By Dave Willis
---- — EXETER — It may not have been the upset that it was a season ago, but that didn’t mean it hurt any less for Pinkerton Saturday afternoon.
For the second straight season, Pinkerton faced off against Exeter in the Division 1 state title game. And, for the second straight year, Exeter was able to use its bruising, straight-ahead offense and gritty defense to outlast the Astros and take home the title, this season earning a 31-21 victory at Eustis Field
“We gave it our all out there,” Pinkerton running back Manny Latimore said. “We played with passion, but a couple of mistakes cost us. That’s what happens. This one hurts.”
The Blue Hawks, the top seed this season, downed the No. 1-seed Astros in the Division 1 state title game at Pinkerton a season ago, just Exeter’s second in Division 1 after moving from Division 2 in 2010.
“This is really tough to take,” said Pinkerton linebacker Matt Madden, who missed the postseason with a torn ACL. “Our guys deserved this, and we really wanted to win it for the seniors. But Exeter went out, took the upper hand and came out on top. That is a very good team.”
But it was Latimore and Pinkerton that took the early advantage.
After forcing Exeter into a three-and-out, the Astros took over at their own 16-yard line. On first down, Latimore took a pitch to the left, juked a defender and turned on the jets for an 84-yard touchdown run to give Pinkerton a 7-0 lead with 4:31 to go in the first.
But back came Exeter. Employing their slug-it-out, between the tackles running game, the Blue Hawks drove 83 yards on 15 plays and James Vogt scored from 7 yards out to make it 7-7.
The Astros then fumbled the ball away on the first play of their ensuing possession and Exeter scored six plays later. Pinkerton’s Andrew Ong blocked the extra point to make it 13-7.
“We knew that any turnover could cost either team the game because it was so close,” Latimore said. “Unfortunately, we had a couple of turnovers and they did what they do to perfection.”
Pinkerton was able to grab the lead back, opening the second half with a 12-play, 61-yard drive that quarterback Sean Conroy finished with a 5-yard touchdown run. Kyle Cantalupo booted his second extra point of the day to make it 14-13 Astros.
That lead didn’t last long, though, as Exeter scored just 51 seconds later to make it 21-14. The Blue Hawks then forced Pinkerton to punt, and after a drive that lasted 4:06, booted a field goal to make it 24-14.
Latimore and the Astros, however, were not finished yet.
The junior running back, who had limped off the field while holding his calf on the previous possession, fielded a punt at his 22-yard line and sprinted 78 yards for the touchdown that made the score 24-14.
But that would be as close as the Astros would make the game. Exeter responded with a 52-yard drive and, on third-and-7 from the Pinkerton 27, Blue Hawks QB Colby Swane tossed a picture-perfect touchdown pass to Ethan Joyce.
“That one broke our backs,” Astros coach Brian O’Reilly said. “We just kept coming back and coming back, and that touchdown was just the back-breaker for the game.”
Utilizing their run-first attack, Exeter was able to grind out 282 rushing yards on 56 carries for the game, controlling the pace of play and the clock.
“They drove the ball on us today,” O’Reilly said. “No team has done that to us all season, not even Exeter in our first match-up.”
Latimore continued his breakthrough into superstar status. He finished with a game-high 178 yards on 30 carries and caught a 39-yard pass.
Following the game, he and fellow junior star Madden had the same message.
“You can write this down on a piece of paper,” Madden said. “We are going to be back in the title game, and we are going to win. I am tired of losing these championship games.”