Roger Brown's First and 10: Central defense stepped up when needed
Running back Jesiah Wade certainly played a large role in Manchester Central's 20-16 triumph over Bedford on Friday night, but Central also received an exceptional effort from its defense.
Bedford, which entered the contest averaging 38 points per game, was held to two touchdowns: a 43-yard run by Michael Vailas on Bedford's first play from scrimmage, and a 14-yard TD pass from quarterback Dan Colella to Nate Jaeger with 51.9 seconds to play. Jaeger's touchdown was set up by a kick return that gave Bedford possession on the Central 22-yard line.
All Bedford could manage in between those TDs was Keelan McCool's 26-yard field goal. Central also came away with four turnovers.
"After that first play, absolutely amazing defense," Central coach Ryan Ray said. "Our defense really has played well at times this year for very long stretches, but we always seem to stub our toe and give up some big plays and do some things smart teams shouldn't do. So we've seen our defense have the ability to do that. We just have to do that for four quarters to keep playing football."
Wade rushed for 199 yards and two touchdowns on 39 carries in the victory, which secured a Division I playoff berth for Central (7-2). Wade, who carried the ball 25 times in the second half, has 2,074 yards rushing this season. He rushed for 2,003 yards as a junior at Campbell in Litchfield last season.
"Without (Wade) we're not in the position we're in today," Ray said. "We threw some of our best punches at them in our pass game in the first half and unfortunately we weren't able to connect on them as well as we'd like to. We knew we weren't going to trick anybody in the second half with the pass game, so we kept the pass game simple and we gave them a steady diet of Jesiah Wade, a big offensive line, fullbacks and tight ends."
Central, the No. 6 team in the Union Leader/WGIR/WMUR Power Poll, will face No. 1 Concord (9-0) in the Division I North championship game next weekend.
Although Londonderry (4-5), Spaulding of Rochester (6-3) and No. 9 Exeter (6-3) are also in the eight-team playoff field, No. 2 Bedford is not. The Bulldogs completed their season with a 7-2 record, but finished behind Concord and Central in the Division I North standings. Two teams from each conference qualify for postseason play.
"It's heartbreaking - especially for the seniors," Bedford coach Kurt Hines said. "I hope they do go to two conferences in each division, but that's not why we're not moving on. We turned the ball over too many times. They were the better team tonight."
Here are the matchups for next weekend's Division I conference championship games: East: Exeter (6-3) at Spaulding (6-3); North: Central (7-2) at Concord (9-0); South: Londonderry (4-5) at Pinkerton (7-2); West: Keene (7-2) at Nashua South (8-1).
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Despite Saturday's 36-6 loss to Plymouth, Merrimack Valley will be participating in the playoffs for the first time since the school first fielded a varsity team in 2002.
Merrimack Valley secured a spot when Trinity of Manchester beat St. Thomas of Dover 43-28 Friday night. St. Thomas kicker Hayden Middleton converted a dropkick on an extra-point attempt in the loss.
Merrimack Valley and St. Thomas were battling for the final playoff spot in Division II East.
Here are the matchups for next weekend's Division II conference championship games: East: Merrimack Valley (7-2) at Portsmouth (8-1); North: Kennett (5-4) at Plymouth (8-1); South: Trinity (7-2) at Windham (8-1); West: Sanborn (5-4) at Monadnock (9-0)
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Newport earned the final playoff berth in Division III by beating Mascoma Valley, 42-14, Saturday.
Here are the matchups for next weekend's Division III conference championship games: East: Bishop Brady (4-4) at Epping-Newmarket (4-4); North: Inter-Lakes/Moultonborough (4-4) at Gilford (6-2); South: Bow (7-1) at Pelham (8-0); West: Newport (6-2) at Stevens (6-2).
Roger Brown covers high school football for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @603sportsmedia.