Titans overcome slow start to reach the finals, 33-28
NASHUA – It took 10 years, but the Titans are back.
You don’t have to pass the word, though, many expected it would be the Nashua High School North football team’s destiny to reach their first Division I championship game in 10 years.
The ones who didn’t, though, were the Salem Blue Devils, and they put up one heckuva fight before succumbing 33-28 in Saturday’s semifinal bout at Stellos Stadium.
The game wasn’t really decided until Titans defensive back Jayden Espinal correctly read a trick play by the Blue Devils and leaped up and picked off a Dante Fernandes fourth down halfback option floater at the Salem 43 with 2:27 left.
“It’s what he does,” North’s Curtis Harris-Lopez, who had 202 yards and four touchdowns on 21 carries and also made a couple of good defensive plays himself. “Like last game (in the quarters vs. Merrimack), I believe he had two or three interceptions. So he’s coming off a good game, stayed locked in, and did what he’s supposed to do.”
The Titans (6-0) will now take on fellow unbeaten Goffstown, a 27-15 winner over Winnacunnet in the other semi, next Saturday at a place and time to be determined. Sources say Bedford is a possible site that has been mentioned to allow for fans of both teams to attend. But that’s not official by any means.
For North, this was a matter of survival, as the Titans were down for the first time all season, 7-0 and 14-6, and were deadlocked at 21-all after Salem’s Dante Fernandes ripped off a 24 yard run to help knot things. But the Titans grabbed an all-important two score lead on an Espinal 2-yard run with 4:25 left in the third (set up by a 37-yard Harris-Lopez pass to Lucas Cunningham) and a Harris-Lopez 2-yard TD with 8:53 to play to make it 33-21.
But it still wasn’t over as Salem QB Cody Clements hit Fernandes on a 55-yard TD with 7:33 left to bring the Devils to within five, a TD away from retaking the lead.
A TD that never came, and now North is back in the finals for the first time since it lost to Pinkerton 14-7 in 2010.
“It’s exactly what we thought,” North coach Dante Laurendi said. “We knew they were tough to defend, and they proved it today. They’re a tough team.”
But Harris-Lopez took the game over in the second quarter, scoring three times to send North in at the break up 21-14, rushing for 140 yards in the second quarter alone.
“Every time the (Salem) linebacker would run out, it would leave a big, huge hole,” Harris-Lopez said. “So me and Jayden both would hit the hole, 25 yards, whatever, 10 yards. That was it.”
“He made some good reads,” Laurendi said. “He made a couple of adjustments; they were trying to take the perimeter game out, and they did a pretty good job of that. But Curtis was able to step up, again.”
“Curtis Harris is a generational player,” Salem coach Steve Abraham said. “But we had a team of kids that played together and fought with everything they had.”
Did they ever. The Devils Wing-T attack, something the Titans hadn’t seen all season, buoyed them to an early lead as they started the game with a 13-play, 71-yard scoring drive with Cody Clements plunging in from a yard out to help make it 7-0.
After the Titans ran just four plays in the first quarter, Harris-Lopez got North going with a 31-yard TD 31 seconds into the second period. The PAT was blocked, and North still trailed, then watched as Salem marched 55 yards in eight plays with Aidan McDonald carrying two Titans into the end zone on a 6-yard run.
A face mask penalty against North helped the Devils as well, and Noah Poulin’s PAT made it 14-6 with 6:26 left in the half. The Titans were in trouble.
“We had an idea of what to expect,” Harris-Lopez said. “It was difficult. All the misdirections and fake handoffs is what made it that way. I don’t know, I guess you just notice, you just go.”
And go they did, keeping the Blue Devils from moving the ball the rest of the half while Harris got two more TDs to help make it 21-14 North at the half. The first, a 3-yard run, was followed by an Espinal 2-point conversion run to tie things at 14. He then scored from 33 yards out and Cunningham added a PAT kick give North a lead.
“We had the lead,” Harris-Lopez said. “We couldn’t get down on ourselves, and come out hard at the end of the half.”
The Devils came out just as hard, and facing a fourth down and 4 at their own 31 with 2:35 to play, down five, they had one more trick up their sleeves as Clements threw it sideways to Fernandes, who looked downfield.
Espinal read the play correctly, but Fernandes did not. To hear Abraham tell it, the thinking was the Titans would cover McDonald short but that would allow Kaleb Bates to slip down the field alone, which Abraham felt he had.
“We had it,” Abraham said. “We had the touchdown play at the end. We had it, our guy just made the wrong read and we were going to win this thing.”
But it wasn’t in the cards.
“We made a stop when we needed to make a stop,” Laurendi said. “And we had to score when we needed to score. And it happened to be just enough.”