Merrimack rocks Salem

By BEN LEVINE
Correspondent

MERRIMACK – The Merrimack football team certainly proved it belongs in the title-contenders conversation Friday night.

Led by quarterback Justin Grassini, Merrimack’s offense picked apart Salem’s secondary as the Tomahawks topped the previously-undefeated Blue Devils 39-20.

Merrimack’s offense has shown plenty of promise following their disappointing four-point, opening-day loss to Bedford. The Tomahawks have scored at least 50 points in their last three games. However, it was uncertain if that production would carry over against a Salem defense that was allowing roughly 20 points per game.

The Tomahawks quieted that sentiment right out of the gate. Following a four-and-out by Salem to open the game, Merrimack marched 40 yards down the field, capping the drive with a Joe Eichman 5-yard touchdown. Merrimack scored again minutes later, as Grassini connected with Justin Weiser on a 59-yard pass to give the team a 14-point lead.

"We stared the game throwing the ball a lot," Merrimack offensive line coach Nick Hogan said. "Once we got an easy lead, we tried to involve both the running and passing game to keep them off guard. We’re going to just keep doing what we need to do to win games."

A Salem interception was followed by a Matthew Soldano 33-yard touchdown pass to Joshua Sibanda, cutting the deficit in half at the end of the first.

That was the last mistake the Merrimack offense would make. The Tomahawks never took their foot off the gas, adding a touchdown in the second quarter and three more scores in the second half.

Grassini finished the day having completed 28 of his 41 pass attempts for 458 yards and three touchdowns. Weiser hauled in eight of those catches for 211 yards and a score, while Eichman finished with seven receptions for 108 yards. The junior also compiled 48 rushing yards and a trio of rushing touchdowns. Ryan Fournier finished the game with 81 all-purpose yards.

If it was possible, the Merrimack defense was just as impressive as the offense. The Blue Devils only had three first downs during the first half, and Salem required a pair of late touchdowns to make the score respectable.

"Our defense is unbelievable," Hogan said. "They don’t get enough credit and they’re the most overlooked part of our team. Our offense puts up the points, but our defense is what wins us games."

The Tomahawks did an admirable job of containing Salem running back Joshua Sibanda. The junior finished with 106 yards and a pair of scores, but half of those yards came via a 67-yard touchdown late in the game.

The victory now puts Merrimack and Salem in a two-way tie atop the Division I Western Conference at 4-1.

With several easy matchups coming up against Londonderry and Timberlake, the Tomahawks could emerge as the top seed in Division I. However, Hogan and the coaching staff aren’t yet ready to consider themselves contenders.

"We just take it one game at a time," Hogan said. "We know we’re good, but we’re not where we want to be yet. Once we get there, people will definitely know."