MANCHESTER, NH – Linwood Patnode was watching the Manchester Memorial High School football team on film five years ago and wasn’t impressed with what he saw.
Friday night, Linwood got the opportunity to see the current version of the the Crusaders, up close and personal, in a post-season friendly at Memorial.
Though his team edged the hosts, 23-20, Linwood admitted Memorial has made significant strides over the last five years.
“Did you see their scores? You know, they tussled with Exeter, they had a couple overtime games. I mean, they’re a better team than we are, they really are,” said Patnode. “Not tonight, maybe, but from soup-to-nuts, they’re in better shape than we are. They’ve got 30 freshmen. You know how many I have? 11.”
While Memorial’s future may appear brighter than Keene’s on paper, it was the Blackbirds who managed to fly out with the win following a back-and-forth contest with several big plays and missed opportunities by both teams.
But after an early 4th quarter drive stalled out deep into Keene territory, Memorial, down 23-20, was unable to stop Keene from running the ball and running down the clock. The Blackbirds, in fact, managed to hold the ball while methodically pushing it down the field to eat up the remaining time on a 16-play, 7 minute and 36 second drive that concluded with Keene taking a knee at the Memorial four-yard line. In doing so, the Blackbirds sealed their second win of the season
“That’s us,” said Patnode of his team’s ball-control, run-first offensive approach. “You know, (Memorial) fought. They played a pretty good game, both teams. We knew they were a pretty good throwing team, and we’re a good running team. Defensively, we’ve been horrible all year, but we sort of sucked it up tonight and earned the win.”
“Give credit to Keene,” said Memorial head coach Rob Sturgis. “Their kids came and they battled and our kids took them lightly. You know, we had opportunity to score a lot of points tonight and we made way too many mistakes and it came back to bite us.”
Memorial certainly started the contest on the right foot. The Crusaders took advantage of a Keene turnover midway through the first quarter and, after pushing the ball down the field, junior running back Erik Seymore capped a 3-minute drive by bouncing outside and scoring the go-ahead touchdown on what appeared initially to be a run up the middle for no gain.
Memorial then recovered an onside kick and appeared off to the races before fumbling the ball back to the Blackbirds on the next play to give Keene the ball at the 18-yard line.
Memorial put the clamps on the ensuing drive, but still gave up a field goal, and seconds after that gave the ball back to the visitors who punched in a touchdown run with just under 9 minutes remaining in the first half to take 10-7 lead after a successful extra point.
The Crusaders responded in kind the next drive, overcoming three costly penalties to put the ball in the end zone courtesy of a 40 yard bomb from junior quarterback Connor Mcfarland that caught classmate Martin Alisandro in stride on a deep slant.
A pick-six on the Memorial’s next offensive possession gave the visitors a 17-14 lead, and another interception on the ensuing drive put the Blackbirds in scoring position once again, and they added another field goal to head to halftime with a 20-14 advantage.
In the second half, Memorial once again came out looking ready to take control, scoring what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown on a Mcfarland keeper with less than 7 minutes remaining in the third, but a missed extra point and a Keene field goal on the next drive proved to be the difference in the contest.
“We’re a few plays away from being a playoff team, but it’s a valuable lesson my guys learned tonight,” said Sturgis. “There are no cupcakes in Division I. If you don’t play your best football every single Friday night, any team can beat you. It doesn’t matter how big they are, what their numbers look like, what offense they run, what their record is, if you don’t play your best, you’re beatable, and tonight, we didn’t come close to our best.”
The Friday night consolation friendly was a product of the NHIAAs guarantee that each team play at least nine in-state game. Since Memorial and Keene each missed the playoffs, the extra game was added following the 8-game regular season.
Patnode admitted he wasn’t a fan of having to play an extra game, especially having finished the regular season crippled by injuries, including knocks to his top three running backs and starting quarterback.
“I said to myself, why the (heck) are we playing this game, but I’ll be honest, I’m glad we did now,” he said.
While Keene got to finish the season on a winning note, Memorial still has the opportunity to do the same.
The Crusaders, who fell one win short of reaching the playoffs for the first time in a long time, the Queen City Turkey Bowl awaits.
“It’s always a great opportunity, and it’s a great rivalry game,” said Sturgis. “You can throw records out the door. You’re going to get both team’s best shot and it’s a lot of fun for the kids. They all grew up together and probably played PeeWee and stuff together, so it’s an awesome opportunity that we get to do it year in and year out in front of whoever wants to come back and show support.”
This year’s holiday clash will be held at 10 a.m. Thanksgiving day at Gill Stadium.
“It’s great for the seniors who get to play an extra game,” said Sturgis, “and it’s great for the young kids to get three extra weeks of practice so they can get better and better going into next year.”
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