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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Exeter’s Division I conversion complete

Gary Fitz

When Pinkerton Academy beat Nashua North in last year’s Division I title game, it took nothing more than a quick glance down the Astros roster to come to the obvious conclusion.

Might as well pencil them in as 2011 champions with the talent they had coming back. In fact, forget the pencil and fire up the engraving machine, carving the Pinkerton name into any plaque or trophy set aside for the season.

But any time you think you have high school sports figured out, it’s time to think again.

Who would have thought that the team at the bottom of last year’s standings, winless Exeter, would march into Derry on the third Saturday in November and bus back up Route 101 in possession of all the precious hardware, with a surprisingly convincing, 23-13, championship game victory?

Yes, the same Blue Hawks team that looked so overwhelmed on its home field by Pinkerton in a 42-16 loss just six weeks ago.

For a while Saturday, it looked like the same old story. A Pinkerton fumble set up a first-quarter ending field goal that put Exeter up 3-0, but in the second quarter the Astros’ Emmitt Smith went 76 yards on one carry and 78 on another to make it 13-3.

The big play – that had taken down Exeter in the first game – was killing them again. But amazingly, with more than seven minutes still left in the first half, the high-powered Pinkerton offense would start to fizzle.

Suddenly Smith couldn’t get around the corner and Kevin Davies couldn’t find a hole up the gut. Pinkerton had about as much success passing as Nashua South did in two games against a very good Exeter secondary.

And the prodding, plodding Exeter Straight-T offense was beginning to have the desired effect. It’s called ball control, and it can leave an explosive offense – itching to get back on the field – flat.

“They were loading up the outside, but still clogging up the middle, which was surprising to us,” Smith said. “We also made some key mistakes, which we didn’t make last time.”

A second Pinkerton fumble set up a 40-yard, game-tying field goal by Logan Laurent, Exeter’s magnificent junior kicker, who had a significant impact throughout.

By high school federation rules, a kickoff in the end zone automatically comes out to the 20 and doesn’t fall into the hands of players like Smith or speedy sophomore teammate Manny Latimore. Add field goals of 35, 40 and 23 yards and Laurent’s impact on the game seemed complete, but he’d have a last act.

Like any entity under a sustained attack, Pinkerton’s defense was bound to eventually weaken. It did in the fourth quarter, when Exeter broke the tie with an eight-play, 74-yard drive that included a 24-yard run by junior Tyler Grant (29 carries, 117 yards) and a 37-yard touchdown burst by Connor Carrier that made it 20-13.

“When you get to the fourth quarter and you have kids going both ways, it’s always more tiring to play defense than it is offense,” Pinkerton coach Brian O’Reilly said. “I’ve never understood that, but it is.”

And when things are going south, it can snowball. It did when an attempted squib kick by Laurent after the Carrier touchdown, into a stiff breeze, went off the chest of a Pinkerton player and was recovered by Exeter at the Pinkerton 45.

It helped Exeter control field position down the stretch and eventually led, after a pair of punts, to a game-clinching 23-yard field goal by Laurent with just more than two minutes left.

“We came in here today, I say this honestly, very confident,” Exeter coach Bill Ball said. “We didn’t come here today to compete; we came to win, and I say that will all due respect to Pinkerton.”

A lot can happen in 12 months to a high school team. That’s a given. On Saturday, Exeter proved what can be accomplished in just six weeks.

Gary Fitz can be reached at 594-6469 or gfitz@nashuatelegraph.com.