Paul Silva’s Stevens Cardinals were finishing up in their locker room on Saturday morning. Packing their bags with most of their uniform, minus their pads, already on for a trip to Tilton.
As coaches were hurrying the last kids out of the locker room to get on the road to play two-time defending Division IV champion Winnisquam the call came in.
The game was canceled due to COVID concerns. The Stevens Cardinals had just advanced to the Division III championship game, with a phone call.
Later that day I stood about 20 feet away as Chris Sanborn addressed his Plymouth Bobcats after a 14-6 win over Kennett in the Division II quarterfinals.
The boys from Plymouth and our crew have our own little tradition; the kids will take a knee and wait until they have won the ultimate game before they will go nuts with us on camera.
When you’ve won 26 championships as a program, you feel like you can afford to wait.
The kids were great, always respectful, and insightful as well after a hard-earned win but what struck me most was what Coach Sanborn said to them before the cameras rolled.
He told his players that although he knew it was a tradition to not celebrate on camera with us until they had won the championship, maybe this was a year to put that tradition aside.
He told them that nothing was promised this year, not even a game next week they had just earned. He told his kids to treat this game like they’ve learned to treat every game this season and every practice as well, like it might be their last.
In the end, the captains made the call to keep the kneeling tradition, believing they weren’t close to being done but it was clear they understood their coaches’ message. No one has to tell these kids the reality of the situation they’ve been thrust into for the past 8 months.
The reality is that it can all be taken away that quickly.
Every week is a gift to these kids, their parents, coaches, and fans. It’s certainly a gift to our 12-person crew.
Two more Saturday’s and we’re there. A huge thank you to the NHIAA and the hard-working athletic directors, players, parents, and coaches that make these Saturday’s possible.
Today we take a look at semifinal games in Divisions I & II and championship games in Division III & IV.
Next week we will have opposing coaches breakdown both championship games using blind quotes from head coaches that faced them during the season.
We will be out covering 3 games this weekend:
Pete Tarrier & Colin O’Neil will be in Goffstown when the Grizzlies take on the Winnacunnet Warriors.
‘The Franchise’ Jennifer Chick-Ruth & Spencer Coronis will be in Somersworth when the Hilltoppers host Newport in the Division IV championship game.
Ian Melewski & I will be in Pelham when the Pythons take on ‘Playoff’ Paul Silva and the Stevens Cardinals
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Salem at Nashua North
That was a really good win for the Blue Devils and their first-year head coach Steve Abraham. Let the record show that the Londonderry Lancers fought until the final play but ultimately were beaten in a very physical football game we were lucky enough to cover.
Nashua North rolled past Merrimack, a team that had beaten them in the playoffs each of the last two seasons, behind another terrific defensive effort and the player of the year Curtis Harris-Lopez.
The Titans held Londonderry to 136 yards rushing on 36 attempts in a win on October 23rd. Salem might be the best rushing attack they’ve seen all season, with Aidan McDonald and Dante Fernandes both finding the end zone last weekend against the Lancers.
It will also be the best defense Salem has seen all season. Dante Laurendi’s team has won on defense and they’ve done it with balance across all three levels. Players like Max Ackerman, Spencer Whiting, Anthony Greene, Jayden Espinal, Jack Peters, Devin Bracetty, and Travis Holbrook.
Nashua North hasn’t had a close game all season long. I do think Salem poses a big threat on Saturday but…
My pick: I’m still not picking against the team I think is the best in the state….I’m going with Nashua North.
Winnacunnet at Goffstown
I’ll pose the same question I did a week ago; can Winnacunnet score enough to beat Goffstown?
A week ago Bedford only managed 7 points as the Grizzlies broke open a close game late for a 35-7 win. The Warriors have been very good defensively all season long. Jack Wilber, Zack Fredericks, Matt Alkire, Jack McCann have the led the way and they are bolstered by the return of David Aruajo.
They have led a defense that has only allowed 10.3 but on Saturday they face a team that scores an average of 36 points per game.
Can the Warriors win a 21-17 kind of game?
I think they’re going to have to because I don’t see the Warriors getting into the ’30s against a Goffstown defense led by Matt Dalton (DL), Nate Belanger (DL), Jeremy Henault (S), and Mike Levesque (CB).
My pick: Goffstown has too much on both sides of the ball
Plymouth at Lebanon
These two teams were supposed to meet in Week 3 but the game was canceled due to Covid concerns.
We saw that game as a measuring stick for Lebanon; well we got our answer last weekend in Bow. The Raiders went on the road and convincingly beat the Falcons, 30-6.
Chris Childs’ team has the weapons on offense behind QB Jack Stone, Cole Shambo, CJ Childs, Nyeoti Punni and a defense that has gotten better by the week and has been led by leading tackler CJ Childs and Cam Davio.
Cody Bannon gives the Bobcats a veteran QB while Cole Johnston, Joe D’Ambruoso and Ian Tryder get the bulk of the carries. Trevan Sanborn is their red zone threat while Sean Griffiths, Trent Sargent (who hurt his ankle last weekend against Kennett), Johnston and Sanborn lead the defense.
My pick: Playing Kennett twice has Plymouth battle tested, they get the win.
Timberlane at Souhegan
The Owls face a tall task when they head to Amherst for this one. Timberlane has been very good against physical football teams but they’ve struggled against spread teams like Souhegan and Hollis-Brookline.
Kevin Fitzgerald’s team is led defensively by Cooper Kelley (LB), Caleb Vlack (FS), and Bryce Parker (DT).
They will make adjustments from the first meeting but to call out all the Sabers offensive weapons would take more time than the play clock allows. The Sabers can beat you in several different ways and their rushing attack led by Riley Lawhorn sets up the shots downfield quarterback Austin Jain will inevitably take.
The Owls cannot win a shootout so their rushing attack led by Dominic Pallaria, Ethan Stewart, and Dan Post is crucial to their being able to control the clock and keep the Sabers offense off the field.
My pick: I picked Souhegan vs. Plymouth two months ago and I’m sticking with it
Stevens at Pelham
Not even ‘Playoff’ Paul Silva could see getting to the championship game like this.
When Winnisquam had to forfeit last Saturday’s semifinal game it meant the Cardinals were facing the only unbeaten team in the division (a Pelham team that also beat Division II, Milford, handily) and that 0-4 Laconia was a recovered fumble by Owen Taylor away from playing in the title game.
This is a huge challenge for a young Stevens team that was a year or two away from title contention. Silva and his staff will look at what Ryan Avery and his terrific staff at Monadnock were able to do last weekend and try to replicate it but,,as they say all too often, it’s not always about the X’s and O’s but the Jim’s and Joe’s.
Stevens is a very young team while Pelham is senior-led and battle-tested.
The Cardinals defense has been led by Owen Taylor, who leads the team in tackles, Braxton LeBlanc, Hunter Christian, Pacal Lemieux, Colby Shepard, and Clayton Wadsworth, who has 2 interceptions on the season.
My pick: The Pythons finish off their undefeated season
Newport at Somersworth
This game has gotten more attention this week for where it is being played than who is playing in it.
A pair of tweets I sent out on Sunday night had over 10,000 impressions and stirred up a lot of opinions. I talked about my frustration and utter confusion that Somersworth was awarded home-field advantage over the best team in Division IV after playing only one regular-season game.
This was never a shot at the NHIAA, an organization that has very good people doing great work; we are not even reading and writing football previews without all that they have done. I’ll always stand behind the team at the NHIAA. This was just a really bad mistake that should have been handled by a football committee or good old common sense.
Newport is undefeated in their 3 games against Division IV opponents by a combined score of 142-10.
They beat Division III semifinalist Monadnock, a very good team who beat defending champion Trinity and took unbeaten Pelham to the wire last weekend, 41-14 in a game we covered. Their only loss of the season was a 7-6 defeat to Division II semifinalist Lebanon. A game Newport controlled for large portions of the game.
They are now going on the road two hours from home and their fans (not their parents as each player is allotted 2 tickets) will not be able to attend the game Saturday in Somersworth.
They will face a tough Hilltoppers team but one that played a single regular-season game before then beating that same team, Raymond, last week in the playoffs. Somersworth was late in approving sports and therefore had to scramble to schedule games in sports like football and volleyball.
None of this is Somersworth’s fault. They are one of the best sports programs in Division III and their Athletic Director Steve Hodsdon does a terrific job with all of their programs. If someone hands you $100 and says ‘take it’………you take it.
This was an incredibly easy call and a mess that could have been avoided by common sense, but it wasn’t. That’s the frustrating part.
So Newport goes four hours round trip and their fans will not be there to cheer them on.
We’ll have all the highlights and the post-game with the winning team.
My pick: A very motivated Newport team