Those who attended the Londonderry High football team’s regular season-ending contest at Salem High School on Halloween night Friday might not have prepared for it, but they were in for plenty of thrills and chills.
First-year coach Jimmy Lauzon’s Lancers claimed the wildest 23-21 victory over the host Salem High Blue Devils that any football fan can imagine in that much-anticipated contest. And even some of the veteran coaches and fans walked away from Salem High’s Grant Field shaking their heads in disbelief in the moments following the contest.
The 8-1 Lancers got the win and assured themselves of a playoff battle with the undefeated Pinkerton Academy Astros later this week in the final few seconds of the game with the Blue Devils by having a 28-yard field goal attempt blocked with eight seconds to go in the contest, recovering the loose ball, and then successfully hitting a 28-yard field goal attempt to turn a 21-20 deficit into a 23-21 lead with 1.5 seconds showing on the game clock.
Lancers’ versatile junior Nick Donnelly stepped into his team’s place-kicking role when the team’s starting booter was suspended recently, and Donnelly had his troubles with accuracy earlier in the contest.
But when the game was on the line, the junior kicker was composed and up to the task, and he became an LHS hero by hammering that 28-yard boot through the uprights.
Donnelly had nailed several extra-point attempts earlier in the game, but he also knocked field goal tries of 41 and 30 yards wide left.
“After he missed that second field goal I went over to him and told him to be ready because we might still need him to hit a big kick,” said Lauzon.
This contest had major ramifications for both the Londonderry and Salem squads, which both entered Halloween evening with 7-1 records. And both understood that the winning team would earn a playoff berth and the chance to upset the top-ranked Pinkerton Astros this week. The losing team, on the other hand, would be placing its uniforms into mothballs until next fall.
The other significant aspect of the game was that the Lancers were facing off against a Salem squad that had former LHS head grid coach Jon Rich – who was controversially non-renewed late last year – as an assistant on its coaching staff.
Londonderry pounded its way out to a 7-0 lead a mere 53 seconds into the game when star quarterback Eric Fairweather sprinted 48 yards to pay-dirt on just his team’s third offensive play.
The standout signal-caller – who had entered the contest needing just one more passing yard to become the first Londonderry quarterback ever to pass and run for 1,000 yards in a season – threw for a total of 143 yards in the victory to easily hit that milestone.
A little more than three minutes after scoring their touchdown the Lancers took a crack at making it a 10-0 game when they lined up for a 41-yard field goal by Donnelly, but although the kicker’s boot was plenty long enough it sailed wide to the left of the uprights.
And the host Blue Devils wound up knotting the game score at 7-7 by putting together a 15-play drive that culminated with an 8-yard scoring run, followed by the successful extra-point.
On its next offensive play, the Londonderry crew handed the ball over to its host on its own 11-yard line via a fumble, and two plays later the Blue Devils were celebrating a touchdown and their first lead of the night. The successful two-point conversion try following the touchdown gave the home team a 15-7 advantage with 10:52 to go in the half.
The Lancers failed on a 30-yard field goal try at the end of their next offensive possession, but a pass interception by Fairweather in his defensive back role, followed by a 71-yard scoring pass from him to Jimmy Nee, pulled Londonderry to within two points of the lead at 15-13. But a failed two-point conversion try left the score right there when the two teams adjourned for halftime.
Londonderry collected 213 yards worth of offense in the opening half while its defense held Salem under 100 with 95. But the scoreboard still showed the host team grasping a two-point lead.
That all changed early in the third quarter when Lancers’ senior lineman Casey Brackett batted a pass attempt by Salem quarterback John Cerretani into the air, caught the ball as it came down, and ran the football to the Blue Devils’ 21-yard line. And mere minutes later the visitors were celebrating a three-yard touchdown jaunt by Fairweather.
Donnelly added the extra point, and the Lancers led 20-15 with 8:02 left in the period.
However, Salem regained the upper hand at 21-20 with a touchdown with just 1:39 left in the fourth quarter, but the host team’s subsequent two-point conversion try failed.
So, the Lancers found themselves needing to at least get themselves into field goal position – again – with time very much against them, in order to have a crack at winning this game.
Starting at their own 33-yard-line and moving rapidly down the field – with a big 25-yard pass connection from Fairweather to Mike Ryan helping considerably – the Lancers found themselves at the Salem 12-yard-line with a third down and nine situation and less than 20 seconds left to play. They lined up for the 28-yard field goal, but Donnelly’s kick was blocked. However, Londonderry recovered the ball at the line of scrimmage and still had a chance to score as it was then a fourth down situation with eight seconds left.
“I knew we could kick it again once we recovered the ball, so I tried to keep calm and I told everybody to get back on the line,” said kicker Donnelly.
The junior booter then hit his second 28-yard attempt, putting his side up 23-21 with just 1.5 seconds left on the game clock.
Lauzon, who had been flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty during the first half for inadvertently straying beyond the 30-yard-line on the Londonderry sideline, was then ejected from the contest when his whole team sprinted onto the field in celebration after the successful field goal with time still remaining on the clock.
Lauzon removed himself a good distance from the field to keep from having his team penalized further in the final seconds, and the remaining 1.5 ticks of the clock ran off with Salem attempting a Hail Mary pass in vain.
While Lauzon and Londonderry fans were concerned that New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association rules would mean Lauzon would not be allowed to coach his team during its playoff against Pinkerton due to his ejection, the Association announced Monday that after debriefing and deciding to change the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to a warning instead, Lauzon would be allowed to coach his team in Saturday’s semi-final game.