KEENE - The expectation of excellence is not a cliché for the Pinkerton Academy football team. It's a way of doing business.
And business is good.
The Astros of Derry are back in the Division I championship game for the ninth time in 10 years after beating Keene High, 44-20, in a semifinal game Saturday afternoon at the Alumni Field stadium.
"It's what we expect from Day No. 1," Pinkerton coach Brian O'Reilly said.
Even after losing to Bedford to open the season, O'Reilly said his players were still aiming to get to the title game. They have gone on to win nine of 10 games, including two playoff games by a combined score of 99-27.
Next up is a shot at the only other team to beat them - top-seeded Concord.
Concord beat Pinkerton, 21-14, in Derry in a game O'Reilly felt his team let slip away. The Astros (9-2) will get their chance at revenge this Saturday, but they will have to go to Concord to do it.
They punched their ticket to the title game with one more in a string of convincing wins. Since that loss to Concord, Pinkerton has averaged 56 points in its next five games. Keene had allowed the second-fewest points in the division during the regular season, but the Blackbirds (8-3) couldn't overcome Pinkerton's size or their own mistakes.
The Astros converted their first drive when junior quarterback Jack Hanaway scored on a 9-yard keeper. The score was set up when Pinkerton's Isaiah Backels came up with the first of his two interceptions. Fullback Matt Madden busted out of a gang tackle near the line scrimmage and ended up with a 49-yard run to the 16.
Pinkerton led 10-0 on a 33-yard field goal by Kyle Cantalupo late in the second quarter - set up by Backels' second interception - and broke the game open by sandwiching another interception with two more touchdowns to start the second half.
Hanaway capped off an 8-play, 50-yard drive with a 21-yard pass down the middle to a wide-open Madden.
TJ Urbanik plucked a deflected ball out of the air on Keene's first ensuing play from scrimmage, giving the Astros the ball at the Keene 26. Two players later, Manny Latimore burst through the right side of the line and went 21 yards for the touchdown to make it 23-0.
Urbanik finished with 131 yards and one touchdown on nine carries, while Latimore had 90 yards and one touchdown on 15 carries. Hanaway rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another.
"They're big and physical," Keene coach John Luopa said. "And we turned the ball over too much and had too many penalties."
Keene quarterback Alex Parenteau was the catalyst for Keene's ability to rebound from a 1-2 start, but he was picked off five times and fumbled the ball away once against the Astros. He also ended going 23-for-36 for 277 yards and one touchdown passing, and rushing for two touchdowns.
"A lot of bad reads on my part," Parenteau said.
O'Reilly said his defensive game plan was to stop the run and gamble on deep passes. It worked.
"They showed a little different coverage, to their credit," Luopa said. "That first half, anytime we had a little seam, they came with three, four guys putting hats on us. Then they got to sit back in coverage."