Exeter and Winnacunnet. The biggest rivalry in the NHIAA. There's nothing like it - especially when they're also 2 of the top teams in the state. Saturday afternoon's showdown in Exeter lived up to the hype. A thrilling victory for Exeter, and a heartbreaking defeat for Winnacunnet.
The hero is Exeter senior Evan Royer, who is also a member of the school's soccer team. The Blue Hawks hadn't kicked a field goal all season so far. But they trailed Winnacunnet 20-18 with just 9.7 seconds left in the 4th quarter. In came Royer to attempt the 25 yard FG. The snap was good, the hold was good by Kyle Ball. The kick was wobbly, it was low and it fluttered around - but it was good. Exeter celebrated in jubilation, with Royer's teammates congratulating him. The desperation heave down field on the game's final play by Warriors' sophomore QB Patrick MacDougal fell incomplete, and Exeter wins it 21-20.
"Huge props to Evan for making that kick" said Exeter senior lineman and captain DJ O'Donnell. "Coach talked to us before the game about controlling our emotions and being consistent throughout the game. Everyone did their job."
Winnacunnet led 20-12 late in the 3rd quarter. But Exeter was the more resilient team, as the Blue Hawks got a touchdown and a field goal in the game's closing seconds, while holding the Warriors to 0 points the rest of the way.
"The bottom line is we didn't make the plays when we had to" lamented Winnacunnet head coach Ron Auffant, whose team is now 2-2 on the season. "The same thing happened in the Salem game, where they scored on the last drive to beat us. We're 2 drives away from being undefeated. We need to finish better."
Both teams advanced deep into their opponent's territory on their final drive. Exeter scored on their drive, Winnacunnet came up empty - there's your ball game. On the Warriors' final drive they started back on their own 23 yard line. MacDougall (8/14 passing for 112 yards and 1 TD, plus 13 rushing yards) connected with 6-foot-5 junior wideout Logan Keene (3 receptions for 77 yards and 1 TD) for a 29 yard completion. Keene was wide open on the play. Exeter had trouble with their pass coverage.
"They run a good offense" said Exeter head coach Bill Ball. "They run a good play action."
Then came a huge play for the Warriors. On 4th and 2 from the Exeter 24 yard line. It would have been a 41 yard FG attempt, but Coach Auffant elected to go for the 1st down, even with a 2 point lead. MacDougal again looked for Keene. MacDougall's pass was right on the money, and it would have been a 1st down but it went through Keene's hands and fell incomplete. That drop really hurt the Warriors' chances, but they wouldn't have been in the lead if Keene didn't make the catches he did earlier. The turnover on downs gave the football back to Exeter.
Now it's Exeter's final drive. They're down 20-18. It was the biggest drive of the game, and the Blue Hawks delivered. Senior Jackson Allen (82 rushing yards and 2 TDs) rushed for a 16 yard gain. Junior QB Kyle Kyle Ball (66 passing yards and 52 rushing yards). Lewis made a nice tackle for the Warriors, but then Brian Doucette broke a 13 yard run on 3rd and 5. Then came a huge play, 4th and 1 for Exeter on the Winnacunnet 22 yard line. If the Warriors get a stop here they'd have this game in the bag. But instead Ball lunged forward, barely getting enough yardage for the 1st down. Then ball connected with Cameron Flanagan for a 9 yard completion. That set up Rpyer for the 25 yard field goal - the game winning kick.
Exeter remains undefeated on the season at 4-0. 3 of their 4 wins have gone down to the wire. Having that kind of experience winning tight battles will help them come playoff time.
"Allen had a couple of big runs, Ball was huge" said Coach Ball. "Hats off to Royer, for making that kick. He'll be remembered around here for a long time."
If the Blue Hawks did end up losing this game by 2 points, they would have surely looked at the failed 2 point conversion attempt where Ball threw it to big TE Hunter Long as a major reason why. Exeter had just scored on a 25 yard TD run by Allen to cut the Winnacunnet lead to 20-18. Exeter went for the 2 point conversion to tie it up. Ball rolled right, throwing on the run towards the back right corner of the end zone for Long. Long hauled in the pass, but was ruled out of bounds so the warriors remained ahead 20-18. However according to a still image from a photographer on the sideline, it was clear that Long had both feet in bounds when he made the catch.
Winnacunent went up 20-12 late in the 3rd quarter on a big run by Lewis (115 rushing yards and 1 TD, plus 2 catches for 13 yards). MacDougal pitched it to Lewis, who got a block and found running room on the left side, turning on some good breakaway speed for a kid his size and racing up the left sideline 44 yards for the score. Earlier on the drive MacDougal made a key 9 yard pass to Liam Viviano on 3rd and 5 from his own 47 yard line.
Winnacunnet led 14-12 at halftime. Both teams scored 2 touchdowns in the 1st half, but Exeter missed a PAT and a 2 point conversion and that was the difference.
Exeter got on the board on the game's opening possession, grinding out a drive which ended with a 1 yard TD plunge by Mason Wallace (22 rushing yards plus 1 catch for 40 yards.
Winnacunnet answered back on their first drive, as senior RB/DB Brian Auffant sprinted 52 yards for the TD on 3rd and 3. The warriors got some great blocking up front on that play which created a hole on the right side of the Blue Hawks' defense.
Winnacunnet extended their lead to 14-6 with a 7 yard TD pass from MacDougal to Keene with 6:32 left in the 2nd quarter.
Then came a tough call on the Warriors. On the ensuing kickoff they drove Exeter return man Cam Flanagan backwards, behind the 20 yard line. The officials called a personal foul penalty on Winnacunnet though for hitting after the whistle. This was a very questionable call. It's not like Winnacunnet tackled Flanagan to the ground after the whistle. They just continued to push him back a little bit after the whistle, but not with much force. Exeter gained 15 yards with that penalty, and then went on to score a TD on that drive. Would they still have scored the TD without that 15 yard penalty? Maybe, but maybe not. The drive was capped by Ball who ran in the 9 yard TD on a keeper. Earlier on the drive Ball connected with Wallace for a 40 yard pass play.
"That was a tough break" said O'Donnell. "We tried to not let that take the wind out of our sails and just keep playing."
So both teams had a call not go there way. Winnacunnet had that questionable late hit called on them, and Exeter had the 2 point conversion waved off even though Long was in bounds. The difference in the game though was that Exeter made the plays in the 4th quarter to win it, and Winnacunnet did not. It was a great game though.
"It could have gone either way" said Coach Auffant.
"They're a really good team" said Coach Ball.