DURHAM — Exeter High School won its only boys basketball state championship in 1977, and the Blue Hawks waited another 21 years to get back to the title game.

Exeter, then under first-year head coach Jeff Holmes, lost to Matt Bonner and Concord at the Whittemore Center, 73-44, in the 1998 championship game.

Another 21 years later, Holmes and the Blue Hawks are back playing in the championship game for the fourth time in school history.

Top-seeded Exeter (20-0) will face second-seeded Salem (18-2) on Saturday at Lundholm Gymnasium at 3 p.m.

“As a coach I know it’s really, really hard to get here, it’s not easy,” Holmes said after Wednesday’s 62-51 semifinal win over Londonderry. “There are 22 teams, and a lot of good programs in the state. We are fortunate.”

Exeter has not lost since last year’s heartbreaking 68-66 loss to No. 11 Dover in last year’s semifinal round.

“On the back of our warm-up jerseys it says ‘Take the Next Step,’” Exeter junior Ryan Grijalva said after Wednesday’s semifinal win over Londonderry. “Last year we lost in the semis, so this is our next step. We’re just trying to always get better each and every day, each practice, each game. Now, we’re in the finals, and it’s win or go home in the last game of the season. It’s a big game, but I think our team trusts in each other, believes in each other, and we have each other’s backs. I think if we do that, stay to our game, stay focused and stay calm, I think we have a really good chance of winning.”

Exeter beat Salem, 43-33 at home on Jan. 22 in the lone regular-season meeting between the schools. The Blue Hawks pulled out a 59-56 win over the Blue Devils when they met at the Queen City Invitational on Dec. 26.

“We know Salem well,” Holmes said. “They like the half-court game, they do a really good job with their interior defense, and they’re real athletic. They are good, obviously. It’s No. 1 vs. No. 2, so it should be a hell of a game.”

Exeter is the lone undefeated team in the state, winning by an average of 20 points in the regular season and by 17 in its two tournament games.

“These guys deserve this,” Holmes said. “They are a great group of guys who have played hard all year. There has been no attitudes or anything like that. Everybody has bought in, and they earned this. I would have been really disappointed if we didn’t get here considering the season we had.”

Salem led Exeter 21-18 at intermission in the regular season game, but the Blue Hawks responded with a 25-12 second half.

“Salem is a very good defensive team,” Grijalva said. “They pack the paint, they have a couple good shooters, a good big man, and just an all-around good team. We have to scout what they do, what they do well, what their weaknesses are, and pay attention to stuff like that so we can get the win.”

Sophomore Josh Morissette scored a team-high 13 points in Exeter’s win over Salem in January, and is looking forward to meeting them again.

“To be able to say I am playing on Championship Saturday is a dream come true," Morissette said, "and I want to get one for Coach Holmes.”