Merrimack wins 1st postseason game since 1995; Grassini flies past state’s single-season TD record
By JASON ORFAO
MERRIMACK – Saturday afternoon will go down in the Merrimack football history books.
Justin Grassini tossed six touchdown passes – the first gave the senior sole possession of the NHIAA single-season record – and the Tomahawks ran away with a 42-7 victory over defending champion Goffstown in the Division I quarterfinals for the program’s first postseason triumph since 1995.
Grassini finished 31 of 41 passing for 404 yards and six scores with just one interception and the Tomahawks (9-1) never trailed.
"It’s a great feeling to win our first playoff game. That’s the most important thing right now," Grassini, who has thrown 41 TDs this season, said. "(The record) was in the back of my head the whole time, but that win is huge for us."
Merrimack will meet undefeated Bedford – a 33-7 winner over Salem – in the semifinals on Nov. 12. The Bulldogs edged the Tomahawks 24-20 back on opening night.
Merrimack used a 21-point second quarter to take control of Saturday’s quarterfinal.
The Tomahawks struck first on a 31-yard touchdown connection from Grassini to Tyler DeNeill, who recently returned from injury.
Things turned worse for the Grizzlies when senior quarterback Nik Moquin seriously injured his ankle, before backup QB Charles Keith suffered a concussion on the very next drive.
"We were limited. We came in with a lot of injuries and then it got worse during the game," Goffstown coach Justin Hufft said. "I want to make it clear that I thought Merrimack played an outstanding game and they beat us – no ifs, ands or buts about it. I think their kids played their hearts out and they were well prepared and they beat us."
However, the Grizzlies received a spark from third-string quarterback Peyton Bickford, who connected with Franklin Castillo-Diaz for a 78-yard touchdown to tie the game 7-7 with 1:34 left in the first quarter.
Merrimack quickly responded, though, as the Tomahawks marched 60 yards in eight plays, capped by 14-yard touchdown reception from DeNeill, who finished with eight grabs for 85 yards and also intercepted a pass.
"You always want to come right back," Merrimack coach Kip Jackson said. "I’m just glad our team was able to respond an they’ve been pretty much doing that the entire season."
Danny Vanecek also gave the Goffstown secondary headaches. He reeled in a 54-yard aerial TD with 5:11 left in the second quarter, before the Grizzlies took a safety, setting up a 20-yard touchdown pass to Vanecek with 53.9 seconds left in the half. Vanecek led all receivers with eight catches for 148 yards and three scores.
Goffstown struggled to generate offense in the second half and Merrimack closed the contest with a 40-yard TD to Vanecek in the third quarter and a 5-yard TD toss to Brody Kelley that capped the scoring with 7:50 to play.
Merrimack defensive coordinator Brandon Lilley was pleased with the performance.
"We talked all weeek about getting back to basics and working on fundamentals. That was really our focus," Lilley said. "We stuck with the plan (when Moquin was injured). We didn’t know much about their backup quarterback. He did a great job. He came in and threw that long touchdown. They’re a great team and they’re well coached."
Grassini also led the Tomahawks in rushing with 36 yards on four carries, while Kelley had six catches for 40 yards. Joe Eichman (three catches, 42 yards) and Justin Weiser (four catches, 50 yards) also served as weapons for Grassini.
"I think we stepped it up. That was probably our best game we played on offense the whole season," Grassini said. "Hopefully, there’s more to come."