Exeter and Winnacunnet. It's the biggest rivalry in the state of New Hampshire. And in no sport is the rivalry more intense than in football. These 2 programs have had many classic games over the years, but Saturday afternoon's clash will go down in the books as one of the best of them (if not the best).
This game had 4 ties and 3 lead changes. It was played on a beautiful, sunny (albeit windy) afternoon in front of a packed, standing room only stadium of roughly 4,000 people.
You had a QB (IngHao Veasna of Winnacunnet) throw 361 yards and 3 touchdowns on 20/30 passing (plus 35 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD). His favorite receiver (Alec Boucher) had 9 catches for 234 yards and 2 TDs. You also had a RB (Exeter's Jay Inzenga) who went off for 272 yards rushing and 3 TDs (including the game-winning TD in OT).
You had a blocked punt, recovered for a TD (Winnacunnet's Devin Long which tied it 7-7 in the 1st quarter). You had a 97 yard TD pass (Veasna to Boucher which gave Warriors a 14-7 lead in 1st quarter). You had an onside kick that was recovered (by Winnacunnet). You had a team (Exeter) make a gutsy call by going for it and converting on 4th and 1 on their own 28 yard line in the 1st half.
You had the biggest rivalry in the state, you had overtime and a thrilling finish. What more could you want?
"It was a great high school football game" said Exeter head coach Bill Ball.
"There is really nothing better than a win against our rivals" said a smiling Inzenga. "We prepared a lot for this."
Let's fast forward to the 4th quarter. Exeter has the ball, up 21-14 with 6:29 left in the game. They're trying to run the clock out. That's when Inzenga made a tremendous run, going the distance for a 58 yard touchdown. For the first time all day it's a 2 possession game with the Blue Hawks up 28-14.
"I got lucky on that run" Inzenga explained. "I just happened to be in the right spot at the right time. Our line did a phenomenal job."
So now things are looking very bleak for Winnacunnet. They're down by 2 touchdowns and there's only 2:21 left. It may not have seemed like it at the time, but this game was far from over.
On the Warrior's ensuing drive, Veasna hit Boucher for a 43 yard pass. Then he again found Boucher, this time for a 9 yard TD pass. Just like that it was back to a 1 score game, 28-21 Exeter.
"Our team knows how to fight, we never give up" said Boucher, a senior who also plays defensive back for Winnacunnet. "Our wide receivers are burners, we thought we could get by them."
The Warriors were back in it, but there was still only 1:09 left in the 4th quarter and they were about to kickoff to Exeter. Naturally, they went for an onside kick. It was a short kick, bounced around, then stopped. Players from both teams stood there for a few seconds, with nobody going to pick it up. Finally 5 players dove to the ground for the ball, 4 of them were Exeter players. However the one Winnacunnet player in the mix is the one who recovered it (sophomore Brian Auffant, son of head coach Ron Auffant).
Winnacunnet ball at midfield, down 28-21 with 1:00 left in regulation. Up comes a HUGE 4th and 4 play on the Blue Hawk 44 yard line. Veasna hits a wide open Boucher on a slant route. Boucher races 42 yards all the way to the Exeter 2. The time was ticking down and the intensity was rising. On 3rd and goal from the 1, Veasna dove into the end zone, sneaking in for the TD. The extra point was good by sophomore kicker Max Chaykowsky and we were tied at 28-28 with 23.7 seconds left.
Exeter was unable to get the ball down the field after that, so we were headed to overtime. Looking around you could see it was an amazing atmosphere for a high school football game. This was a game everyone in attendance (especially the players) will remember for a long time.
Winnacunnet wins the toss and chooses to defer to Exeter, giving the Blue Hawks the ball first. Winnacunnet's defense stepped up, forcing Exeter into a 4th and goal from the 1. But then they gave it to Inzenga, who broke the plane of the goal line for the score. Junior kicker Matt Oppici put the extra point through to put the Blue Hawks back on top 35-28.
Now it's Winnacunnet ball. They could tie it with a touchdown and PAT or win it with a TD and 2 point conversion. Then Veasna hit WR Collin Witt (6 catches for 75 yards and 1 TD) with a 7 yard TD pass. The Warriors went for the PAT to tie the game up and force a second overtime. But the kick by Chaykowsky was no good, giving Exeter the 35-34 victory.
"We felt confident with Max kicking that" said Coach Auffant. "He made all of the other kicks up until then."
The First 3 Quarters
Max Medley and Ryan Kelly had some nice hits defensively on Winnacunnet's first drive. Still, the Warriors were able to convert a couple 1st downs, but then Veasna completed a 4 yard pass to Jordan Keene. Keene fumbled the ball, and it was recovered by Exeter's Chris Kelley who returned it to the Winnacunnet 22 yard line.
The Blue Hawks took advantage of the excellent field position. On 4th and inches from the WHS 12 yard line, Inzenga picked up 11 yards on the ground, rumbling down to the 1 yard line. Ryan Kelly dove in for the 1 yard TD run, behind lineman Neil Vorster. 7-0 Exeter, 7:48 left 1st quarter.
Next came yet another fumble for Winnacunnet. The Warriors started their next drive on their own 20. Veasna completed a 25 yard pass Brian Auffant. Then after a good hit on 'D' by Vorster, Veasna hit Witt for a 29 yard pass play. Winnacunnet was doing a nice job of mixing the option in, and was going with a no huddle offense to catch Exeter off guard. After a good hit by Ryan Kelly, Veasna completed a pass to Boucher down to the Blue Hawks 8 yard line. Boucher fumbled it while trying to gain addition yardage though, and it was recovered by Inzenga.
Exeter got the ball back, but had poor field position back on their own 10. Ryan Welch made a big play on 'D' to sack Exeter QB Zach Pafford. It was nearly a safety, and put the Blue Hawks back on their own 2 yard line 3rd and 18. They elected to punt it away, but the punt was blocked and recovered in the end zone by Long. Game tied up 7-7, 3:08 left 1st quarter.
Exeter was forced to punt on the ensuing drive, and was able to pin Winnacunnet back on their own 3 yard line. On the first play of that possession is when Veasna bombed it down field for Boucher. He hit him right in stride, and Boucher took it 97 yards to the house. 14-7 Warriors, :51 left 1st quarter.
Veasna was a perfect 8/8 passing in the 1st quarter, throwing for 171 yards and 1 TD. Exeter meanwhile did not attempt a pass in the 1st quarter - talk about opposite approaches on offense! Exeter changed that though, as Pafford dropped back to pass on the first play of the 2nd quarter. However the pass was intercepted by Boucher on his own 45 yard line.
The teams traded punts for the next few drives, with both defenses stepping up. Ryan Kelly continued to play well on both sides of the ball for Exeter. Then the Blue Hawks had the ball, still trailing 14-7. That's when they went for that gutsy 4th down attempt, converting on 4th and 1 from their own 28 yard line. Ryan Kelly dove forward, just barely getting enough to move the chains. Then Inzenga broke through the Warriors' defense, and sprinted 71 yards for the touchdown. Extra point was good (Oppici was a perfect 5/5 on PAT's, plus he had a touchback on a kickoff) and we were tied up 14-14 with 2:13 left in the 1st half.
After another Winnacunnet punt Exeter retained possession, looking to re-take the lead going into halftime. Patrick Witt made a big play defensively for the Warriors, coming up with a sack of Pafford. But Exeter was still able to get into field goal range, and they brought Oppici in to attempt a 36 yard FG. It was no good though, so we were tied up 14-14 at halftime.
The first drive of the 2nd half was a BIG one for Exeter. It was a classic Blue Hawk drive - grinding it out, slowly and methodically moving down the field using their tight-T formation and running game. Early in the drive Winnacunnet's defense was up to the challenge, as Mike Lewis, Welch and Nick Peckham teamed up for a big hit for no gain, then Patrick Witt also made a strong hit.
Then came a crucial play - 3rd down and 9 for Exeter at their own 24 yard line. Ryan Kelly came up big though, rushing for a 12 yard gain and the 1st down. Welch and Bill Murray then teamed up for a big hit on 'D' as Winnacunnet continued to hang tough and battle. That brought up 4th and 1 for Exeter on the Warriors' 44. Again, Ryan Kelly delivered, picking up 2 yards and the 1st.
Exeter then had one more big 3rd/4th down conversion attempt on this drive - it was 3rd and 5 on the Winnacunnet 37 - Inzenga rushed for 6 yards and the 1st down. The Blue Hawks were really stepping up on this drive and nailing those conversions. It was now coming up on 8 minutes the Warriors defense was on the field for, when Inzenga raced for 20 yards down to the 1 yard line. Ryan Kelly punched it in from 1 yard out, and the Blue Hawks were back on top 21-14. It was an 8 and a half minute drive for Exeter.
Exeter kept the momentum rolling on the following drive, as Adam Kukesh and Peter Lalime were doing a great job up front of pressuring the QB and sacking Veasna. They were finally able to take him out of his comfort zone. The Warriors were forced to punt, as was Exeter on their next drive (thanks to strong 'D' by Lewis and Christian LaRosa).
The following possession was a crucial one for Winnacunnet. Veasna hit Jon Flagg for a 17 yard pass play. Then Boucher made yet another big play, picking up 20 yards after the catch on 4th and 2 from the EHS 27. After a facemask call on Exeter, the Warriors had 1st and goal from the 1 yard line. That should mean an automatic TD for WHS, right? Wrong. They were called for an illegal procedure which brought the ball back to the 7, then on 4th and goal from the 3, Veasna's pass intended for Keene fell incomplete. Turnover on downs.
Until Next Time
This will almost certainly not be the last meeting between these 2 teams. There is no question they are 2 of the top teams in the state and will likely meet in their conference championship game come playoff time. Fans can only hope that game will be as good as this one.