Many people around the state (including this reporter) questioned how good defending champs Pinkerton would be this season with the state's best running back (TJ Urbanik) out for the year with a knee injury) and arguably the state's best lineman (Hayden Sturdevant) off to prep school. After easy wins the first 2 games of the season the Astros faced their first tough test on Saturday afternoon vs. a Salem which is also expected to be in the title hunt. Pinkerton passed the test with flying colors.
Filling in for Urbanik, senior RB Brett Dattilo went off for 205 rushing yards and 2 catches for 48 yards. Dattilo had 2 touchdowns rushing and 1 TD receiving. Dattilo's second rushing TD of the game put the game on ice, as he scored on a 6 yard TD run to make it 35-20 Astros with just 40.2 seconds left in the 4th quarter. Dattilo also set the tone early, catching a pass from junior QB Ryan Albrecht across the middle, taking a bone crushing hit from Salem DB Jonathan St. Hilaire and still holding onto the ball. Teammate Mike Curley capped that initial drive with a 2 yard TD run to get the Astros on top 7-0.
"Brett's my guy" said Pinkerton head coach Brian O'Reilly. "He's mmy guy in lacrosse too. He's my team in lacrosse. He's a D-I college player in lacrosse. That first play where he caught the ball, took the hit and got right back up - that's Brett Dattilo. The Dattilo boys are tough kids."
The biggest play of the game though wasn't made by Dattilo. It was a 51 yard TD pass from Albrecht (6/10 passing for 159 yards and 1 TD plus 38 rushing yards) connected with junior FB Nico Buccieri on a short pass which turned into a long score thanks to a good play call and key blocks down field. For the first time all game, Pinkerton now had a 3 score lead, 28-7 with 8:49 left in the 3rd quarter. The 3 score deficit turned out to be too much for the Blue Devils to overcome.
Albrecht completed 6 passes - all for 15 yards or more. That number of long completions is unheard of for a Pinkerton QB, as the Astros are known as a run-oriented team.
"It is more than I normally throw" admitted Coach O'Reilly. "I used to throw the heck out of the ball in the 90's though. What we saw in Salem was a weakness in their pass defense. You can only cover so many things, and Salem was covering the run. They put 8 or 9 guys right on the line. It leaves them open to being beat by the play action. Also, Ryan Albrecht has a good arm."
Salem answered right back after Pinkerton went on top 7-0. Bruising back Johnny Bartose picked up an 8 yard gain on 3rd and 1 from his own 30 yard line. QB Matt Soldano hit Charles Sibanda for a 16 yard pass, then connected with Nick Shummski for a 24 yard completion. Sibanda capped the drive with a very determined run, plunging forward 6 yards for the score and it was 7-7 with 2:44 left in the 1st quarter.
Later in the 1st half is when Dattilo really started to get in a rhythm running the football. Pinkerton got good field position following a very short punt by Salem. Dattilo then ran for a 15 yard gain, followed by a 37 yard TD scamper.
"It was supposed to be me and TJ in the backfield together" said Dattilo. "Him at the left and me on the right. It's unfortunate that he got hurt, but I'm doing what I can to step up. I did well the first 2 weeks and thought I could do well again today if the line held up. Salem wouldn't anyone run outside, so I cut up the inside instead."
Kaelan Queiros made a nice tackle for a loss which forced another Blue Devils punt. Again it was a short punt, which gave Pinkertn good field position. Again it was Dattilo going to work, running for a 12 yard gain and then catching a 25 yard TD pass from Albrecht to make it 21-7 Astros with 6:37 left in the 1st half.
Meanwhile, Pinkerton was having more success punting the football. The snap went over the head of punter Kyle Cantalupo, but he was able to pick it up and kick the kick away, even with a 250 lbs. kid baring down on him. The kick bounced to the 1 yard line before a Pinkerton player tried to down it at the 1 but stepped into the end zone, bringing it out to the 20. The difference in the field position battle was a big reason why the Astros were leading.
Pinkerton nearly made it a 3 score lead heading into halftime. Dattilo ran for a 39 yard gain, but was brought down at the 6 yard line as time expired in the 1st half. It was 21-7 Pinkerton at the break.
After the Astros made it 28-7 early in the 3rd quarter it really seemed like it took the wind out of the Blue Devils' sails. Salem battled back though, scoring a pair of 2nd half touchdowns to cut the Pinkerton lead to 28-20. Soldano connected with Shumski for a 19 yard completion on 3rd and 15 from his own 15 yard line, then Soldano hit Shumski again, this time for 29 yards. Bartose capped the drive with a 3 yard TD carry, cutting the Pinkerton lead to 28-14 with 4:21 left in the 3rd quarter.
Salem got a key stop on Pinkerton's ensuing possession. Dattilo ran for a 12 yard gain, Albrecht hit Ryan Philibotte for a 20 yard pass play. Bartose and Sean Nartiff teamed up for a nice tackle on D. Albrecht picked up a 13 yard run, but on 4th and 9 from the Salem 33 yard line Albrecht's completion to Buccieri was only good for 7 yards - 2 yards short of the 1st down, resulting in a turnover on downs.
The Blue Devils were forced to punt, but then got the ball back as Pinkerton fumbled on their next drive. The fumble was recovered by Salem sophomore Adam Maroun. Salem still had some hope! They turned that turnover into a quick score, as Sibanda broke a key 18 yard run on 3rd and 8 from the Pinkerton 27 yard line. Sibanda finished the drive with a 4 yard TD and it was 28-20 Astros with 7:10 left in the 4th quarter.
It was only a 1 score game. But unfortunately for Salem, Pinkerton kept the football, running the clock all the way down to under a minute left. Dattilo picked up a 7 yard gain up the middle, thanks to a nice block by OL Austin Fields. Then SE Nathan Barnhart made a nice block on the outside to free up Dattilo for a 21 yard run. Dattilo put the icing on the cake with the 6 yard TD run to make it 35-20.
A tough, hard fought football game between two of the top teams in the state.
"We still have things to work on before we get to November" said Coach O'Reilly.
Right now though, the Astros look as good as anybody in NH.