This Saturday afternoon is the conclusion of the New Hampshire High School football season (Except for Turkey Day games). The champions in Divisions III, IV and V were crowned last Sunday. And this Saturday, it will be Divisions I, II and VI which will hold their title bouts. All three games will begin at 1:00, except for the D-II final which kicks off at 1:30. Now, without any further ado, here's my breakdown of the three games being played on Championship Saturday.
Division I - Nashua North (2) @ Salem (1)
There has been so much talk about division realignment, you would think that there is no parity at all in NH High School football. But this game would beg to differ. The Nashua North Titans square off against the Salem Blue Devils Saturday afternoon at Grant Field in Salem for the D-I title. Not only did both of these teams miss last year's championship game, but neither squad even made the playoffs. Plus, this is the first year North has so much as made the playoffs in its program's history. This is a very encouraging occurrence for those of us who like competitive balance.
In the semi-finals, Salem and North defeated perennial powers Pinkerton and Central, respectively. The only game North lost all season was to Salem. But that was awhile ago, and the Titans played that game without two of their best players, Andre Williams and Kevin Rosenberg. Salem's only lost was just a couple week's ago to Central, who North just beat.
It's no secret that Salem's bread and butter is their running game. But last weekend against Pinkerton they also had success throwing the ball. If they can force North to respect the pass, it will open up running room for their star studded backfield.
As for North, they are also a run-oriented team, led by Williams and fellow junior Jamar Gathright. Unlike Salem, and unlike almost every other team in the state, they have two quarterbacks that they rotate in and out of the lineup. Dylan Brodeur and Brandon Karkhanis take turns running the Titan offense, and somehow it works. I would think that it would result in numerous offsides penalties, with the offensive line constantly having to adjust to a different signal caller in there. Plus the receivers have to adjust to the changes, wit the two QB's throwing the ball differently. But somehow it has worked for North. They have a system, and it has worked very well for them all season long.
Putting points on the board hasn't been there problem. Stopping their opponents from doing it has been. But since Rosenberg has returned from his injury they seem to be doing that better, too.
Up until the Central game, Salem had no problems. They were beating any team that stood in its path. They were 9-0, riding high and appeared to be almost a lock to win the D-I title. No one could stop their running game, and they had a good defense to boot. Then the Little Green knocked them down a couple nothes in their 45-7 win the last week of the regular season. Salem had all their starters in that game, and make no mistake they were trying to win. I was on the field, and at halftime I saw how ticked off Max Jacques was at the way his sqquad had performed as he ran off the field.
Was it just an aberration? Well some would say yes, since the Blue Devils won by 20 last week against Pinkerton. But the Astros were a team that had lost two in a row, was only .500 on the season, was playing without their second best RB and one of their top defenders (Mazzola), and their best offensive player played but wasn't 100% (Guinto). So considering that, Salem should have beaten Pinkerton by 20. We won't really know if the Central game was an aberration until after this game, when Salem plays a very good North team.
My prediction: Nashua North 28 Salem 21
Division II Winnacunnet (3) @ Bishop Guertin (1) BG has been the undisputed #1 team in the state virtually the entire season. They've played some very good teams, including Pinkerton, Exeter, Winnacunnet and Catholic Memorial. Not only are they undefeated, but they've won every game by at least four touchdowns. The question you have to ask is, does Winnacunnet even have a chance? And after they beat Exeter last week in Exeter, I would have to say yes, they do have a chance.
Saturday afternoon at 1:30 the Bishop Guertin Cardinals take on the Winnacunnet Warriors for the D-II championship at Stellos Stadium in Nashua. With a win Guertin can make it two titles in a row, and four titles in the last five years. Winnacunnet is no stranger to the playoffs either, though. Their last appearance was just two years ago, and this is their fourth playoff appearance in the last six years under Head Coach Ron Auffant.
In the Exeter game, Winnacunnet was tough, fearless, and they wanted that game more than the Blue Hawks did. And they moved the ball very effectively. Though he was also the starter last year, QB Steve Cronan has really emerged this season as one of the state's top signal callers. He is exceptional at running the option, he's fast, and he has a strong, accurate throwing arm. He has two talented receivers in Harry Knowles and Jesse Gould. I currently have Knowles ranked as the second best WR in the state. He's big, strong, fast and athletic. And in the Exeter game, Gould caught a ball and got about 30 yards after the catch, breaking five tackles in the process. And defensively, linebacker Max Fatello led the way with a forced fumble and fumble recovery on one play and an interception.
But enough about the Warriors. Exeter is THE rival for Winnacunnet. It was obvious they really got up for that game against the Blue Hawks. Heck, 45 minutes after the game ended, Auffant's team was still outside the stadium, packed in their bus, singing, chanting and celebrating. Point is this: Did Winnacunnet already play their championship game last week? In order to beat Exeter, did it take everything out of them? Do they have anything left for BG this weekend? They've already exceeded expectations. Are they going to Nashua on Saturday on a mission to win the title, or are they just happy to make it that far?
On the flip side of the coin, Winnacunnet has nothing to lose. Guertin is expected to win, and they're expected to win by a wide margin. Anything less will be considered a failure in the eyes of Head Coach Tony Johnson. All the pressure is on the Cardinals. Will they fold up on that pressure, or thrive? They've had a giant X on their backs all year long, and it hasn't fased them so far.
BG is a great football team. They're fast, athletic, and skilled. They blitz the gaps on defense, which makes it very tough to run the football. Only way to score points on them is to get it to the outside of the tackles and run, or to throw it downfield. That or effective screen passes.
Offensively, Cuipa, Kelley and Hall have been too fast, and too good for every team they've played so far this season. Like Cronan, Cuipa alos runs the option to perfection, and has eceptional speed at the QB position. Hall is a tough back who is fast, but can also run between the tackles. Kelley might be the state's fastest player, likes to run outside the tackles,and also catch passes downfield. He sat out last week in Guertin's 38-0 win over Alvirne in the semis with a sore ankle, but he's expected to be back in the lineup Saturday.
One of the keys in this game will be whether the Winnacunnet defense can prevent BG's big plays on offense. Guertin is not a slow, grind it out offense. They want to have drives that are quick, and only use 1-5 plays. They often have at least three plays a game of 40 yards or more. This is due to good blocking, fast playmakers, and good playcalling. If the Warriors can prevent these big plays they'll have a chance. That's a big IF, though.
It should also be interesting to see how BG plays Winnacunnet on defense. Do they double-cover Knowles? That would leave running room for Cronan, and would alo leave Gould open. Do they blitz the gaps up the middle to stuff the run and sack Cronan before he can even throw the ball? Or will Cronan use a two-step-drop and throw screen passes right away before the defense gets there? These are the kinds of things to look for when watching this game.
Something else to look for, that will undoubtedly affect this game, is penalties. For a team that is as dominating as Bishop Guertin is, they sure commit a lot of penalties. I've seen them play each of their last two ballgames, against Exeter and Alvirne, respectively, and BG is flat out, not a disciplined football team. They induced over seven yellow flags in both contests. They got away with it against the Blue Hawks and Broncos. But if they commit 7-10 penalties this week it will be a different story.
I'll be reporting on this game all afternoon on a Super Saturday edition of WGAM Friday Night Lights. Tune in from noon-4 on 900/1250 AM or fnlnh.com to hear what I have to say about it.
My prediction: Bishop Guertin 35 Winnacunnet 14
Division VI - Winnisquam (2) @ Inter-Lakes (1)
I'll admit I don't know very much about these two teams, but good luck to them nonetheless. I'll say this, there seems to be a sizeable gap between D-V and D-VI. Campbell, a D-VI playoff team, was ran off the field by Trinity in the Queen City Jamboree, and by Pelham in the regular season. Inter-Lakes is the top seed in D-VI, and is unbeaten so far in their division. But they got hammered by Somersworth just a few weeks ago, and Somersworth didn't even make the playoffs in D-V.
Still, both Inter-Lakes and Winnisquam have fielded competitive football teams with very small enrollment numbers. For that you have to give them credit.
I will close this post with a quote. They're the immortal words of Leslie Nielsen, and it's my message to all players and coaches participating in Saturday's games. "I just want to tell you good luck. We're all counting on you." I might only be 23, but I still think Airplane! is the funniest movie of all time.
Enjoy the games everyone!