In the moments following the Division I semifinal-round playoff football game between the Pinkerton Academy Astros and the Salem High Blue Devils in Salem last Saturday, it was easy to find folks who have followed that sport shaking their heads in disbelief at the contest they’d just watched.
The visiting Astros controlled play in the first half en route to a 31-13 halftime lead, but then saw previously-undefeated Salem dominate action in the third quarter and climb back to within three points of the lead at 31-28 as time in that period ebbed away.
Astro coach Brian O’Reilly then gathered his defensive unit around him as the fourth quarter was about to begin and exhorted them to dig down deep, forget the fact that Salem was surging at the time, and spearhead a victory for their team.
Well, the Astro defense did just that – with the team’s offense feeding off of the defensive intensity – and the academy gridders pounded their way to a stunning 45-28 victory which placed them into a D-I title match-up with the unbeaten Winnacunnet High Warriors from Hampton at the University of New Hampshire this coming Saturday night.
After the final whistle had sounded on the semifinal, O’Reilly felt no need to hide his feelings about just what kind of battle his charges had just won.
“That was one of the most bizarre football games,” he said. “We dominated, then they dominated, then we came back and dominated again for the win. Pretty amazing.”
A great many sources came up with big efforts for the Astros in their momentous victory, but several of them stand out. Chief among them may well be senior offensive lineman and linebacker Josh McCormack, who scored unlikely touchdowns from both of those positions in the win by picking up fumbles near the goal line and carrying the ball into the end zones. Anybody who has watched football for any length of time can tell you that the chances of an offensive lineman or a linebacker scoring a touchdown in a game are quite remote. McCormack scored from both spots in one game.
Another defensive star for PA was senior defensive back Josh Ladipo, who intercepted two passes and recovered a fumble for the Astros. And on offense, junior running back Gennaro Marra both ran for a score and caught a touchdown pass, and his fellow back Ty Hicks rushed the football 21 times for 117 yards.
Pinkerton began the game like it had every intention of getting a blowout victory. The locals started out with a 10-play drive which culminated with a 3-yard scoring sprint by Gannon Fast, who had been the featured back throughout that series.
The PA defense then jumped into the fray and frustrated a Salem offense which was attempting to move the ball without the presence of star running back Josh Sibanda, who was suspended for the game after being ejected for taunting following multiple touchdowns in his squad’s quarterfinal-round win over Londonderry a week earlier.
The hosts went four-plays-and-out, failing on a fourth and one near mid-field.
Now facing a short field with the football sitting at the Salem 42, Pinkerton required seven plays before celebrating their second touchdown that was scoreded in strange fashion.
Speedy PA back Hicks sprinted the ball 12 yards to the Salem one before losing his grasp on it, but lineman McCormack was following close behind and he picked up the football and carried it the additional yard to pay-dirt with 2:16 to go in period one.
The hosts then came to life and responded with 13 consecutive points over the next seven minutes to get to within a point of the lead at 14-13 with 7:35 remaining in the half. The Blue Devils’ second point-after kick was missed, hence the slim, one-point PA lead remained.
But the Astros regained the momentum mere seconds later when quarterback Aiden Goujon connected with Marra on a 70-yard touchdown pass, and the PA lead advanced to 21-13 with 7:21 to go in the half.
Salem then coughed the football up for the first time on its subsequent offensive drive, with Ladipo diving on a fumble at the Devils’ 31 to hand his offense another short field to traverse.
The Astros weren’t quite able to manage a touchdown on that series, and had to settle for a 23-yard field goal off of the reliable right foot of sophomore kicker Brandon Roy as the lead bulged to 24-13 with 2:49 showing on the clock.
And just three plays later Ladipo snagged the first of his two picks on the day at the Salem 45, and the PA offense responded with an eight-play drive which culminated with a 10-yard scoring toss from Goujon to Kayden Baillargeon with less than a second remaining in the first half. And the successful PAT by Roy made the score 31-13 for Pinkerton.
At halftime, PA coaches warned their charges that Salem would throw every thing it had to throw at the Astros in the second half. And as things turned out in the third quarter, the coaches may just have undersold what his team should have expected from Salem.
The hosts pounded their way to points in the second half-opening series, with runs of 11, 19, 15 and 12 yards leading up to a 2-yard scoring scamper which made the score 31-21 with 10:10 to go in that stanza.
After a PA three-and-out punt, the Pinkerton defense came up with a huge stop on a fourth-and-four at the PA 21, sacking Devils’ quarterback Matt Soldano for a 6-yard loss.
But the Astros’ offense was stifled by the Salem defense for a second straight time, with the hosts scooping up a Pinkerton fumble at the PA 36. And the Salem offense retook the field and cut the PA lead to just three points at 31-28 with a four-play drive which culminated with a one-yard quarterback sneak to pay-dirt by Soldano with 1:27 left in the third.
Salem maintained their momentum by stifling all Pinkerton attempts at an offensive foray in a three-and-out scenario, and Salem started the final period with possession of the football at the Pinkerton 49.
Salem appeared to have the bull by the horns at that moment, and O’Reilly did what smart coaches do and gathered his defensive unit around him seconds before the start of period four.
“If you play great defense, we have a chance,” he said. “Don’t hang your heads. We have the lead.”
The PA defenders heard and felt what their mentor was saying and went out and got the huge task done.
The Salem drive died at the Pinkerton 34 after six plays when Salem attempted a pass on fourth down and six yards to go and the football fell incomplete.
The Astro offense then put together a seven-play drive which got as far as the Salem seven before PA fumbled the ball away. But the Blue Devils’ celebration soon turned to upset as quarterback Soldano had the ball slip off of his left hip as he attempted to roll to his left, and PA linebacker McCormack sprinted forward, picked the ball up, and strolled untouched into the end zone for his second unlikely touchdown of the day.
The wheels continued to fall off of Salem’s wagon seconds later when Soldano was picked off a second time by Ladipo with 5:42 left to play, and Pinkerton added big points to its lead when Marra sprinted the football some 46 yards to pay-dirt with 3:54 showing on the clock.
And the Astros hammered home the final nail a mere nine seconds later when Baillargeon intercepted a Soldano pass at mid-field, and all that was left for the locals to do was run off the final 3:40.
Pinkerton, which didn’t even qualify for the D-I playoffs last fall, finished up with 414 total offensive yards with 310 rushing and 104 passing in its big semifinal success. Salem notched 301 offensive yards, with 234 coming via the ground game.
The Astros will be seeking their first state title since 2014 when they play tough Winnacunnet in the title battle this weekend. It’s hard to imagine a wilder game that evening than the one played last weekend in Salem.