Merrimack thumps Keene

Sophomore quarterback Justin Grassini tossed two long touchdown passes and senior running back Joe Giampietro led the game in rushing in his first game in almost a year as the Merrimack football team clipped the visiting Keene Blackbirds, 35-0.

Giampietro (11 carries, 72 yards) scored just his second varsity touchdown after missing all but two games last season due to injury. Grassini, in his first varsity start, tossed a 64-yard bomb to Andrew DeGregorio (four catches, 101 yards) on the Tomahawks’ opening drive and Merrimack started with a win for the second time in as many seasons under head coach Dante Laurendi.

“I think it’s very important,” Laurendi said of the opening-night win. “You always want to get a positive taste in these guys’ mouth and build momentum, hopefully. But we know we have a steep climb ahead.”

Grassini had plenty of time to work as he finished 12 for 20 for 182 yards, floating another TD pass on a 19-yarder to Dylan Beaulieu for the game’s final score in the early moments of the fourth quarter.

“I thought he played great, had good composure,” Laurendi said of Grassini. “Offensive line gave him great protection which really helped him ease into the game.”

Keene, on the other hand, was not as fortunate. Three turnovers, three punts, three more turnovers on downs and head coach John Luopa was not a happy man.

“We’re not good,” Luopa said when asked in his assessment of his team. “Our tackling wasn’t good, our execution wasn’t good in three phases – offense, defense, special teams – we weren’t good.”

Keene quarterback Dallas Landry (10 for 23, 66 yards, one interception) showed some flashes and back Tim Lane (15 carries, 39 yards) was certainly one of the tougher players on the field, but Laurendi credited a much-improved defense.

“We were very impressed with how we ran to the ball tonight,” Laurendi said. “I told them when we broke down that we really made some key stops when we needed to, forced some turnovers, and I liked our attitude and effort on the other side of the ball. We had some young kids make some physical plays and I’m really proud of them. They deserved the shutout.”

The game momentarily grew stagnant after Grassini’s first bomb to Gregorio until late in the second quarter. But Stephen Gage (game-high 12 tackles) jump-started things when he recovered a Keene fumble on a punt return by Hunter Massucco at the Merrimack 43.

Tyler DeNeill, another sophomore for the Tomahawks making his debut, led the ensuing drive with two carries for 29 yards before an 8-yard score with 3:40 to go.

Grassini’s 8-yard run of his own made it 21-0 with 52 seconds in the half.