THIS WAS supposed to be the year two football teams not named Plymouth reached the NHIAA Division II championship game. Clearly the Bobcats didn’t get the memo.
The Bobcats qualified for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, won two postseason games and are on the doorstep of another Division II title. Plymouth (9-2) will be seeking its fourth straight Division II championship when it faces fifth-seeded Hollis/Brookline on Sunday at the University of New Hampshire’s Wildcat Stadium (2:30 p.m.).
Plymouth beat Alvirne of Hudson to win last year’s title, but returned only four starters from that team.
“I think everybody’s surprised we’re here, including me,” Plymouth coach Chris Sanborn said. “When the season began, I didn’t really have any expectations because I didn’t really think we were going to be that good. We don’t have a lot of firepower on offense, but we’ve played very good defense.”
The Bobcats have allowed 101 points this season — an average of 9.2 points per game — and surrendered 19 points in their two playoff games, victories over Pelham (14-12) and Alvirne (14-7).
That defense will get tested by a Hollis/Brookline team that has scored at least 48 points in seven of its 11 games. Hollis/Brookline quarterback Sander Wimmer has passed for 2,725 yards and 28 touchdowns this season, and has also run for 16 TDs.
“Right now Hollis/Brookline looks unstoppable, but I’m not going to doubt Plymouth,” Alvirne coach Tarek Rothe said. “Somehow those guys get it done when they need to get it done. To Plymouth, this is just another game. So a lot depends on how Hollis handles the big stage. I know it affected us last year. We felt a little pressure.
“If Hollis/Brookline gets up early, Plymouth could be in trouble, but if Plymouth can go up early and put a little pressure on them …”
The Plymouth-Hollis/Brookline matchup is one of three championship games that will be played at UNH on Sunday. The Division III championship game between Lebanon (10-1) and Trinity (10-1) will kick things off at 11 a.m.; and Londonderry (11-0) will face Exeter (10-1) in the Division I championship game at 6 p.m.
Plymouth’s last loss in a playoff game came in 2011, when it dropped a 30-14 decision to Trinity in the Division IV championship game.
“We were hoping to somehow go 7-2 and get in the playoffs, because we didn’t think a team from (Division II North) would get in with three losses,” Sanborn said. “We’ve probably coached this team harder than any other team we’ve had here. It’s old-fashioned values. The kids were willing to get coached, and the parents were willing to let them get coached.”
Londonderry’s victory over Exeter on the final weekend of the 2018 regular season may be partly responsible for Exeter’s success this season.
It had already been a disappointing season for Exeter, but the loss to Londonderry left the Blue Hawks with a 4-5 record — the program’s first losing season since 2010. According to Exeter center/noseguard Sean Collins, one of three Exeter captains, the sub-.500 season served as a motivating factor during the offseason.
“It was absolutely huge,” Collins said. “Every single day when we went through those weight room doors we thought about how much losing our last game on this field (hurt). It just motivated us every single day to not be what we were last year. To get better.
“(The captains) got together and said, ‘This isn’t going to happen again.’ And then we got the entire team together and said, ‘This isn’t going to happen again.’ We made sure the whole team was on board.”
Exeter coach Bill Ball said he saw a commitment from his team during the offseason that was exceptional, and that he was confident that level of commitment would help produce more victories on the field this year.
“I was extremely confident because of the enthusiasm of the senior class … the weight room, the running, the 7-on-7s — it was incredible,” Ball said. “It was as good as we’ve had. They did an incredible job, won 10 games and now they’re playing for a state championship.
“Every year’s a new year. It doesn’t matter what you did the year before.”
Collins and Exeter’s other captains, two-way lineman Thatcher Allen and running back/defensive back Derek Edmiston, were among a handful of Exeter players who helped set up the field at UNH before last year’s NHIAA championship games. They’ll be back on that field in a different capacity Sunday.
“We told each other we were going to be on that field this year,” Collins said. “And it came true.
“Being able to get an extra three weeks of football? You can’t beat it.”
Trinity running back John Thibault enters the Division III title game having run for 2,079 yards and 27 touchdowns this year, but the key to a Trinity victory may be finding balance on offense.
Trinity has scored at least 31 points in each of its 10 victories, but Thibault was limited to 67 yards on 15 carries when Lebanon beat Trinity 21-7 during the regular season. The Raiders have held eight of their 11 opponents to seven points or fewer.
“I think Lebanon is a cut above everyone else in our league,” said Laconia coach Craig Kozens, whose team lost to Lebanon in the quarterfinals. “The quarterback (Jon Willeman) makes it go and he’s in the middle on defense at safety.
“The Thibault kid is a solid player on both sides of the ball. They’re gonna have to find ways to get him in the open field. If he gets bottled up, they could be in trouble.”
As is typically the case, the winner of the Division I championship game is positioned to finish first in this year’s Union Leader Power Poll. Londonderry enters the game ranked No. 1, Exeter is No. 2. Sunday’s game will be the 10th time the No. 1 and No. 2 teams have met in the Division I championship game since the poll was created in 2008.
Exeter has finished No. 1 in the Power Poll twice (2011 and 2012). Londonderry has never finished first in the poll.
Bishop Guertin, the state’s top-ranked team in 2009, is the only non-Division I team that has finished the season No. 1 in the poll. BG won the Division II championship that season.
The Joe Yukica Chapter of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame will hold its annual Jeff Francoeur Huddle on Dec. 5 at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics building. All NHIAA head coaches and assistant coaches are invited to attend.