Salem hands Merrimack a loss

Call it the “squib” game of the year for the Merrimack football team.

It was one bad break following another in a first half that wouldn’t end for the now 3-4 Tomahawks after a tricky kickoff strategy and a strong running game led to a 38-14 Salem High School win in Division I South conference action Friday night.

Salem’s Jason Martinez ran for 196 yards and three touchdowns as the Blue Devils employed the “squib” kick on all but one of its kickoffs in the game. Only one resulted in a turnover, but it came at a key moment late in the second quarter that produced Salem’s fourth touchdown on the night and a 25-6 halftime lead.

Salem also scored on a bizarre play in the third quarter where receiver Jake Poore recovered his own fumble after two Merrimack defenders couldn’t handle the loose ball at the Tomahawks’ own 2-yard line. Poore was polishing off a 50-yard reception when he fumbled.

“The squib … a fumble … we didn’t make our own breaks, so we can’t complain about the bad ones,” Merrimack coach Dante Laurendi said.

The loss makes three in a row for Merrimack, now reeling with Bedford (6-1) and Pinkerton (5-2) left on the horizon.

Salem kicker Chris Sheikhabdou’s best squib of the night came in the second quarter after the Blue Devils had just taken a 19-6 lead. Sheikhabdou’s bouncing kickoff ricocheted off Merrimack lineman Justin Devanna’s hands and Salem recovered at the Merrimack 37.

Nine plays later and Martinez took it in from the 7 for a 25-6 halftime lead.

Merrimack (only 61 yards rushing) began the game scoring on the first play of its second drive with a 46-yard bomb from Devin Gillis (16 of 32, 209 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) to Andrew DeGregorio.

But the Tomahawks were cut short on two drives inside the 20 before the break and couldn’t muster any more points until it didn’t matter.

Salem (418 yards rushing), on the other hand, was sending Martinez, among others, every which way with ease.

“We came off the ball pretty well, and up front it looked like we blocked pretty well and executed,” Pike said. “And that’s what the game comes down to, blocking and executing on offense.”

Martinez tied the game with a 78-yard run just two plays after DeGregorio’s TD reception. After a Merrimack punt on its next possession, Zack Liupaka went for a ride this time, powering his way up the middle for a 47-yard touchdown run.

Merrimack seemed to catch a break on its next possession, facing fourth and long from the Salem 49. Freshman Justin Grassini dropped back to punt, but instead completed a pass to Ryan Barry for a first down.

However, the Tomahawks again had trouble converting when they found themselves on the Salem 10; this time a Gillis-to-Barry pass went for a loss and Salem got the ball back.

Salem quarterback John Cerretani (7 of 9, 145 yards) found tight end Austin Homsey for a 8-yard touchdown pass to cap a 9-play, three-minute drive and a 19-6 lead before the squib of the night.

Merrimack’s Dylan Beaulieu added an 8-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter from Gillis.