Crusaders run out of time on playoff dream

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Ethan Vilgrain makes a catch. Photo/Stacy Harrison

EXETER, N.H. – No one can say that they didn’t play hard until the very end.

On Friday, Manchester Memorial saw their chance at a NHIAA Division I post-season football berth slip away, falling 41-30 to Exeter in the final game of their 2022 regular season.

For most of the contest, Memorial hung around an Exeter team that seemed to be on the verge of pulling away at any moment.

The Blue Hawks’ left 14-7 after the first quarter, thanks to a rushing touchdown from senior quarterback Evan Pafford on their first drive and a 15-yard touchdown completion from Pafford to fellow senior Ryan Graney with just seconds left in the quarter. Memorial saw a blocked field goal on their first drive of the game, but reached the end zone on their second drive, courtesy of a 30-yard pass from junior Connor McFarland to sophomore Collin Beaulieu.

Senior Nolan Bleakley intercepted McFarland to stop Memorial’s only drive of the second quarter, but junior Caleb Wheeler’s responded with an interception for Memorial to stop an Exeter drive in the red zone at expiration of the first half. The hosts also had a third touchdown taken off the board due to a penalty, settling for an Ethan Moss field goal from nearly 40 yards out, giving Exeter a 17-7 lead heading into the third.

Senior Desmond Rugg’s 46-yard run finished the first drive of the second half, giving Exeter a 24-7 lead, and Exeter looked poised to add another score after a bad punt gave them the ball back at Memorial’s 28-yard line. However, Martin Alisandro managed to recover a fumble right after the Blue Hawks entered the red zone and would return it to the house, reducing the lead down to 24-14.

On the next Exeter drive, senior Aidan McGinley’s rushing touchdown from one yard out made it 31-14 and McGinley would intercept McFarland on the drive after that, setting up a touchdown throw from Pafford to sophomore Charlie Dulac to make it 38-14.

McFarland passed the ball on seven straight plays on the next drive, with McFarland finding Alisandro from 17 yards out with five minutes left in the contest. A two-point conversion kept the Crusaders’ hopes alive, but they’d be unable to get the ball back with enough time to mount a comeback.

Memorial burned its final timeouts after Exeter appeared ready to kneel out their last drive at the one-yard line, instead leading to a fourth-down field goal with just over 50 seconds left.

McFarland and Beaulieu added one more touchdown pass with 30 seconds left in the contest, but the Crusaders couldn’t stop the clock again once Exeter got the ball and it was all over.

It might have been a faux-pas to burn the timeouts near the end of the contest when hope was so dim and Exeter was willing to forego one final touchdown, but Memorial Head Coach Rob Sturgis wanted to fight as long as he could to keep that playoff hope alive.

“It’s a tough way to end our season, but we only have eight or nine seniors, so this was a good experience for our young guys to come and play a meaningful game,” said Sturgis. “Exeter is a really good team that is going to make a big run in the playoffs.”

About this Author

Andrew Sylvia

Assistant EditorManchester Ink Link

Born and raised in the Granite State, Andrew Sylvia has written approximately 10,000 pieces over his career for outlets across Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. On top of that, he's a licensed notary and licensed to sell property, casualty and life insurance, he's been a USSF trained youth soccer and futsal referee for the past six years and he can name over 60 national flags in under 60 seconds according to that flag game app he has on his phone, which makes sense because he also has a bachelor's degree in geography (like Michael Jordan). He can also type over 100 words a minute on a good day.