Panthers, Titans ready to clash one more time

Staff photo by TOM KING Nashua North's Sam Nicholls , left, and Nashua South's Kyle Salemi tangle during the regular season meeting, a 21-14 Titans win.

NASHUA – The score certainly raised a few eyebrows.

The Nashua High School South football team finished the regular season 4-5 with an incredible 77-52 win over Manchester Central on the road at Gill Stadium.

This was a South team that had been shut out twice at home by state champion Bedford and West Conference champion Merrimack. And Central, despite not making the playoffs, was no slouch.

“Their last regular season game they put up 77 points against a good football team,” Nashua North coach Dante Laurendi said of the Panthers. “It’s just unbelievable. Pretty explosive. So we know it’s going to be tough. Scott (South coach Knight) and his team always do a great job getting ready for this game.”

Yes, the South offense, with Pacheco and quarterback Dante Young back from injuries, have certainly picked things up from the middle of the season.

“For us, we’d like to get to .500,” Panthers coach Scott Knight said. “It was an injury riddled season for us, we spent a lot of the season juggling personnel around, it did become pretty frustrating.

“We got a little more healthy for Central and played pretty good. We were able to put it together offensively in that game. Now it’s just a matter of building off that and trying to get to .500.”

The Panthers lead the series overall 19-11, and 10-4 for the Turkey Bowl, but were beaten 21-14 in the regular season game at the end of September. The reason for the Titan victory was the fact North (7-3) took advantage of three big South turnovers that changed a 14-6 second half Panther lead into a loss.

“We turned the ball over and gave up field position too much,” Knight said. “That was our undoing. And we were a little shorthanded that game, too. … We’re anxious to see how well we can do healthy.”

“Obviously the first game came down to the end and we were fortunate to be on the right side of some turneovers which ended up being the big key in the game,” Laurendi said.

For South, defensive keys Joe Buturla (junior linebacker) and Tanner Plourde (senior defensive back) are back, and Plourde missed the first North game. He’s huge in terms of setting the second secondary and linebacking group in the proper position.

“That definitely helps us,” Knight said. “I like where we’re at right now.”

And the Panthers have playmakers on offense. Junior quarterback Dante Young, back healthy after missing a couple of games, can run and throw. The Panthers love to get senior Brendon Frost in space and of course senior back Jaylan Pacheco, who had 93 yards rushing in the first game, is a solid two-way player.

“There’s a few,” Laurendi said. “There’s Pacheco, and obviously the Frost kid hurt us the last time. They’ve got some other guys back. They’re doing some different things from when we played them in week four or five. Like any good team, they’ve gotten better each week. We know it’s going to be a tough game.”

The Titans have been no slouch, as Harris has grabbed headlines and the key will be to try to keep him healthy. He was kept out of the end zone by the Tomahawks in the mud at Student Memorial Field. But against South in the first game, he had 152 yards and a TD in 20 carries. And he’s also a force in the secondary on defense, but at quarterback he can keep a defense guessing.

“It causes some problems,” Knight said. “It definitely causes a lot of problems. He’s one of those kids that, you know, their best run play may be a pass play. He just drops back and may take off.

“We’ve had guys that have been able to do that in the past. We’ve always looked like geniuses, you know? Now they’ve got one. He poses a lot of problems, and we’ve got to stop him.”

It’s always a different feeling surrounding this game since it doesn’t count in any standings and you may have different preparation time. South, for example, didn’t make the playoffs so the Panthers used the down time to do their usual testing and preparation for next year, and Knight meets with the seniors to go over the year and their future plans. They’ve tried to make the most out of nearly a month in between games.

North did make the playoffs but lost in the quarterfinals, which gave the Titans two-and-a-half weeks in between games.

That can lead to casualties be it academis (the first report is out), illness, injury, etc.

“We lost some guys that were going to play some important minutes,” Laurendi said. “I can’t remember a year when we’ve had so many. We talk about doing what you need to do all year but crunch time it catches up to some guys.”

Some have also missed practice for good reasons, such as National Honor Society awards, etc.

And others due to injury – including quarterback Mike Loveless, who banged up his shoulder early on a carry in the Merrimack playoff game. That means dynamic sophomore Curtis Harris, who has over 1,000 yards rushing and over 1,500 all purpose yards, will be at quarterback. He played there the entire game vs. Concord with Loveless as a tailback and then again vs. Merrimack, with any thought of he and Loveless switching back and forth shelved when the senior got hurt. Loveless’s injury likely means more carries for grinding senior running back Brian Montminy.

The Titans would love to erase the memory of that 6-0 quarterfinal loss, when they had several chances to score in regulation before losing in overtime.

“They want to go have some fun,” Laurendi said. “Obviously the loss was tough. But it’s kind of nice getting back out there, getting to play again. Some of our seniors, which have been a really great group for us, are excited to go have a little bit of fun, and play for the last time together. This group has been a really tight-knit group.”

“We know it’ll be a tall task,” Knight said. “North had a good year. I’m sure they’re disappointed about getting knocked out in the first round. It should be a good challenge. … It’s a chance to play one more game.”

This will also be the third straight year of a 6 p.m. Thanksgiving Eve game rather than what had been a traditional 10 a.m. Thanksgiving Day event. It may be chilly, but this year perhaps not as chilly as it could be Thursday morning with possible record cold expected to be firmly in place. South has won the two prime time games, last year in a 55-21 blowout but 41-35 with a goal line stand in 2016.

“There’s a lot of people that didn’t like the night before,” Knight said. “But it’s 6 o’clock, it’s not that late, you get to be home and be with your family.

“I hope it does (stay this way). The morning game did have a nice feel to it, but I loved being home for a full day of Thanksgiving. I’m not afraid of change, I like it.”

The game will be broadcast on WSMN-1590 AM radio as well as on the Nashua Education Channel (Nashua E-TV, Channel 99), both live.