Astro Gridders Bag Dramatic Win, Make D-I Playoffs

Trailing by a 12-7 score with less than three minutes remaining in its Friday night, Oct. 30 game with the tough Exeter Blue Hawks on the seacoast, the Pinkerton Academy football squad dug down deep and saved its 2015 season.

The 6-2 Astros entered that evening knowing that if they won, they’d become the top seed in the Division I Southern Conference, and if they lost, they’d most likely be putting their uniforms into mothballs until next summer and watching their chances of defending their 2014 title evaporate. The academy side pulled out its dramatic, 13-12 victory over the 7-1 Blue Hawks by putting together an impressive nail-biter of a drive that covered 61 yards on eight plays in 2:23 and culminated with junior running back Nico Buccieri’s 6-yard scoring sprint with a mere 33 ticks of the game clock remaining.

The drive was set up by a fumble recovery by senior James Tulley near the middle of the field. Tulley then went on to collect 37 of the 61 yards his Astros needed to drive down the gridiron with three pass receptions.

Tulley stood at the center of the game-winning drive by battling his way to every inch he could gain in steadfastly refusing to be hauled down to the turf on each of his important receptions.

And in the celebratory aftermath of the victory, Tulley minimized the importance of his contributions.

“It comes down to what (New England Patriots’) coach (Bill) Belichik says. If everybody goes out and does their job, everything will fall into place. And that’s what happened for us tonight,” said Tulley.

Exeter was already assured of first place in the Eastern Conference, so its primary concerns that evening were rebounding from a slim loss to Merrimack a week earlier and remaining sharp for the forthcoming playoffs. Pinkerton, meanwhile, was fighting for survival.

The hosts drove their way to a 6-0 lead with an impressive second offensive series of the evening. That drive chewed up more than five minutes, covered 80 yards, and finished with a 7-yard touchdown pass with 1:51 remaining in quarter number one.

However, Pinkerton responded beautifully with a 17-play drive of its own that trimmed more than nine minutes off the game clock and culminated with a 2-yard scoring push by Mike Curley with 4:19 left in the half. Kicker Kyle Cantalupo’s successful extra point made the score 7-6.

But the Blue Hawks regained the lead with less than a minute left in the half (41.3 seconds) when a nine-play drive tallied a 2-yard rushing touchdown to make the score 12-7. And that was where the score stood when the teams adjourned for halftime.

Both squads would commit one costly turnover in the second half, with Pinkerton coughing up the ball on a pass interception at the tail-end of a promising offensive series that had gotten as far as the Exeter 17 on 13 plays. That stinging error took place with 5:55 left in the third quarter, but the Blue Hawks proved unable to score any points despite getting inside the PA 20. Their drive fizzled on a failed fourth-down play at the Astros’ 36 in the final minute of that period.

The academy gridders’ next drive fell apart inside the Exeter 40 and forced a punt, but the host team’s hopes of putting the game away fizzled with the huge fumble at the Pinkerton 39, with Tulley collecting the loose ball.

“I don’t know how that ball came out, but we came up with it. And that kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to Exeter teams,” said PA coach Brian O’Reilly.

The Astros then utilized the three throws to Tulley mixed in with runs by Buccieri and Brett Dattilo in advancing the ball to the Exeter 14.

The entire drive could have fallen apart when PA found itself facing a fourth down and two yards to go situation with 40.3 seconds showing on the game clock, but Pinkerton quarterback Ryan Albrecht completed an 8-yard pass to Tulley to get the football to the Blue Hawks’ six. And Buccieri then sprinted the ball to pay-dirt to make the score 13-12 in the locals’ favor.

The Astros’ attempt at a two-point conversion failed, but the Blue Hawks could do little with the ball during the final 33 seconds of play.

Both teams’ defenses were stingy in this big game, with the biggest numbers accrued by any players being running back Dattilo’s 72 yards on 15 carries and key performer Tulley’s five total pass receptions for 66 yards. PA quarterback Albrecht finished the big night having completed eight of 14 passes for 103 yards.

The top-seeded Astros will kick off their post-season with a quarterfinal-round playoff game against fourth-ranked Timberlane – to whom they lost in regular season play – in Derry on Saturday, Nov. 7. Kick-off  time of the contest, initially announced as 1 p.m., has since been moved to 2:30 p.m. that day.