HAMPTON — It was a little less dramatic, but for the second straight year a late field goal was the difference in arguably the state’s greatest gridiron rivalry.
The Exeter High School football team, as a steady rain continued to fall and it clutched to a 28-21 lead, faced a fourth-and-4 from the Winnacunnet 10 with 2:15 left in Friday’s 87th meeting between the two rivals.
Exeter head coach Bill Ball was weighing his options on the sideline on what to do when his quarterback Kyle Ball approached him and said, “Coach, he can make it.”
Kyle Ball was referring to senior Jake Gould.
Coach Ball gave the green light and sent Gould and the kicking team out on the field, trying to make it a 10-point game.
Gould rewarded his coach’s faith by drilling the 27-yard field goal, giving Exeter a 31-21 lead late in the game.
“I just told (Gould) it was just another kick during practice,” Kyle Ball said. “He has a great foot and he came up huge.”
Gould’s kick proved to be the difference.
Winnacunnet junior quarterback Patrick MacDougall led a 10-play, 70-yard drive, throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass to John Ferrelli with 36 seconds left, cutting the Exeter lead to three.
The Blue Hawks recovered the onside kick and secured its fourth straight win in this storied rivalry, 31-28.
“After Kyle and his teammates said (Gould) could make it, I looked at him and said ‘Let’s go,’” coach Ball said. “Kyle and those guys knew he could do it, and he put it through for us. I was thinking about (kicking it), and when his own teammates had that type of faith in him, that put it over the top. It was the right call.”
Exeter won last year’s game 21-20 on a 25-yard field goal in the final seconds.
“I slipped a little bit, but it went through the posts,” Gould said. “There was a lot of trust going on. I trusted my snapper and my holder (Kyle Ball); we’ve been working every day in practice trying to get that perfect. Therefore, I don’t worry about whether or not the ball is going to be there, just keep my head down and kick it right through.
"We’ve had a few rainy practices this year, but nothing like this.”
Exeter improved to 4-0, while Winnacunnet suffered its second straight loss and is 1-3 on the season. Four of the last five meetings between the two schools have been decided by three or fewer points.
“It’s always emotional (when you play Exeter),” Winnacunnet head coach Ron Auffant said. “You never know what’s going to happen, it’s never over. I thought our guys played outstanding, they played good football. We made plays, but it just wasn’t enough. I am proud of them.”
Gould’s field goal looked like it sealed the win for Exeter, but the Warriors didn’t quit. MacDougall completed 5-of-8 passes for 49 yards on Winnacunnet's ensuing touchdown drive, needing only 90 seconds.
MacDougall and senior wide receiver Logan Keene connected for 12 yards on fourth-and-10, keeping Winnacunnet’s chances alive with 1:07 left to play with a first down at the Exeter 28.
Two plays later Ferrelli caught his fourth ball of the night, somehow coming down with it in a crowded end zone.
“I thought we were pretty good, four across,” coach Ball said. “(Ferrelli) made a great play. We tell our kids to bat it down, not to catch it (in that situation). We went up to try and get it, the ball went through, and (Ferrelli) made a tremendous play. Great athlete.”
The Warriors' last gasp of a miraculous finish ended when John Biron’s onside kick was recovered by Exeter's Bobby Cliche.
“This rivalry is unbelievable,” coach Ball said. “They always play their best, we seem to play our best and it brings out the best in both communities. And once again it came down to the end.”
Exeter now leads the all-time series, which dates back to 1924, 58-27-2.
“Our kids played hard today,” Auffant said. “Exeter was just a little bit better. I thought our defense played well against the run, forced them to do some things they don’t normally do, and they adjusted well to what we were doing. Exeter is a great football team. I’d be surprised if they lose a game. We’re disappointed, but I think we can build on this.”
Winnacunnet, in a 14-14 game, took the second half kickoff and Billy Powers (16 carries, 173 yards) picked up 10 yards on a second-and-5, giving the Warriors a first down at the Exeter 10.
But Ferrelli was later dropped for a 3-yard loss on fourth down, giving possession to the Blue Hawks.
Exeter responded by going on a 14-play drive, culminating in Cliche’s 10-yard touchdown reception from Kyle Ball.
“I think that was the key difference in the game,” Auffant said. “We can’t put it in the end zone, and they come down and score. That was the difference.”
Exeter took the opening kickoff and marched 65 yards on 16 plays as Kyle Ball put the Blue Hawks on the scoreboard with a 9-yard touchdown run on first and goal.
Winnacunnet answered right back as Powers took the second play from scrimmage and broke free for a 77-yard touchdown, tying the game at 7-7.
The two teams traded touchdowns in the second quarter as Zach Knight scored on a 3-yard run for Exeter. MacDougall and Evan Welch hooked up on a 25-yard scoring strike with 32 seconds left before halftime for the Warriors.
“We needed this type of game,” Kyle Ball said. “We needed a dogfight. We knew we going to get it. It’s never easy coming down there to Alumni Field. It was a nice win.”