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Pinkerton Academy seniors pose with head coach Brian O'Reilly during their last practice before today's NHIAA Division I championship game against Concord. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Roger Brown's First and 10: Pinkerton seniors relish one last title shot

Running back Manny Latimore has reached the Division I championship game in each of his four seasons with the Pinkerton Academy of Derry football team, but those title games have produced more pain than pleasure.

Latimore and middle linebacker Matt Madden started as freshmen on the Pinkerton team that beat Nashua North in the 2010 Division I championship game, but Exeter has been Pinkerton's Kryptonite in each of the last two seasons. The Blue Hawks upset the Astros in Derry to win the 2011 championship, and knocked off Pinkerton in Exeter to win last year's title.

"It's hurt the past couple years," Latimore said. "My sophomore team was probably the best team I've ever played on. It (the loss in the championship game) was just a huge shock to everyone. Exeter took it away again last year. Last year hurt even more."

Latimore, Madden and a bunch of Astros who have never experienced the feeling of winning a title will return to the Division I championship game today, when third-seeded Pinkerton (9-2) faces top-seeded Concord (11-0) at Concord's Memorial Field. Concord won the regular-season meeting between the teams, 21-14, in overtime.

"As I've gotten older the losses have hurt more and more — even the regular-season losses, like the loss to Concord," Latimore said. "I don't really know how I would take it if we lost this one. After the last two losses (in the title game) I just thought we'd win it the next year. Well, this is my last shot."

Saturday's game will be the ninth time Pinkerton has played in the Division I championship game in the last 10 years, and the program's 15th appearance in the Class L/Division I championship game since Pinkerton moved from Division II to Division I in 1985. The Astros are 10-4 in those title games.

Pinkerton coach Brian O'Reilly said winning the Division I championship is the goal — and a realistic one — almost every year at Pinkerton.

"It does set you up for failure sometimes," he said. "We have eight players on this team who were significant contributors last year. Winning the championship is all they talk about in practice. They are focused."

Last year's loss to Exeter was particularly frustrating for Madden, who suffered a torn ACL two weeks earlier and didn't play in either of Pinkerton's two playoff games.

"Sophomore year Exeter just outplayed us," he said. "Last year I felt helpless because I couldn't do anything. That one just stung for me."

Madden, who played linebacker and tight end for the Pinkerton team that captured the Division I title in 2010, said winning the championship as an upperclassman would have a different feel.

"This one has more value to it," Madden said. "Have to win this one. Can't go out with a loss. I know I'll be pumped up for the game."

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HERE'S how Laconia coach Craig Kozens views the matchup between top-seeded Plymouth Regional (10-1) and second-seeded Portsmouth (10-1) in today's Division II championship game: "When Plymouth has the ball they'll have to hang on to it and control the clock," Kozens said. "Defensively they'll have to step up their pass defense, because if they have a weakness it's against teams that spread the field.

"Portsmouth will have to get into space and use it. It'll be the one-on-one matchups when Portsmouth has the ball and Plymouth will have to account for Phanor (Portsmouth quarterback Donovan Phanor) on every play. Defensively, Portsmouth will have to win the battle up front.

"Plymouth is in its backyard, which is a huge advantage. It'll be an emotional place because Chuck (Plymouth coach Chuck Lenahan) is coaching in his last game, but Plymouth will have to control that emotion. I think it's a toss-up."

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THREE of the six teams that reached this year's state championship games began its season with a loss.

Bow, which will face Stevens of Claremont in today's Division III title game, opened with a 7-0 setback to Pelham; Portsmouth dropped a 58-37 decision to Trinity of Manchester; and Pinkerton fell to Bedford, 14-12.

Roger Brown is a staff writer for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @603sportsmedia.

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