Central battle cry: 'Remember '99'
Central Head Coach Ryan Ray watches his team warmup during Central High School football practice for Saturday's Exeter game on Friday at Gill Stadium, in Manchester. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)
RYAN RAY made a good point this week when the Manchester Central High head coach addressed his football team's chance of upsetting top-ranked Exeter today in the NHIAA Division I semifinals at Bill Ball Stadium.
"We lost to Exeter 49-0 during the regular season, and if I was on the outside looking in, I'd probably react like most people and say, 'Central doesn't have a chance; they won't beat Exeter,'" Ray said. "But I'm not on the outside looking in. I'm inside looking out. As far as I'm concerned, the only opinion that matters to me is the one shared by the 70 players we're taking with us to Exeter.
"The Central team that showed up to play Exeter during the regular season is dead and gone. I will be absolutely shocked if that team shows up against Exeter (today). Now as far as people saying we don't have a shot, I don't agree with that."
With a 9-0 Division I record and 9-1 overall mark, Exeter is seeded first in addition to being the No. 1 team in the Union Leader/WGIR/WMUR Power Poll of the state's teams. Central (6-3, 6-4) is seeded fourth and ranked ninth in the poll.
In today's other Division I semifinal, second-seeded and second-ranked Pinkerton Academy of Derry (8-1, 9-1) hosts third-seeded and sixth-ranked Nashua South (6-3, 6-4).
Elsewhere, No. 3 Winnacunnet of Hampton (9-1) hosts No. 10 Bishop Guertin of Nashua (5-4) and No. 4 Bedford (7-1, 8-1) hosts No. 5 Keene (6-2, 8-2) in the Division II semifinals, while No. 7 Souhegan of Amherst (8-0, 9-1) hosts Goffstown (5-3, 5-5) and Milford (6-2, 7-3) hosts Portsmouth (6-2, 7-2) in the Division III semis.
In the only other game featuring a ranked team, No. 8 Plymouth Regional (10-0) hosts Trinity of Manchester (9-1) in the Division IV final.
Of all those lower-seeded teams, Central may be the biggest underdog. And that's fine with Ray.
"I remember no one giving the New England Patriots a shot to win the Super Bowl in 2002 against the 'greatest show on turf.' I remember no one giving the Giants a chance against an 18-0 Patriots team," he said. "I also remember no one - absolutely no one - giving the 1999 Manchester Central team a shot to beat Londonderry.
"That's why you play the game. If we believed what people on the outside are saying about our chances against Exeter, we wouldn't be going to Exeter. But, like I said, we share our own opinion, and we're taking it with us to Exeter."
Ray's example of 1999 is particularly relevant. No one predicted fourth-ranked Central would beat mighty, undefeated defending state champion Londonderry in the semifinal round that year.
The Lancers, then coached by Tom Sawyer, were on the cusp of rewriting the history books. Coming off a 12-0 campaign in 1998, Londonderry steamrolled through the regular season with a 9-0 record, extending its winning streak to 22 games heading into the postseason.
Since the introduction of a playoff format in 1972, only two teams in the NHIAA's biggest-school division, Manchester Memorial in 1972 and Pinkerton Academy of Derry in 1986, had achieved back-to-back undefeated championship seasons. Londonderry was trying to become the third.
As the high school football beat reporter for this newspaper at the time, I predicted that Londonderry, whose first-team defensive unit had allowed 33 points all season, would easily beat Central, 40-8. It was a logical pick considering Londonderry entered that game with a 60-9 overall record and three state titles over a five-year span.
But, to borrow Ray's word, the 1999 Central team had its own "opinion" about that game. Jim Schubert's squad not only stunned Londonderry but shocked the state with a 24-21 triumph at Lancer Park.
Little Green quarterback Ricky LeClerc shattered Londonderry's season when he hit Derek Lynch in stride down the sideline for a 21-yard TD pass with 24 seconds left to play. Central went on to beat Nashua for the state title at Holman Stadium the following week.
As Ray said, if everyone is right about Central having no chance to win today's game, why play it? The 1999 version of the Little Green provides the answer.
TODAY Central's 2012 edition heads to Exeter with some great news.
Ray confirmed that senior captain and linebacker Dan Pasqual will play. Pasqual who jammed his right ring finger and ruptured a flexor tendon in the regular-season game against Exeter, had surgery and missed the last six games.
"The doctors cleared him, and he's playing," said Ray. "He didn't play the last six weeks, but he was still the first guy to show up for practice and the last to leave. He kept himself in shape, and he's ready to go."
Leadership also comes from senior captain Troy Pelletier, an outstanding two-way player Ray described as a "football coach on the field of play. Works hard, leads by example. He's solid."
BY NO MEANS has Ray lost sight of who it is his team is playing today. The Blue Hawks are still the defending state champs, and Ray doesn't need reminding.
"If you want to model your program after anyone, you start with Bill Ball and Exeter," said Ray. "You know what you're facing when you play his team. They're always well-coached, they're disciplined, and they come at you with a ground-and-pound style of play. There's no question we have our work cut out for us. But, like I said before, the Central team boarding the bus to Exeter will not be the same Central team that faced Exeter during the regular season."
Who knows? Maybe, just maybe, it will be 1999 all over again.
That said, I'm going with the majority. I'm picking Exeter to win, 40-8, while hoping Central proves me wrong again.