On the eve of coaching Pinkerton Academy to its 10th Division I football championship in his 33rd year at the helm, Brian O'Reilly had a conversation that triggered some great gridiron memories.
“The phone call came to me at my house from Ryan Mihalko, down in North Carolina, wishing us good luck,” O'Reilly said on Nov. 20, after his statewide No. 1 Astros shut down Nashua North, 14-7, in front of 2,500 wind-chilled fans at Memorial Field. “It was like, 'There's my 1985 guy who won the national championship at Notre Dame in '88.'
Mihalko, along with Joe Segreti, also led Pinkerton's legendary '85 team to the program's first title under O'Reilly. The group is among the four greatest single-season teams of New Hampshire's 38-year schoolboy football playoff era.
It's arguably the top team of the quartet, too. O'Reilly's '85 team is held in such high historical regard because, just one year earlier, it was a Division II program.
And 25 years after Mihalko helped Pinkerton manhandle the competition en route to a surprise undefeated season, O'Reilly's Astros reached rarefied air.
“We've had a lot of great players over the years. We don't do it with smoke and mirrors here,” said O'Reilly, who improved to 10-2 in Division I title games (10-3 overall) and bumped his career record to 240-98. “We have 3,400 kids (at Pinkerton), although that's recent. We didn't have that back in the old days.
“We are a large school. We have a lot of athletes. We have great feeder programs. We do it with players, and I've had great, great players over the years,” he added, specifically naming Mihalko, Segreti and early '90s star Matt Jordan, a national champion at UMass. “All those championships are a testament to all those players that we've had.”
O'Reilly's 10th title team didn't have individual stars. But the collection of talent, particularly on defense, powered Pinkerton (10-2 overall, 9-1 Div. I) to its first crown since 2007.
Co-captains Luke Somers and Mike Mazzola, among just 10 seniors listed on this year's roster, paced a defense that delivered in crucial spots.
Certainly capable of scoring points, these Astros won by preventing them. They allowed an average of 16.5 points to league foes. The average dropped to 14.8 points after their lone league loss, a 33-7 drubbing in Week 3 by the very Titans they tackled for the title.
In the semifinals, Pinkerton held defending champion Salem, the league's high-scoring team (413 regular-season points), to a TD in each half. It resulted in a 21-14 win, decided on Emmitt Smith's 12-yard run with 21 seconds remaining in regulation.
The bend-but-don't-break defense sure delivered in the championship game. Three times in the second half, including its last two possessions, North was stopped cold in the red zone.
Linebacker Kevin Davies, whose game-high 94 rushing yards and TD were critical, deflected a fourth-down pass attempt at his team's 4-yard line. The play ended North's second-to-last drive. Somers and cornerback Ryan Coombs made key plays in the final minute to keep the Titans out of the end zone.
“We've had a lot of experience stopping (offenses) on the goal line,” said Mazzola, a running back and defensive end whose 15-yard TD with 7-plus minutes to play erased Pinkerton's 7-6 title-game deficit. “We take pride in that. We like to dig deep and we don't want to give up.”
PERCHED ON TOP
Bishop Guertin's Cardinals are again a three-pete champion in Division II.
The Nashua program survived a staggering number of injuries throughout the season to reach its 10th championship game in 14 years. It also claimed its sixth title in seven seasons with a 14-13 comeback win over Winnacunnet of Hampton at Stellos Stadium on Nov. 20.
“This was probably the most challenging team I've coached since '99,” BG head coach Tony Johnson said in reference to the season-long injury bug that ravaged his roster.
Thirty-four players suffered injuries this season, ranging from minor to season-ending. But BG (10-2, 9-1 Div. II) overcame the many changes in personnel.
The defense – anchored by linebacker Jim Kemos – forced a critical late-game turnover in each playoff game. Jim Carver recovered a fourth-quarter fumble against Keene and returned it 30 yards for the game-winning score. The play erased a one-point deficit in BG's 28-21 semifinal win.
Brody Smith pulled down an interception inside BG's 10-yard line in the final minute of the title game. It ended Winnacunnet's potential championship-winning drive and preserved the clutch TD connection between quarterback Steve Cuipa and Nick Pyzocha.
“We had two common denominators through the whole season, one on offense and one on defense,” Johnson said. “'Coop' (Cuipa) on offense, Kemos on defense. Everything else, we were moving parts.”
SUPERB UNDER PRESSURE
Souhegan celebrated a Division III three-peat on Nov. 20. The Amherst squad – trailing by five points late in the fourth quarter – needed an 85-yard drive to do it.
Known for quick strikes through the air, Souhegan (11-1, 10-0 Div. III) orchestrated an uncharacteristic 14-play march. Senior signal-caller Mike Luks capped the drive with a 3-yard run and Denny Desserault added the two-point conversion that lifted the host Sabers past Portsmouth, 24-21.
“There was a lot of drama in the drive. We did it in a pressure-packed situation,” Souhegan head coach Mike Beliveau said. “The best part is we left (Portsmouth's) high-powered offense only 51 seconds to counter.”
Luks completed 31 of a program-record 54 pass attempts for 305 yards and two TDs. But Dessereault and Matt Schagrin made season-saving plays that sustained the drive.
Dessereault pounced on a loose ball that Souhegan fumbled forward after Luks completed a pass to midfield. Schagrin converted a critical third-down pass by launching himself horizontal to the turf.
“The thing about this year's group of seniors, and there are 20 on the team, is they believe they're never out of a game,” Beliveau said. “That's been their M.O. since they were in youth football.”
The boys from New Hampshire's Upper Valley reached the mountaintop for the first time.
Twenty-four unanswered points erased a 14-point deficit and earned Division IV Lebanon (11-0) its first NHIAA football crown on Nov. 13. The Raiders topped Trinity of Manchester, 24-14.
Star senior Cody Patch scored Lebanon's second and third touchdowns in the second half. Patch's key runs were sandwiched between Chris Barker's short-yardage scores in the second quarter and Justin Judd's fourth-quarter field goal.
Mark Davidson delivered the big blow. The lineman blocked Trinity's third-quarter punt that set up Lebanon's go-ahead score.
“They never give up,” Lebanon head coach Chris Childs told the New Hampshire Sunday News. “They kept plugging along and fighting adversity. That second half was just phenomenal.”
Kearsarge Regional of North Sutton completed an undefeated Division V season on Nov. 13. The Cougars doubled up Dover's St. Thomas Aquinas, 12-6.
The six-point decision earned Kearsarge its first football championship. It also proved the perfect goodbye gift for retiring head coach Dennis Hoffman, who started the program in 1994.
“It's just unbelievable,” Hoffman told the New Hampshire Sunday News. “To be (11-0) in my last season, it just doesn't get any better. What a story.”
Doug Gregory was the difference on offense. Kearsarge's quarterback cracked the 100-yard rushing mark, which included 10- and 7-yard TD runs. His second score snapped a 6-all tie early in the final frame.
BACK ON TOP
Division VI Newport ended its title drought on Nov. 13. The second-seeded Tigers gutted top-seeded Gilford, 35-0, in the championship round.
The championship win was Newport's first since claiming the Division IV crown in 1995.
Newport (9-2) offered a steady diet of Harrison Wade, whose 134 rushing yards and three TDs helped avenge a 40-20 regular-season loss to the Golden Eagles two weeks earlier.
Manchester Central's boys won the team title at the New England Cross Country Championships. The trend that started with wins at the Division I meet and Meet of Champions concluded with another solid effort at Thetford (Vt.) Academy on Nov. 13.
Sam Gagnon led the Little Green. He placed 18th overall with a time of 17-minutes, 15.9 seconds. Dylan Lafond (32nd, 17:31.1), Matt Becker (45th, 17:42.8), Zach Chabot (72nd, 18:06.4) and Max Tucker (96th, 18:20.4) also scored points for the winning squad.
Keep tabs on Salem seniors Nick Poore and Josh Treff after they graduate. Both will play Division I college baseball.
Poore, a 5-foot 11-inch, 170-pound left-handed pitcher, signed his Letter of Intent to join Boston College. Treff, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound catcher, signed with Northeastern.
Last season, Poore went 8-2 with 1.23 ERA. In 62 2/3 innings pitched, he struck out 90 batters. Seven of his 11 appearances were complete-game efforts. Six times he amassed double-digit strikeouts.
“Nick put himself with an elite group of pitchers that have come through New Hampshire,” Salem head baseball coach Dan Keleher said. “He earned the respect of BC before his junior year started, and then went out and backed it up. The two playoff games against Exeter and (Nashua) North he was dominating, winning both games 2-1.”
Treff last spring hit .378 (28-for-74) with four homers and 16 RBI. He also worked 10 walks and scored 23 runs. He hit safely in 19 of Salem's 23 games. Eight times he recorded multiple hits.
“Josh came into his junior year needing to improve his offensive production; he was already the best defensive catcher in the state,” Keleher said. “He came through to lead the Salem offense, highlighted by his walk-off home run against Timberlane in the (Class L) quarterfinals.”
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News and UnionLeader.com. He has been the high schools reporter for football and lacrosse since joining the statewide newspaper in 2006. A graduate of Syracuse University (2000), he wrote about the state's football history for an exhibit at The Hall at Patriot Place. The Bedford, N.H., native has covered the Little League World Series, NCAA men's lacrosse championships, UNH athletics and New Hampshire Fisher Cats baseball. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.