim Santaw. Hart and Matson both ran for over 100 yards in the regular season meeting, 115 and 120, respectively.

“Coach (Huskies head man Ryan) Avery does a great job of putting those kids in a position to be successful,” Campbell first year head coach Glen Costello said. “And they have the horses to back up their scheme. For us, the injury bug happened to hit us that day, our lack of depth was kind of exposed and they happened to take advantage of it.”

Depth that the Cougars had a year ago. Mondadnock’s game plan that night was to chew up the clock, and they did that, keeping the ball away from the Cougars for the first 10:10 of the opening quarter and holding Campbell to 80 total first-half yards – 70 on a Keegan Mills touchdown run – and 129 for the game.

But here’s the catch. Mills earlier this week was on crutches with his left foot in a walking boot, and his status for Saturday is very much up in the air, despite any efforts to get him ready, thanks to an ankle injury suffered in the semifinal win over Stevens.

“We’re like any other team in the division,” Costello said, “that if you lose a couple of your top kids, it’s a domino effect from there.”

Ironically Mills missed the second half of the first Monadnock game with an injury. If he can’t go, the player who scored the other TD in that game – and Campbell’s only touchdown in the semis – Connor Sweeney – will take his spot on offense and junior Cam Barrett on defense.

“With Mills, without Mills, it’s going to be a challenge,” Costello said. “They block to the whistle, they run to the line of scrimmage, everyone flies to the ball defensively. The coachability factor, you see it in their kids, as all 11 who are on the field do what Coach Avery asks.”

Costello, who was the Cougars’ defensive coordinator prior to taking the head job, knows the Huskies offensively inside and out. “I can pretty much draw up every play they’re going to run,” he said. “It’s going to come down to execution.

“For us, we need to be able to win the turnover battle.”

In that first meeting, the Cougars lost other keys that are now back – Chad Martel, nose tackle Jacob Kidwell, and another lineman, Paul Taraszuk. Thus they lost the battle up front, with two offensive standouts and, looking at two-way impacts, four solid defenders.

“We lost two offensive threats and four defensive players,” Costello said. “There were a lot of different lessons learned. For some of our kids, that was the end of our winning streak (18 games). There was a lot of pressure they were putting on themselves. That was hopefully a weight off their shoulders, and they could then go out and just play football.”

And play their style, which is what they’ll try to do on Saturday. Campbell will be going for its third title, while Monadnock won what was then the Division V title in 2012.

“They (the Cougars) are a really good team and I don’t think any of us feel comfortable with that win,” Santaw told the Keene Sentinel after that regular season meeting. “And I think going into the playoffs we need to be ready for them again.”

They’re ready, to be sure. Campbell will be, too, but as you can see, things have changed quite a bit in a year. Yet the Cougars are thrilled with the chance to defend their title, and feel getting that chance is half the battle.

“The expectation at Campbell is to be there every year,” Costello said. “But it’s sometimes difficult to recognize how difficult it is.”