EASTHAMPTON — Even before Phillips Exeter Academy took a single snap in Saturday’s NEPSAC Jack Etter Bowl, the Big Red were playing with a slight disadvantage.
The team spent much of the morning taking end of semester exams, then boarded a bus for a 2½-hour junket to Sawyer Field on the campus of the Williston Northampton School. In addition, the Big Red were about to embark on their toughest challenge to date, facing unbeaten and offensive-minded Salisbury School.
The Crimson Knights’ journey from Western Connecticut was much shorter, only an hour, and the school is already in its holiday break. So the only stress Salisbury had to cope with was trying to win a football game.
The Big Red showed no signs of rust or fatigue, taking Salisbury to the limit before succumbing, 29-26, after Crimson Knight kicker Charles Coccia kicked a 22-yard field goal as time expired, giving Salisbury its second title in three years.
“I couldn’t be any prouder of these kids,” said Phillips Exeter coach Bill Glennon, his team suffering its first loss of the season and finishing at 8-1. “We had five starters out but we still left it all on the field tonight. We had some kids step up and become good football players today.’’ You can never be happy with a loss, but this was a terrific team effort in a loss.”
On Salisbury’s winning drive, quarterback Austin Whipple, son of former UMass coach and current Cleveland Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, guided the Crimson Knights (9-0) downfield. A pass-interference call and a fourth-down completion aided in keeping kept the drive alive.
“That pass-interference play, especially, was a huge play for our momentum,” said Whipple, who threw for 230 yards, completing 18 of 29 attempts. “The guys then kind of rallied around that and felt we got this. Our kicker just nailed it through. When we got the ball in the middle of the field for him, we knew he would make it. He’s been doing that in games and practice all year for us.”
Salisbury led by 3 at the half before Phillips Exeter (199 offensive yards) took the lead just a minute into the third on Jonathan DiBiaso’s 62-yard strike to Matt Greaves. DiBiaso was 8 of 16 for 157 yards. But a Whipple 1-yard dive after a 48-yard march gave the lead back to Salisbury, 23-19. With just over two minutes remaining in the third, the Big Red answered again. DiBiaso’s 1-yard carry knotted it at 26-26 before Salisbury’s last-second heroics in the fourth quarter.
The Crimson Knights (314 yards) benefited from a pair of Big Red miscues, which led to 9 points. After Phillips Exeter stopped Salisbury on fourth and goal from the 1 on the Crimson Knights’ opening drive, the Big Red took over in the shadow of the goal post. DiBiaso was sacked by linebackers Shane Johnson and Darnell Hard for a safety.