Friday, November 19, 2010

Championship Saturday Preview

Well folks, it's finally here. Championship Saturday. It's been an amazing football season, but this Saturday it comes to a close (I don't count the Turkey Day games, because well...they don't count). 3 division champions were crowned last Saturday and the other 3 will be on Saturday (yes, 6 is DEFINITELY too many division).

Here's a preview of all 3 title games. Consider this article your one-stop-shop to Championship Saturday.

Before I preview the games, a couple of notable notes that I would like to make note of (on the NH Notebook). Nothing like a little dry humor to get an article started!

First, off (and at the risk of beating a dead horse)...these 3 championship games are already being played on the same day. Is there a reason why these games can't all be played in the same stadium, back-to-back? Honestly. These should all be great football games. Why should fans only be able to see one of them? Makes ZERO sense.

The schedule would go as follows:
12:00 - Souhegan vs. Portsmouth
3:30 - Bishop Guertin vs. Winnacunnet
7:00 - Pinkerton vs. Nashua North

All 3 games would be played at one site. And that site would be a stadium that is big enough to hold a BIG crowd, is centrally located and has lights. Either Stellos Stadium in Nashua, Eustis Field in Exeter or Gill Stadium in Manchester would do just fine.

The only drawback here is that it's a neutral site so the higher seeds won't get home field advantage. But c'mon now people, it's NH high school football. Home field really doesn't make that much of a difference. But having all 3 games in 1 place instead of 3 would mean 1 BIG crowd instead of 3 small crowds. I have to believe the kids wouldn't mind giving up home field advantage (not really much of an advantage at all) if it means they get to play in front of 4,000 people instead of 200.

Secondly, a heads up that WGAM will have a special "Championship Saturday" edition of Friday Night Lights this Saturday afternoon from noon - 4 on 900/1250 AM. There will be corespondents at all 3 of the title games (I'll be at Souhegan/Portsmouth).

Without any further ado, here are the previews and predictions of this weekend's games.

Division I - (2) Nashua North @ (1) Pinkerton

I wasn't surprised that North beat South in the semis on Saturday, but I was a little surprised with how easily they did it. The Titans won 49-35, but they got a big lead in the first half, and although South made it close North was in control the whole way. Coach Robie's team will try to keep that momentum going this Saturday, but they're going up against the team that has been the #1 ranked team in NH for 6 weeks in a row in the Pinkerton Astros. That alone tells you that this is going to be a big time game.

Andre Williams had a huge game in the win over South with 280 yards on the ground and 5 TD's. There is a BIG difference however between doing that to South and doing to against Pinkerton (who has a MUCH better defense than the Purple Panthers). Salem's Jerickson Fedrick is a similar player to Williams, as they're both big, bruising backs with good speed once they get past the first line of defense. Well on Saturday the Astros held Fedrick to just 60 yards on 17 carries. That's only 3.5 yards per carry! Needless to say, don't expect another repeat performance from Williams. And yes, I know. The last time these two teams met Williams ran for 197 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 33-7 Titans win. But a) that was back in September, a loooong time ago, and b) Pinkerton played that game without star safety Luke Somers who was out with an injured leg.

That game was also played at a time when North was the best team in the state, while Pinkerton was still trying to find itself with so many first year starters. Well folks, the roles have been reversed. Like I said the Astros have been #1 now for 6 straight weeks. And up until last Saturday North was a team you weren't really sure what to expect from week-to-week. Now that's not to say an upset isn't a possibility - because it is. But Pinkerton has proven to be a more consistent, disciplined team.

Offensively you have to like the way North is playing right now. In addition to Williams (who is also very good on defense) senior QB Brandon Karkhanis is also throwing the ball very well right now, especially to senior wideouts Anton Marinchik and Eric Muite. Jahmar Gathright continues to be the silent assassin for this team. He's one of the most versatile, hard hitting players in the state (who is as good defensively as he is offensively). Zach Hunnewll (another VERY underrated player whose name isn't mentioned nearly enough) is one of the bigger, more imposing linemen in the state and does a nice job of opening holes in the middle of a defense. Joel Pacheco and Wilson Pena anchor anchor a solid, yet inconsistent Titans defense.

The key to this game will be how how well North's defense is able to do against the Pinkerton offense. Although in their 21-14 semi-final win over Salem the Astros did show that they can win against a good team without putting up a ton of yardage or points on offense. That is the mark of a truly good football team. When they can win with their defense or their offense. Or in the case of the Salem game, they flat out made more big plays down the stretch when it counted the most.

Pinkerton is definitely a more balanced football team, between offense and defense. We've heard all the names before, but running the ball you have Emmitt Smith and Kevin Davies who are emerging as the go-to guys, sophomore QB Chris St. Onge continues to get better and defensively you have Somers and Mike Mazzola lead a big, tough, physical unit. Unsung heroes include guys like Andrew Curran, Ryan Coombs and Pierce Stevens. Those are 3 guys who might not grab the headlines every week but their contributions to this Astro team in all facets of the game are invaluable.

North's best chance to win this game and pull the upset is to make it a shootout. If it's a fast paced, run-and-gun lots of points on the scoreboard type of game then the Titans will win it. Pinkerton just can't keep up with North's speed and doesn't as as any weapons to keep up. But I see the style of play in this game working more in Pinkerton's favor. If it's a grind-it-out slugfest then the Astros are the team that will take home the title. They're just tougher, deeper and more physical.

NH Notebook Prediction: Pinkerton 27 Nashua North 20

Division II - (2) Winnacunnet @ (1) Bishop Guertin

This game should also be a classic. BG and Winnacunnet are developing quite the rivalry. They met in last year's D-II title game (with Guertin winning 31-0), they met in last year's Boys Basketball Class L semis (with Winnacunnet winning 63-56). Hey, with no more Exeter in D-II, the Cardinals need somebody on the seacoast to slug it out with every year.

BG is gunning for their 3rd straight Division II crown, and their 6th title in the last 7 years. If they're able to do it this year though, it will be the most impressive of those 6 championships. Why? Because a) they graduated 34 seniors last year, b) they've had more injuries than any team in the state, and c) the division is stronger (especially with its top 5 or 6 teams) than in any year in recent memory.

The Cardinals won't have Kyle Remillard (suffered a separated shoulder in semi-final win over Keene) for this game. Remillard is a tough, scrappy player who has had a big senior year. Add him to the laundry list of other injured BG players. But make no mistake, this is a VERY deep football team, and they have plenty of quality players who are healthy, especially on defense. Broderick Smith, James Kemos, James Carver, Bob Fahey, Kyle Karaska, Zach Mailloux and Kevin Kiczuk are all playing well.

While both teams have excellent QB's (we could debate all day which "Steve" we'd rather have under center, Cronan or Cuipa), both teams have much more playmakers on defense than they do on offense. So you can expect this to be a hard fought, physical, low-scoring game that will be won or lost in the trenches. That is where Winnacunnet has more size (with guys like Spencer Cutting and Marc Lariviere) but BG has more speed (with guys like Karaska and Carver). Pick your poison.

The "X" factor here is turnovers. Both BG and Winnacunnet have been prone to committing them, especially fumbles (and especially lately). From talking to coaches around the state after games I get the sense that we're seeing an increase in fumbles as a result of these new footballs the NHIAA is making the teams use which are tougher to hold onto. But regardless, in a game like this, when so much is on the line and you have 2 VERY good teams battling it out it is VERY important to protect the ball and not turn it over.

You really can't say enough good things about the 2 quarterbacks in this game. Cuipa was "basically playing on one leg" last week in the win over Keene according to coach Tony Johnson. And he was still able to make plays, run for touchdowns and will his team to victory. And while Cronan doesn't have the weapons he had last year (Harry Knowles, Jesse Gould and Jason Busfield) and he has had problems holding onto the football at times, he has really put this team on his back and led them to a great season. Cronan was spectacular in the team's overtime win vs. Dover in the semi-finals, leading yet another comeback (no QB has led nearly as many comebacks as Cronan has in the last 3 years). You simply can NEVER count the Warriors out of a game.

And you also can't underestimate the value of RB/LB Mike Trainor to this team. I've seen them play with and without Trainor in the lineup (he was out for a few weeks earlier in the year with a shoulder injury) and they are flat out a better football team when he's on the field. He brings toughness, desire and leadership to the table, as well as being one f the hardest hitting players in NH.

For BG, they might be without Remillard (as well as Kelly, Fucci, etc.) but they get FB/B Alex Eaton back this week (he had a BIG game on both sides of the ball when Guertin beat Winnacunnet 28-14 in the regular season). Abd they also might get sophomore Blake Boudreau back in the lineup as well. Boudreau is another kid who just loves to go out there and hit people.

If Eaton and Boudreau are both back out there for Guertin, even with all of their other injuries they can match the Warriors player-for-player, athlete for athlete. hey still won't have as much size as Winnacunnet, but they'll have more speed.

Get the popcorn ready folks, this is going to be a heckuva game.

NH Notebook Prediction: Winnacunnet 23 Bishop Guertin 20 (overtime)

Division III - (2) Portsmouth @ Souhegan (1)

It used to always be Plymouth vs. Souhegan for the D-III title. Then Plymouth moved down to D-IV, and now for the 3rd straight year it's Souhegan vs. Portsmouth with the Sabers going for the 3rd consecutive 'ship.' You certainly won't hear any talk of parity in this division!

Souhegan got here with a 39-24 win over an underrated Hollis-Brookline team in a game that was close throughout. Portsmouth got here with a 51-3 win over a wounded Milford in a game that really was never close. In the first meeting between these 2 teams this season the Sabers won 23-14 in Portsmouth. That game was WAY back on September 10 though. Since then both of these teams have gotten MUCH better.

Both squads are better offensively than they are defensively, so you can expect a high scoring ballgame. Both teams really like to spread the field and throw the football around. In this game you have some of the better skill position players in the state on display. We've heard the names all before - QB Mike Luks, receivers Brendan McKenna, Chris Almeida, Chris Chininis, Matt Schagrin and Nick Hession, RB Nick Kepka Calvetti, FB Eric Dwinell for Souhegan (more offensive weapons than any team in the state). Then for Portsmouth you have QB Quinn McCann, RB Bill Lane, abd receivers Aidan O'Leary (quietly having a monster season), Christian DiCesare and Sam Marousek.

In their semi-final win vs. Hollis, Souhegan senior QB Mike Luks became their first player in school history to pass for over 2,000 yards in a season. Chininis had a big game receiving for the Sabers, with over 100 yards. They have 6 different guys who could lead the team in receiving on any given day, though. And that makes them VERY hard to game plan for and even more difficult to stop. Luks does a nice job spreading the ball around to all of his weapons too.

Portsmouth got a boost by getting Lane back in the lineup in the semis after a back injury held him back for the previous few weeks. He definitely made his presence felt on Friday night, running all over the Milford defense for big yardage. I said it before but I'll say it again. I continue to be impressed by the way Portsmouth has been able to put up big offensive numbers over the last 3 years...considering they've done it with 3 DIFFERENT quarterbacks. 2 years ago it was Mike Fransoso who made plays all over the field, passing and running the Clippers to the title game. Last year it was Nate Jones, who threw it to Mike Montville (the state's best receiver a year ago) time an time again en route to a big season and impressive showing in the championship game vs. Souhegan (despite the loss). And now this year it's McCann (who was most available to this team last year on defense as a hard hitting DB) under center.

As fun as it is to see long bombs being thrown down field and to talk about how high powered these offenses are, what really is going to decide this game is defense. Defense of course is the part of the game many "yuppy" fans and reporters overlook. But in a game like this, where you have 2 teams with very similar offenses going at, both capable of scoring a lot of points I CAN GUARANTEE that the winning team is the one that makes more plays defensively (and is able to force more turnovers).

Both of these teams are underrated on defense. Souhegan gave up 7 points or less in 4 of their last 5 regular season games, while no D-III opponent all year has scored more than 24 on Portsmouth (not even Souhegan). The Sabers were defeinitely better defensively last year, when they had guys like Steven Jellison, Sean Cultera and Colin Cray. But this year they still have a bunch of big, strong, tough, physical guys who like to hit. This group includes Dwinell, McKenna, Colin Ginnard and Kepka Calvetti who is an underrated defensive back.

Portsmouth also has a physical, hard hitting defense. Although the Clippers offense isn't quite as good as what it was in the past 2 years (2 years ago they had better balance between the run and pass, and Fransoso was the best of their 3 QB's and last year Montville was a flat out beast as a receiver, plus they had Lane too) but this defense is the best they've had in that span. Like I said the other day in my Power Rankings article, they had 2 absolute bone crushing hits in the Milford game, which were as hard as any I've seen all year. One was by sophomore lineman Rick Holt who flattened Spartans RB John Forte in the middle of the field and the other was by senior DB Sam Marousek when he was blocking a Milford player in the open field during a long run by Portsmouth. This is not as much of a finesse team as they've been in year's past. They have more toughness now. They like to hit, and they're on a mission.

Turnovers and penalties have been a problem for the Sabers at times this season. In the end though, Souhegan has more experience and more quality players on defense. That will be the difference, and they'll beat Portsmouth...just barely.

NH Notebook Prediction: Souhegan 40 Portsmouth 34

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