DURHAM — A rarity in the ranks of high-school coaching, Jeff Holmes has stuck with the same team in the same sport at the same school for more than two decades.

One thing that has eluded Holmes since coaching his first varsity game for the Exeter High School boys basketball team in 1997 – a large-school state championship – finally became a reality as Exeter beat Salem 53-30 in the Division I final on Saturday before a packed house at the University of New Hampshire.

"I'm really happy for our players, and our program and our school," Holmes said. "From a personal standpoint, it feels great for me. Obviously, as a coach, you want to be the best. You want to win it."

With the win, top-seeded Exeter finished the season 21-0 and earned its first championship since 1977, when it also went undefeated.

Technically, the Blue Hawks were 24-0, having picked up three wins as champions of a holiday tournament in December. Those games didn't count in the NHIAA Division I standings, but as far as longtime Exeter athletic director Bill Ball is concerned, they counted toward the Blue Hawks' legacy.

"They're unselfish and they play great defense," Ball said. "You do those two things and have the talent they had, and the coaching they have, good things are going to happen. Going undefeated in 24 games is hard to do."

Blue Hawks' multi-sport athlete and senior standout Josh Morissette, who grew up right down the street from coach Holmes, said winning a state championship for his hometown was a "surreal" feeling.

"I've dreamed all my life of having these six letters across my chest," pointing to the word "Exeter" on his jersey, which was obscured by the game net around his neck. "It's unbelievable. I couldn't be more happy right now."

Senior Chris Natola, a lifelong Exeter resident who has played a key supporting role for the Blue Hawks all season, got his chance to enter the game in the final minute with his team well ahead, and after hearing his friends in the student section chant "We want C-Nat!"

"To represent this town that I've spent such a big part of my life in, it's awesome," Natola said. "It's the best feeling in the world. I always tell my teammates, 'Get me in the game today.' And they did."

Clearly the top team in Division I from the beginning of the season, the Blue Hawks left no doubt on Saturday in the early going, jumping out to an 11-0 lead, which eventually expanded to 16-5.

Salem, which finished an incredibly successful season at 19-4 and earned the tournament's No. 2 seed, made a run late in the first half to eventually tie the game and trailed by just 4 at halftime. But Exeter proved why it was the best in the second half, holding Salem to just 11 points and pulling away to a significant margin of victory in the final minutes.

"It was high expectations from Day 1," Holmes said. "We had the pieces, and we did it."