After missing the playoffs last year, Exeter returns to familiar territory.
EXETER — Ever since it missed the Division I playoffs last year, the Exeter High School football team was fueled to be in exactly the position it’ll be in next Sunday night.
Exeter senior quarterback Ryan Grijalva’s 50-yard touchdown pass to Nate MacDonald on the opening drive of Saturday afternoon’s Division I semifinal against Merrimack sparked a dominating performance by the Blue Hawks. Second-seeded Exeter went on to wrap up a 34-13 victory over No. 4 Merrimack in the East/West cluster of the semifinals at Bill Ball Stadium.
“We knew we had the team early,” Grijalva said. “We knew we had all the pieces, we were working hard before the season started. Once it started, we had to put all the pieces together and we just kept adding onto it. We really bonded really well, and that’s what led us to get here.”
Exeter (10-1) advanced to its first Division I championship game since back-to-back losses to Goffstown and Bedford in 2015 and 2016. The Blue Hawks will play Londonderry (11-0) next Sunday night (6 p.m.) at the Univeristy of New Hampshire’s Wildcat Stadium. The Lancers emerged victorious in the North/South cluster with a 35-14 victory over Salem (8-3).
Grijalva completed 3 of 4 passes for 63 yards and two touchdowns, adding 52 rushing yards. Senior running back Jaedon Cliche led the way for Exeter with 177 rushing yards on 20 carries and a touchdown, adding a 9-yard touchdown reception that capped a nearly 12-minute, 20-play drive late in the fourth quarter.
“We’re not necessarily the fastest, the strongest, the best, but we all love each other and all believe in each other,” Cliche said. “That’s what makes playing football so much fun and easier for us.”
A week after rushing for 249 yards and four touchdowns in Exeter’s 42-27 quarterfinal victory over Nashua South, Derek Edmiston (17 carries, 83 yards) followed a 13-yard run by Spencer Clark on third down with a 22-yard touchdown run to give Exeter a 14-0 lead with 2:54 left in the first quarter.
Merrimack (7-4) forced an Exeter punt early in the second quarter, but quarterback Kyle Crampton’s pass two plays later was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Exeter lineman Sean Collins at Merrimack’s 34-yard line.
Cliche ripped off a 19-yard run on an eight-play drive, which he ended with a 10-yard scoring run to give Exeter a 21-0 lead with 6:54 left in the second quarter. Exeter outgained Merrimack 292-54 in the first half and limited the Tomahawks to one first down.
“We’re the ones who needed to have a fast start, not them,” Merrimack coach Kip Jackson said. “We just had some breakdowns and they made some really good plays that put us behind the eight-ball.”
Crampton gave Merrimack a glimmer of hope by completing seven passes on the opening drive of the second half, culminating with an 11-yard scoring pass to Jared Dyer. Crampton completed 20 of 30 passes on the day for 195 yards.
Cliche emphatically responded with a 68-yard run on Exeter’s next play, that set up a 1-yard touchdown keeper by Grijalva to give Exeter a 28-7 lead with 6:26 left in the third quarter.
“All year when somebody scores on us, we don’t necessarily take it as a down, we just come back on offense and get it back,” Cliche said. “They were playing tight at the line, and they played (Grijalva’s) fake, and I just ran straight.”
“We were hoping when we came out in the second half that we recaptured some momentum, but in one play, they got the momentum back and that was painful.”
Exeter coach Bill Ball now enters his 16th championship game in either Division I or Division II in his 27 years as coach at Exeter. Ball’s teams are a combined 7-8 in title games, with his last wins coming in back-to-back fashion in Division I in 2011 and 2012.
“We entered this season with a lot of unknowns, but we knew we had character,” Ball said. “These guys have done a really nice job. Outstanding. I can’t say enough about them.”