Keene High’s vaunted running game proved too much for Nashua South to handle Friday night at Alumni Field, as the hosts notched a 30-6 victory in their final game of the 2021 season.
Senior running back Jarrod Rokes rushed for 136 yards in the first half alone, and fellow senior back Austin Morris added more than 130 on the ground, including two touchdowns, to pace the Blackbirds.
Meanwhile, Keene’s defense stifled the visiting Panthers all night, making a key goal line stand at the end of the first half to preserve a 14-0 lead going into the locker room. With the win, Keene improved to 5-4, while South dropped to 3-6.
Explaining that he wants to build a strong program, Keene head coach Linwood Patnode said after the game that his team “took a good step toward that this year.”
“That was the whole intent,” he said. “The kids knew that’s what we were trying to do, and they bought into that.”
Friday night began with an on-field celebration to recognize Keene’s seniors before the final game of their high school careers.
Then, the Blackbird veterans went to work — led by the backfield tandem of Rokes and Morris.
After forcing South into a three-and-out on the game’s opening drive, Keene went on an 11-play, 86-yard drive, capped by a Morris score from one yard out. The drive included runs of 12 and 13 yards by Rokes, who in last week’s win over Merrimack became the program’s first player in 13 years to top 1,000 rushing yards in a season.
“It means a lot to me,” Rokes said of his historic feat. “I was really pushing for that since the first game. First game, my coach was like, ‘He’s on pace for a thousand yards,’ and I’m like, ‘Yup, I want to get to that.’ ”
Sophomore quarterback Aiden Tarr’s two-point conversion throw fell incomplete, but Keene’s defense stopped South on the visitors’ next possession to keep the lead at 6-0.
The Blackbirds again marched straight down the field behind their ground game, but a fumble deep in the red zone cost them a chance for more points.
No matter, as South gave the ball right back when junior quarterback Karsten Lemire lost control on a fake handoff to set up Keene with great field position. The Blackbirds took advantage, punching it in eight plays later on another Morris touchdown and converting a two-point try to grab a 14-0 lead with under a minute left in the half.
South threatened to close the gap just before the break, however, after junior Jake O’Connor took a pitch from Lemire and threw it 41 yards to senior wide receiver Connor Rowsell.
But with time for only one play from Keene’s 3-yard line, the hosts stood strong, stopping South for a loss.
Facing South’s strong passing attack, Patnode credited the Keene coaching staff with coming up with a defensive game plan to keep the Panthers in check.
“The bottom line is the kids have to execute it,” he said. “And they did.”
The Blackbirds extended their lead to 22-0 right out of halftime behind 14 straight runs, ending with an 11-yard burst from sophomore running back Wyatt Avery.
After Keene’s drive chewed up nearly seven minutes, South needed all of 15 seconds to get on the scoreboard: Senior running back Joshua Compoh, bottled up all game by a stout Keene defensive line, took the ensuing kickoff 74 yards to pull the Panthers within two scores, 22-6, midway through the third quarter.
That was as close as the visitors got.
Keene again moved the ball down the field on its next possession, as Morris and Avery ripped off several long runs behind an offensive line that moved South backwards with ease. Tarr scored on a quarterback keeper from one yard out to secure the victory — and a winning record.
“We knew that South was a little short on their players today, so we just came out firing,” Rokes said.
The team’s 5-4 season — which also featured wins over Alvirne, Windham, Nashua North and Merrimack — is a strong foundation to build on in future years, according to Patnode.
“It’s a good atmosphere in the locker room and on the field,” he said. “They work hard. They just continuously work hard all the time, and that’s the biggest thing that I can take away from this entire season.”