NHIAA Div. I Football Championship Preview: Exeter looks familiar
EXETER - Exeter coach Bill Ball flips a switch and Saturday's game against Manchester Central pops up on the screen.
The Exeter team on video looks a lot like the Exeter team Ball coached last year, and the one he coached the year before that. In fact, this year's Exeter team resembles just about every team Ball has molded in his 20 seasons as the program's head coach.
The Blue Hawks advanced to this year's Division I championship game by following a familiar blueprint: solid defense, punishing running game and excellent special teams.
"The names change, but what we try to do stays the same," said longtime Exeter assistant coach Skip Swiezynski. "It's been that way since I've been here."
Exeter (10-1) will meet Pinkerton Academy (10-1) on Saturday in a game between the top two teams in the Union Leader/WGIR/WMUR Power Poll. Top-ranked Exeter beat Central, 42-21, in the semifinals. No. 2 Pinkerton moved on by knocking off Nashua South, 42-3, in the other semifinal.
The same programs met in last year's Division I championship game. Exeter won that contest, 23-13.
The Blue Hawks will enter Saturday's game having scored at least 35 points in each of their last six games.
"I think offensively we're a little more balanced than we were a year ago," Ball said. "When you run the wing-T or the straight-T you want to have a four-back offense.
"We've shown flashes of being really good defensively. In my mind we need to be better Saturday. We clearly have to play better than we did last week against Central. I think we have it in us - I really do. It always starts with defense. If you can't play defense you can't be successful in the postseason."
Exeter usually has a strong kicking game, and this year is no different. Punter/place-kicker Logan Laurent, who has been offered a scholarship by the University of New Hampshire, has a habit of putting kickoffs in the end zone. Laurent hasn't missed a PAT attempt this season, and said he's comfortable attempting field goals from 50 yards and closer, but has made longer kicks in practice.
"An extra point to a 65-yard field goal is supposed to be the exactly the same on how you attack it, and how you approach it," Laurent said. "I don't worry about it. I just run out on the field, find out what yard line we're on and strike through it like it's an extra point."
Tyler Grant is probably the name being mentioned most at Pinkerton's practices this week, however. Grant, a senior halfback/defensive back, has run for 1,138 yards and 19 touchdowns on 151 carries this season. He rushed for 1,216 yards last year.
Grant has also caught 11 passes for 214 yards and three TDs.
"He seems to be a guy who plays really well in November," Ball said. "I think we gave it to him 30-35 times a game in the playoffs last year. He seems to thrive in the postseason."
Exeter quarterback Ethan Joyce isn't asked to throw often, but seven of his 29 completions have been TD passes. He's thrown for 519 yards.
Ball's formula has produced excellent results. He's guided the Blue Hawks to the playoffs in 16 of the last 18 years. Saturday will be Exeter's 13th appearance in a championship game since he took over in 1993. Exeter has won six state championships (five in Division II, one in Division I) during that span.
"I really believe our best football is in front of us," Ball said. "We'll need it."
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Roger Brown may be reached at email@example.com.