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Concord, MV, Bow and Brady all in action as football playoffs begin

“I’d love to see Concord High be like Friday Night Lights, for the town to shut down and come to Memorial Field on game night. I want the youth of Concord to be excited about those games, to see what it’s like and aspire to be Concord High football players. … Five years down the road, that’s what I hope will happen.”

That was Eric Brown’s goal when he was promoted to head coach of the Crimson Tide in 2009. And now, five years down the road, his team is in the playoffs for the first time since 2004, and fans are flocking to Memorial Field to watch the top-ranked and undefeated Tide.

“I wish it would have come to fruition a little bit earlier than this,” Brown said with a laugh before practice earlier this week, “but yeah, I said after the Bedford game (that) it’s been since the year 2000 that I saw people lined up to the sidewalk (atop the Memorial Field parking lot) to get into the game. It’s nice.

“There’s a buzz around the school, there’s a buzz around the community. It feels good. I’m really happy for the kids because they’ve worked really hard to achieve this.”

Concord is one of four area teams playing in their conference title game (and divisional quarterfinal) tomorrow. And the rags-to-riches story isn’t Concord’s alone. Merrimack Valley is making the first postseason appearance in program history, while Bow and Bishop Brady are both returning to the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Here’s a look at the four games. Each kickoff is at 1 p.m.

DIVISION I NORTH

Manchester Central (7-2)
at Concord (9-0)

When the teams met in Week 1, Concord rolled to a 28-0 lead at halftime and had its bench in the game for running time in the second half. Both Walters Ndi and Leo Sudieh rushed for more than 100 yards, the Tide intercepted Central’s Richie Greely three times and Concord more or less had its way with the Little Green.

“You have to erase the score, you have focus on what they’ve done recently,” Concord’s Nick Comeau said.

And what they’ve done recently is run off seven straight wins, including last week’s 20-16 victory at Bedford that secured the Little Green its playoff spot and eliminated the Bulldogs from postseason contention.

“They came out throwing the ball early and I think they were still figuring out what to do with (Jesiah) Wade,” Brown said of the first meeting with Central. “I think they’ve figured it out.”

Wade, who transferred from Campbell, shocked the state with a 500-yard rushing game in early October and Concord knows it will have its hands full trying to keep him to fewer than 100 yards, like it did in the first meeting.

Concord, meanwhile, has beaten opponents every which way. Ndi (14 touchdowns) eclipsed 1,000 yards this season, Sudieh (eight TDs) averages nearly 12.5 yards per carry and Marc Gaudet averages 7.7 yards per carry and leads the team with 16 TDs. Quarterback Rob Law has passed for more than 1,000 yards and 11 TDs, with no fewer than 11 players on the receiving end of his passes, led by Seimou Smith with five TDs and almost 500 yards receiving.

“We’re going to come out with the same balanced attack that we’ve come out with every game,” Brown said. “If we need to throw it we’ll throw it; if we need to run it we’ll run it. It’s one of our strengths, our balance.”

Defensively, the Tide’s starting unit has allowed multiple touchdowns to only three opponents all season, and used an overtime goal-line stand to beat Pinkerton, a game most of the team looks on as the point they knew they could be a No. 1 seed.

“After being down by a couple of points to come back and win in overtime, I thought that was impressive,” Ndi said. “That gave us so much confidence and so much swagger.”

Central is sure to come in with plenty of swagger of its own, riding that seven-game winning streak since season-opening losses to Concord and Pinkerton, so the Tide knows it can’t rest on its laurels.

“They just beat out Bedford when they were second in the state, and now they’re going for the first in the state,” Sean Larner said. “Every week is our championship game, every week is our Super Bowl.”

DIVISION II EAST

Merrimack Valley (7-2)
at Portsmouth (8-1)

Despite winning a program-best seven games this year, Merrimack Valley needed some help in the final weekend of the regular season to reach its first postseason. The Pride got that help, and now it doesn’t matter how it got in. MV is looking to avenge an earlier 48-14 loss and deny the Clippers a shot at a third straight championship.

The teams have similar offensive strengths, with quarterbacks Ivan Niyamugabo for MV and Donovan Phanor for Portsmouth both equally dangerous aerially as on the run. Niyamugabo has a stable of sure-handed receivers in Cole Martin, Tommy Schneider and Ryan Head, and Tucker Burt gives the Pride a pair of strong ball-carriers. The Pride’s explosive offense has rung up 27.5 points per game.

Phanor’s top receiver, Jake Becker, has been out the last two games, but in his place players like Nate McFarland, Ian MacDonald and Loden Formichelli have emerged. Mikel Toar and Joe Auger complement Phanor in the Clippers’ ground attack in an offense that averages 40.5 points per game.

They’ll be a handful for MV’s defense – led by Tristan McNeel, Buddy Hughes, Head and Jake Davidson – but that defense has limited opponents to two or fewer touchdowns in more than half of the Pride’s games.

MV has already made program history this season, but if the Pride players have anything to say about it, they’re not done yet.

DIVISION III SOUTH

Bow (7-1)
at Pelham (8-0)

While much has changed on the scoreboard since Pelham beat Bow, 7-0, in a defensive grudge match in the season opener, not much has changed in both teams’ approaches.

Pelham has a potent double-wing and spread offensive attack and shows multiple fronts on defense.

“They’re very much the same as what we saw (in the first game), but they’ve improved quite a bit, as have we,” Bow Coach Paul Cohen said. “Ground and pound works very well for us, and our passing game came into fruition last game. Our defense has had success against the spread, the double wing, the single wing.”

Since that Week 1 game, Bow is averaging 36.7 points per game, while the Pythons have put up an average of 39.1 points. Meanwhile, both teams have stayed true to their defense, with Bow yielding just 10.1 and Pelham 11.4 points, and Bow tossing three shutouts and Pelham two.

Matt Ehrenberg has come into his own in the backfield for the Falcons, putting together the first 1,000-yard rushing season in program history. And quarterback Derek Polish is giving Bow a nice option through the air with Travis Reynolds and Kyle Strickland on the receiving end.

Teddy Nappen, Kyle Milne, Dwight Alford, Ehrenberg and Alec Tellifson have been at the heart of the Falcon defense, along with defensive end Tony Roberts, who was injured two games ago and will miss tomorrow’s game.

“I like to feel we have the capacity to move the ball in the air or on the ground,” Cohen said. “A balanced attack, in my opinion, is always better.

“… With the conference championship, you have to pull out all the stops. I think we’re very balanced in terms of scoring, what both offenses bring to field. We have our bread and butter, as it were, but if the situation calls, we might have to pull something from the proverbial magic hat.”

Six years ago, Pelham ousted Bow in the semifinals on its way to the title, and three years before that, Bow beat Pelham for the title. And while Bow’s current players will be experiencing playoff football for the first time, they’re ready to write the latest chapter in the Bow-Pelham saga.

DIVISION III EAST

Bishop Brady (4-4)
At Epping-Newmarket (4-4)

It’s been just two weeks since these teams met – a 33-21 Epping-Newmarket victory – and Brady is playing on the road because of that loss. But that could also serve as a motivator for the Green Giants.

Another thing working in Brady’s favor is the healthy return of a couple of two-way starting seniors – center/defensive end Hunter Migneault and fullback/linebacker Dalton Morris – who were on the sidelines the last two weeks.

“We’ve gone through a stretch where some kids are filling in,” Brady Coach Greg Roberts said. “It’s tough when you’re working on offense and defense, and you have certain players who are doing the job and you lose them, and we don’t have somebody to step right in. We don’t have those numbers. But hopefully we’re done with that and ready to go on Saturday.”

Their return on defense, teaming with defensive stalwarts Moses Murenzi and linebacker Chris Thurber, could be a boon to the Giants, who must contain Epping-Newmarket’s Joe Leclerc, who rushed for 234 yards and four touchdowns against Brady in the first meeting.

“He’s an offensive threat,” Roberts said. “… We’ve been able to stop most teams in terms of the running game, but have had trouble in terms of the passing game. Epping runs more than passes, so we’re hoping that matches up well with us.”

Brady counters with a balanced two-pronged offensive attack. Matt Tetu is the go-to back, closing in on 1,000 yards rushing this season, with Murenzi and Morris also productive ball carriers. Quarterback Brendan Johnson is completing better than 50 percent of his passes and has been particularly efficient the last couple of games, with Andrew Jousset the primary receiver as well as Tetu and Morris catching the ball out of the backfield.

“Last week we threw the ball well and ran well. That’s important,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t hurt to be able to control the tempo and control the clock. It’s important to be able to run the ball and as a defense to stop the ball.”

(Sandy Smith can be reached at 369-3339 or ssmith@cmonitor.com.)

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