Show of hands: Who's surprised by Spaulding High's success this season on the gridiron?
Ask that question in Rochester and, truthfully, throughout New Hampshire. You'll find the team's head football coach is among many with an arm stretched high to the sky.
"Kind of. I didn't think we'd win three in a row," head coach Dennis Fontaine said shortly before his Red Raiders added a fourth straight win to their resume Oct. 21. "For the kids to grasp the new systems on offense and defense, they picked it up quick. They're executing what we showed them."
Those new systems on both sides of scrimmage are the result of Fontaine's appointment to the head coaching post this fall. Spaulding's once-proud program is under new leadership for the second time in as many seasons.
Fontaine is the fifth head coach since 1998, the first season after legendary Hugo Bolin retired with a 198-127-3 career record and five state titles.
The post-Bolin era hasn't been pretty.
Spaulding went 28-107 from 1998-2010, a span that included time in Divisions I and II. The program celebrated just one playoff season in those 13 campaigns. Jim Keays, known for his championship success at Somersworth High years ago, led the '06 Red Raiders to the Division II semifinals.
Considering the coaching turnover and run of football futility, there was nothing in the preseason that indicated Spaulding (4-4 overall, 3-3 Div. II) would compete for the playoffs.
There weren't any signs in September, either.
The Red Raiders went 0-4, including three consecutive setbacks to perennial contenders in league play. They suffered three shutout losses. They were outscored, 125-8.
Then came the turning point. Rather than fight the formula for winning -- from yet another head coach -- the players bought into it.
“They're realizing it's not just a bunch of hot air. They're taking it and applying it on the field,” said Fontaine, previously a longtime assistant for recently retired Rod Wotton, who owns New England's record for career wins (342), and led Maine's Marshwood High and Dover's St. Thomas Aquinas High to a combined 21 state titles.
Spaulding rattled off four straight wins from Sept. 30 to Oct. 21.
The Red Raiders stunned Keene High, 25-17. They whacked Manchester West High, 47-14. They slammed Merrimack High, 39-0, for the program's first shutout win since the '06 season.
Handling Hudson's Alvirne High with ease, 39-13, Spaulding celebrated its first four-game win streak since 1999, when Dave Keller was at the helm.
Fontaine said the turnaround has been a team effort.
There are, however, standouts in the group. The Scott brothers, Tyrone and Trey, are running the football with purpose. Linemen Dillon Couture and Ben Lafond are providing push up front.
Safety Nate Zriny “is playing fantastic defense,” Fontaine said. “He'll play anything for us. He'll play nose tackle if we ask him to.”
Fontaine's gridders have two regular-season games remaining, though they close their league slate Oct. 28 at Hugo Bolin Field against Plaistow's Timberlane Regional.
A win for the Red Raiders earns them the No. 3 playoff seed.
Surely, Fontaine is excited by his squad's stunning second half to the season. Right?
“Yes and no. I've been there before from prior coaching. You can't get too excited in front of the kids,” he said. “We just do our normal practice, work on what we need to do on offense and defense.”
Spoken like one very focused head football coach.
Manchester Memorial High stands one win from a completing a fantasy finish in Division I field hockey. The program reached its first-ever championship match, slated for Oct. 30, with a 2-0 shutout win in the semifinals at Exeter High's Eustis Field.
Second-half goals by Maria Manning and Jenna Freitas, and three saves from goalie Allison Geary lifted the second-seeded Crusaders past sixth-seeded Merrimack.
"It's been an amazing and wonderful journey for our entire team," Memorial head coach Rebecca Libby told the New Hampshire Union Leader after the Oct. 25 semifinals. "All 21 girls on our roster have contributed something positive to our season. It's a dedicated, close bunch who refuse to quit or lose."
The shutout win was Memorial's ninth in a row and 13th this season. Memorial has also set single-season marks with 15 wins (15-1 record), 39 goals and just five markers allowed.
Memorial will face defending champion and No. 4 seed Winnacunnet High of Hampton (11-4-1) for the title. The Warriors upset top-seeded Pinkerton Academy of Derry, 1-0, in the semifinals.
Melissa MacLeod's first-half goal stood up as Haley Morancy totaled six saves.
'D' EARNS AN 'A'
Defense has been the calling card for Hollis/Brookline High's stellar football season. It was particularly impressive in Week 8 against high-powered Portsmouth High.
The Cavaliers flat out frustrated the Clippers, which entered the Division III matchup averaging 35 points per game. Instead, they scored just seven points in a 14-7 loss.
The game's key statistic: H/B stopped Portsmouth on 5 of 6 trips into the red zone. Those five stops ended with two interceptions and three turnovers on downs.
Three Cavs recorded the defense's four interceptions: Colin Pellerin (two), David Caponigro and Sean Connors.
"Every one of the interceptions was forced by someone putting some pressure on the quarterback," H/B head coach Milt Robinson said. "That was huge -- and something we haven't been able to do in the past. Get someone in the quarterback's face to disrupt him."
Portsmouth's defense didn't play poorly, either. Billy Lane, Connor McCauley and Dan Kaczmarek picked off passes. Ricky Holt and Anthony Kurylak each recovered a fumble.
UNIFIED CHAMPIONSHIP ON HORIZON
The NHIAA will crown champions in multiple unified sports this academic year. Soccer will celebrate the first unified champ Nov. 6.
Final Four matches are scheduled for Nov. 1. Spaulding hosts Durham's Oyster River High at 3:30 p.m. Laconia High hosts Dover High at 3 p.m. Winning squads advance to the final at Southern New Hampshire University's Larkin Field for the 10 a.m. match.
Unified championships will also be decided in basketball, and track and field.
New Hampshire's governing body for interscholastic athletics, along with the Special Olympics of New Hampshire, created the unified division this past summer.
"The initial games that have been played have been everything we expected and more," NHIAA executive director Pat Corbin told the statewide newspaper, which noted SONH is funding the program through grants.
GRANITE STATE GREATS
-- Derek Corrente struck four times in the Division IV regular-season finale for the Epping High boys' soccer team Oct. 21, a 5-0 win over Newmarket High. He set the program's single-season scoring record with 24 tallies.
-- Maggie Kenney paced No. 1 seed Merrimack to a 3-0 first-round tournament win over 16th-seeded Exeter in Division I girls' volleyball Oct. 26. Kenney contributed 13 kills, nine digs and six aces. Allison Latham (nine kills, eight digs) and Bree McCarthy (26 assists, six aces) also fueled the Tomahawks, who improved to 18-1.
Marc Thaler is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader & Sunday News. He co-hosts the “New Hampshire High School Football Show” on WGIR-AM 610 and WQSO-FM 96.7 every Saturday from 7-9 a.m. Read his “New Hampshire GameDay” blog and follow him on Twitter: @marc_thaler.