Gilford senior Kyle Gaudet looks to evade a Newport defender after hauling in a pass from quarterback Carter Mercer on Saturday. The visiting Eagles saw their season come to an end with a 38-22 loss in the Division III North Conference championship game. Jason Orfao - Eagle Times. (click for larger version)
November 17, 2014NEWPORT – Signs around the community flashed a simple message: 'We Believe.'
The motto for the Gilford High School football team since practice opened in August, the Golden Eagles certainly believed they would be playing for a Division III state title this weekend at the University of New Hampshire. But for the second time this year, top-seeded Newport High School outlasted second-seeded Gilford, 38-22, to capture the D-III North Conference championship on Saturday afternoon (Nov. 15). The Eagles finished their outstanding season with an 8-2 overall record, both losses coming at the hands of the Tigers.
In its first meeting with Newport back in September, Gilford committed seven turnovers. The Golden Eagles lost their only regular season game of 2014 as a result. When the teams met again on Saturday, problems once again derailed Gilford. The Eagles amassed 12 penalties for 135 yards – their second straight week with over 100 yards of penalty yardage – and the side had two touchdowns called back due to holding and a block in the back.
"I think everybody knew if we hadn't turned the ball over seven times, we would've won that first game. We believed we were the better team," said Gilford head coach Shawn Garrett. "Leading up to it, we were very confident and ready to play. But hats off to Newport, they looked much improved. They were not the same team that I remember seeing the first time around."
All signs pointed to the Eagles being very much in the rematch on Saturday. Gilford looked good on its opening drive, marching down the field on offense. But a holding penalty negated a touchdown, and the team was unable to cash in from there, turning the ball over on downs.
Newport put the game's first touchdown on the board when Noah Wade scored on a 34-yard run, but the Eagles answered immediately thanks to a big play from the passing game. Junior quarterback Carter Mercer connected with senior wide receiver Kyle Gaudet for an 80-yard touchdown toss just 13 seconds later that tied the game at 6-6 with 2:18 left in the first quarter.
The second quarter proved to be a nightmare for the Eagles however, as Newport scored three touchdowns, and Gilford had its second TD called back due to a penalty. As a result, the host Tigers took a commanding 25-6 lead into the locker room.
"We struggled in the second quarter," admitted Garrett. "We have another touchdown called back on a block in the back... the kid was gone and the guy who got the penalty was probably 30 yards back of the play. We had two touchdowns called back and we didn't end up scoring on either drive. You can't say that would be the difference but momentum changes based on those kinds of things. It's easy to think what could have been, but Newport grabbed the momentum and took advantage of that."
The Eagles got on the board in the third quarter when Max Troiano scored on a two-yard touchdown run, and Gaudet added the two-point conversion run to bring the visitors within 38-14. Gilford added a nine-yard TD pass from Mercer to Beck Stecher in the fourth quarter (Gaudet conversion run) for the game's only score of the period, but the big second quarter hole proved to be too much to handle. Mercer was picked off twice late as Newport sealed the deal with the 38-22 win.
Mercer finished his afternoon 15 of 27 for 242 yards to go with the two touchdowns and two interceptions. Troiano had a big game on the ground, as the senior tailback rushed for 148 yards on 17 carries and added 65 yards on five catches out of the backfield. Gaudet went over the 100-yard mark receiving for the fifth time this season in his final game, as he hauled in four passes for 113 yards.
Newport (9-1) advanced to the Division III title game and a meeting with South Conference champion Campbell, a surprise winner in the other semifinal over undefeated and defending state champ Bow. Newport and Campbell are slated to meet at 11 a.m. at UNH this Saturday (Nov. 22).
"From a coach's perspective, I'm not satisfied. I'll probably never be satisfied. But I'm pleased with what we accomplished," Garrett explained. "I'm pleased with all the hard work everyone put in...coaches, players, parents. I'm pleased we got the Inter-Lakes monkey off our back and all that. But next year, people will be looking at Gilford with a big target on our back. Only so many teams get to walk home champions, but even if you don't, that doesn't mean you're an unsuccessful program. If I looked back at the beginning of the season, I really didn't expect to be 8-2... that was a pleasant surprise."
Garrett said he plans on returning next year, a move which would go a long way in restoring continuity to a program that has had four different head coaches in the last four years.
"These guys, I think it's been hard for them," explained Garrett of his senior class. "They've had so much talent but every year they've had to go in starting with brand new coaches. Way back in the summer, I tried to keep it somewhat the same but I added a lot of new offense to them. We focused on conditioning and everything else. They knew they were good, and I think anyone that's faced us knew it was a talented team. We really focused on the teamwork approach, doing this as a unit. I know our coaching staff wants to come back next year. This was not something that was just a one year thing for us."
Garrett said one constant for his team throughout the year was the memory of former teammate Austin Blais, who died earlier this summer before preseason began. Blais was a member of the Gilford program before graduating last year.
"He was not forgotten. He had a locker in the locker room right there with us all year, his jersey was hanging up there," Garrett said. "He had graduated but was very much a member of this program."
The Eagles honored Blais in their season opener against Franklin, as they lined up for their first offensive snap with just 10 players on the field and without a right guard (Blais played guard and center). Gilford gained nine yards on the play.