Roger Brown's First and 10: Exeter-Pinkerton pits No. 1 vs. No. 2
Exeter's Tyler Grant (45) breaks away from Manchester Central defender Troy Pelletier (3) for a touchdown during the second half of their Div. I semifinal in Exeter on Saturday. (Mark Bolton/Union Leader)
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It's the game many people have been looking forward to since the preseason: Exeter vs. Pinkerton for the Division I championship.
Exeter (10-1 overall, 9-0 in Division I) is the top-seeded team in the Division I playoffs, and is ranked at the top of the Union Leader/WGIR/WMUR Power Poll. Second-seeded Pinkerton (10-1, 8-1) is ranked No. 2. The teams will meet Saturday in Exeter (noon kickoff).
The same programs met in last year's Division I championship game, when the Blue Hawks upset the Astros, 23-13, in Derry.
"They are as advertised," Exeter coach Bill Ball said. "We know what we're in for. I think it always comes down to the little things - a lot of fundamentals. Hopefully we'll have a great week of preparation."
Each team's offense is powered by a 1,000-yard rusher: Exeter's Tyler Grant and Pinkerton's Manny Latimore.
"They're a very good team," Grant said following Exeter's 42-21 victory over Manchester Central in the semifinals. "We've seen them three times in the last two years. We know they're going to be gunning for us after last year, but we're ready to go. We'll be prepared."
Grant ran for a season-high 188 yards and two touchdowns when Exeter beat Pinkerton 24-20 during the regular season. Latimore scored five touchdowns in Pinkerton's 42-3 triumph over Nashua South in Saturday's other semifinal.
"If you miss Latimore, the band plays," Exeter coach Bill Ball said. "We have great respect for Pinkerton. They have a lot of good athletes. A lot great players."
Pinkerton's victory over Nashua South put the Astros in the championship game for the eighth time in the last nine years. Pinkerton coach Brian O'Reilly has a career coaching record of 251-102, and will be trying to guide the Astros to their 11th Division I championship.
"We have our work cut out for us, but we're real excited about the opportunity," Ball said. "Very excited."
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The Seacoast will be the place to be next Saturday. In addition to the Division I championship game in Exeter, the Division II title game will be held in Hampton, and the Division III championship will be decided in Portsmouth.
Top-seeded Winnacunnet (10-1, 8-1) will meet second-seeded Bedford (9-1, 8-1) for the Division II title. It's the first time the Warriors have played a championship game at home since 1983, when they beat Exeter 19-7. Winnacunnet beat Bedford 13-6 during the regular season.
Third-seeded Portsmouth (8-2, 7-2) will meet fourth-seeded Goffstown (7-4, 6-4) in the Division III title game. It'll be the first time Portsmouth has played a championship game at home since 1976, when the Clippers beat Spaulding 13-6. Portsmouth, last year's Division III champion, routed Goffstown 56-22 during the regular season.
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At least three teams have a chance to finish first in the Union Leader/WGIR/WMUR Power Poll.
Many voters will undoubtedly cast their first-pace vote for the winner of the Exeter/Pinkerton game, but if Exeter and Winnacunnet each prevail next weekend a strong case can be made for the Warriors as well.
Winnacunnet is currently ranked third, and is the only team that beat Exeter during the regular season. Each team could end its season with one loss. In that scenario, Winnacunnet could finish first on the strength of its head-to-head victory over the Blue Hawks.
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Roger Brown may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.