Boston High School: Top 25 previews

St. John’s Prep senior running Johnny Thomas is a little upset about the way last year ended.

Sure, the Eagles ran over Brockton to win the Eastern Mass. Division 1 Super Bowl, but the Maryland commit wanted more.

“I really wish we could’ve played Everett,” he said reflecting on last year’s team.

Well, Thomas and the Eagles might get that wish this season, as both No. 1 Prep and the No. 2 Crimson Tide will compete in Division 1 North this year, a result of the MIAA’s new playoff alignment.

But Thomas stopped himself before going too far, looking forward to a potential playoff showdown with Everett. He acknowledged the momentous expectations that are placed on the top team in ESPN Boston’s preseason Top 25 poll, but also saw a trap.

“We need to avoid all the ESPN headlines, that we’re ranked No. 1 and all of that.”

He trailed off, “I appreciate that, we really do, but that doesn’t mean a thing. Most of the time, that can go to your head. So you just have to have the right mindset to deal with that.”

Of course, there are weighty expectations on Thomas, himself, as well.

An ESPN Boston All-State first teamer as a junior last year, the Salem resident ran for 1,794 yards on 220 carries with 15 touchdowns. But he also did so sharing part of the load with 2012 Mr. Football Alex Moore, who added 857 yards and 14 touchdowns during his senior season.

This year, Thomas will be the Eagles’ feature back, and – without Moore beside him — he’s solely in the spotlight.

“I think that with Alex leaving the program, teams are going to be keying on me,” Thomas said. “And you know that can actually be good for the team because we have some guys who are under the radar and who are going to make big plays.”

That could come in the passing game. While Prep head coach Jim O’Leary traditionally has featured a streamlined playbook that is comprised of running plays, almost exclusively, the Eagles have the wherewithal to air it out. Behind senior quarterback Mike Geaslen, junior Jake Burt and Owen Rockett provide intriguing options in the passing game.

But make no mistake, the Eagles will maintain the same identity.

“I’m not saying we’re going to be balanced, run versus the pass,” Thomas said, “but I think teams need to pay attention to us throwing on them.”

That means a healthy dose of Thomas running out of the backfield. With additional reps, a 2,000-yard season seems well in grasp for Thomas.

To prepare for that, Thomas and his Eagles teammates have laid the preseason groundwork for the grueling challenge ahead: the Division 1 title defense.

“Everything that we do in the offseason, it makes you a well-rounded player,” Thomas said. “It’s not work specifically in one area, it’s everything. We do speed training, yoga to strengthen the whole body. Everything we do at the Prep, it’s going to help you at the next level.”

Coach: Jim O’Leary (30th season, 200-106-2)
2012: 11-1, won Eastern Mass. Division 1 Super Bowl
Key Returnees: Johnny Thomas, Sr. RB; Jake Burt, Jr. TE/DB; Owen Rockett, Jr. Ath./DB; Michael Fawahinmi, Sr. RB/DB; Mike Geaslen, Sr. QB; Brendan Kahari, Jr. RB/LB; Kent Blaeser, Sr. G/DT; Sean Hoey, Sr. OT/DT.
Strengths: Skill players, defensive secondary.
Weaknesses: Depth at linebacker, offensive line.

Outlook: Prep’s defense was dealt a blow in early going when preseason All-State linebacker Sean Smerczynski withdrew from the school. That will challenge the second tier of the Eagles defense, which already lost several players to graduation of the 2012 squad. Prep’s offensive line, which returns all but one starter from last year (center Sean Lovett is the lone new face). The O-line should become a strength by season end, with preseason All-Stater Kent Blaeser bolstering the group.

Prep has a serious challenge out of the gate, opening with Div. 1 South power Bridgewater-Raynham on Saturday. “They like to pound the ball down the middle,” Thomas said of the Trojans.”They like to play tough-guy football. They’re not like Oregon, passing the ball all over the place. They want to run it down your threat.”

This ain't your dad's No. 4 Mansfield

September, 3, 2013
For Mansfield football head coach Mike Redding, it was as though the lights went out.

The Hornets had rolled to Super Bowl titles behind tall-timbered linemen and their power-running scheme. And then, something strange happened.

“It’s funny because it seems like the last three, four years, we haven’t been getting more big linemen,” said Redding, who enters his 25th year at the helm this year. “But what we are getting is a lot of speed and skill.”

So, in recent years, Redding has done what any good coach does, playing to his team’s strength. He adapted with the pace of change and brought the Hornets into the age of the spread offense.

The decision was a matter of mere necessity.

“We don’t have the teams that we used to have, lining up in the ‘I’ and the Wing-T to run powers and isos,” Redding added. “We don’t have that kind of team anymore.”

While the packaging is different, the results have remained largely the same, as Mansfield has won three straight Hockomock (Kelley-Rex) titles from 2010-12, including another trip to the Eastern Mass. Division 2 Super Bowl last season. Quarterbacked by then-junior Kyle Wisnieski, the Hornets utilized their skill on the perimeter, led by the shifty Mike Hershman and a rangy tight end/wide receiver hybrid in Brendan Hill.

They fit the mold of the modern-build Hornet.

“The thing is that we have a lot of athletes who play lacrosse, or play basketball, in other seasons,” Redding said. “I think those kids are attracted to the offense.

“Now, we’re putting four, five guys out in a formation on offense, whereas before we were lining up with one split end and a couple of wing backs. Now, we have all these athletes on the field who can run, catch the ball and make plays.”

Mansfield’s stylized offense has come with other added wrinkles and benefits. Redding sees the Hornets pushing the pace on offense this year, again playing to strengths of team speed and conditioning.

Also, with Wisnieski’s maturity under center, Mansfield increasingly has built checks into the play-calling, meaning just about every signal from sidelines comes with two possible play options. It’s then the job of the quarterback to pick which of the two calls is most appropriate against the shown defense.

“It keeps us from guessing in the huddle, which is what we used to do,” Redding said.

Meaning that the lights won’t go out again.

Coach: Mike Redding (25th season, 204-66-4)
2012: 8-5, lost in Division 2 Eastern Mass. Super Bowl.
Players to watch: Brendan Hill, Jr. TE/DE, 6-5, 205 lbs.; Mike Hershman, Sr. WR/DB, 6-2, 175 lbs.; Kyle Wisnieski, Sr. QB, 6-0, 165 lbs.; Alex Ruddy, Sr. FB/LB, 5-10, 175 lbs.; Kyle Hurley, Sr. RB/DB, 5-10, 160 lbs.; Steve Zielselman, Sr. OL/DL, 6-2, 220 lbs.; Max Trowbridge, Sr. OL/DE, 6-0, 185 lbs.
Strengths: Passing game.
Weakness: Lack of game experience at running back.

Outlook: Talk about starting the season with a bang. Mansfield kicks off Friday with a visit to Baltimore and Maryland powerhouse Dunbar. The Hornets have made it a habit of taking on premiere out-of-state games early in the season, having most recently played Christian Brothers (N.Y.) in Syracuse. “The best thing is the team bonding experience,” Redding said. “The kids get on a bus on Wednesday and they’ll be together twenty-four-seven until Saturday night. I think that builds a unity for the full length of the season.”

After three-peat, No. 2 Everett avoids rebuilding year

September, 2, 2013
Everett footballMichael Thorpe for ESPNBoston.comAfter going 28-1 over the last three seasons, Everett may take a step back -- but it's all relative.
It was one of the most dominant three-year runs in MIAA history, going 28-1 with three straight MIAA Eastern Mass. Super Bowl titles. They scored early and they scored often, including a 2010 run in which they outscored opponents by nearly a 30-point margin per game. They had high-profile talent in high-profile places, sending recruits off to places like Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Boston College, UMass, the Ivy League and seemingly everywhere else in between.

And now, it appears Everett High could be in for potentially a rebuilding year -- of course, in Everett that means more than one loss. There are some parallels to that last "rebuilding" team that went 8-3 in 2009. Back then, the Tide were coming off a three-year run that saw them win back-to-back D1 Super Bowls, and fall to eventual champ BC High in a playoff the third year. They graduated a load of talent, including Isaac Johnson, Walter Fallas, J.R. Suozzo and brothers Jim and Rodman Noel. Jonathan DiBiaso, the state's all-time leader in passing touchdowns, was a ripe sophomore.

That team took its lumps early on -- including an unheard-of 48-14 September beatdown at the hands of Dracut (a game which became just as well-known for coach John DiBiaso's post-game remarks, specifically "I just hope they don't take us off their schedule now" -- which they did, as it turns out).

But sooner or later, they figured it out, rolled to their 15th straight Greater Boston League title and a D1 Super Bowl berth, where they were shut out by rival Xaverian amidst the snow at Gillette Stadium. The lumps of that season gave way to the furious three-year run that concluded last December in similar snowy conditions, a 20-19 thriller over state No. 1 Barnstable to avenge an early-season loss and conclude a third straight Super Bowl title.

This year, the Tide must find replacements in the trenches, which graduated four starters from one of the nation's heaviest offensive lines and featured one of the East Coast's top recruits in John Montelus (Notre Dame). They must find new speed on the perimeter, where versatile threats Jakarrie Washington (Wisconsin) and Jalen Felix (Eastern Arizona JC) stressed defenses in so many different ways.

But does anybody truly, seriously doubt that these guys won't figure it out?

After all this was a team that last year was wholly unsettled at quarterback before the season even started, down to their fourth-stringer by their season-opener against Leominster. Raheem Wingard took over the reigns midway through the season, and the Tide never looked back.

The 5-foot-7 Wingard is back under center this season, and he has looked confident thus far in the preseason, putting better zip on the ball from a higher arm slot. Wingard developed a reputation last season as a running quarterback; working in the zone read out of the pistol, one of the new staples of Everett's offense this year, Wingard has shown the ability to make the right read on defensive ends.

He also maintains a chip on his shoulder, wanting to show the state last year's three-peat run was not the sole doings of last year's class.

"I feel like I'm one of the quarterbacks that gets overlooked a lot because I'm smaller, but that just gives me a little more motivation," said Wingard following a recent scrimmage. "And it makes me push my team that much farther, that much harder."

There are questions abound, particularly on the offensive line, where Zach Pierre is the lone starter. They aren't one of the nation's heaviest like last year, when they averaged 324 across, but this is still big by Bay State standards, averaging nearly 285. Keep an eye on junior Guerschwon Jean-Louis (6-5, 350) and sophomore J.J. Collimon (6-3, 245) as potential prospects down line, and don't forget about juniors Eric Trickett (6-1, 260) and Muhammad Raouie (6-0, 290) either.

Questions lie at the receiver positions as well, though it's apparent there is some talent with this group. Lukas Denis will be a focal point at wide receiver, alongside Lubern Figaro, but one name to keep an eye on is Joe D'Onofrio. After earning Catholic Central Small honors (and some high praise from his former coach), D'Onofrio returns to Everett and should make an immediate impact on both sides of the ball.

Where there won't be questions, as usual, is in the secondary. Figaro, who laid the wood from both slot corner and strong safety last year, was one of the most sought-after recruits in the offseason. He currently holds a dozen Division 1 FBS offers, and has chosen a final five of Boston College, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Michigan State and Wisconsin; after initially saying he would decide before the start of the season, Figaro has pushed his selection date back to at least October, possibly later.

Coach: John DiBiaso (22nd season at Everett, 263-64-1 overall)
Last Season: 11-1, won Div. 1A Eastern Mass. Super Bowl
Returning Starters: Eight (three offense, five defense)
Key Returnees: Sr. DB Lubern Figaro, Sr. LB C.J. Parvelus, Sr. QB Raheem Wingard, Sr. LB Angel Duarte, Sr. C Zach Pierre, Jr. ATH Lukas Denis
Strengths: Secondary, linebackers, passing game.
Weaknesses: Inexperience at offensive and defensive lines.
Outlook: This might be the youngest, greenest team Everett has rolled out since 2009, when they got off to a rusty start before marching to the D1 EMass Super Bowl. Like that 2009 team, it might take a bit for everything to come along, but does anybody seriously doubt the Tide won't figure it out? Last year's offensive line, led by Notre Dame freshman John Montelus, was one of the nation's heaviest at nearly 324 pounds across. This year's line is lighter, but still heavy by Massachusetts high school standards, and with a few intriguing young prospects who still have some growing to do, mentally and physically. Expect senior Joe D'Onofrio, a transfer from cross-town Pope John XXIII, to be a focal point of the passing game; he's already made an immediate impact during the preseason, able to stretch defenses vertically with high-4.5 speed. Wingard has shown improvement at passing, and that he's ready to take leadership reigns, and when coupled with Figaro, Denis and newbie Miguel Lopes, there's faith that the Tide will figure it out. The Tide should have one of the state's best secondaries once again, led by Figaro, who holds a dozen scholarship offers and is deciding between Boston College, Syracuse, Vanderbilt, Michigan State and Wisconsin.

No. 3 Reading's 'Best ever' QB is still hungry

September, 1, 2013
READING, Mass. -- Like several other high-profile high school head coaches around Massachusetts, Reading High's John Fiore has become distinguished for his Belichickian affinity against the hyperbole machine.

It takes a special breed of athlete to break Fiore from his canon. Friday night, following the Rockets' preseason scrimmage with Andover, Fiore was asked to reflect on the body of work of his prized quarterback, returning ESPN Boston All-State selection Drew Belcher.

He took a deep breath. And then, he let it rip.

"He's the best, bar none," Fiore said. "I wasn't on the staff when Jimmy Murphy was here, I came on staff in 1993. I saw the three Pizzotti's, I saw guys like Mike Boyd, Stan Andre...[Belcher] is the best. He does it all. He throws it like Chris [Pizzotti], runs it like Stan [Andre], has a little bit of wiggle like [Brian] Bourque, just bar none [the best]. And he's a winner. I've said that many a time, so that's where we're at."

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Belcher earned All-State honors a year ago after leading the Rockets to their second 13-0 campaign and MIAA Division 2 Eastern Mass Super Bowl title in four seasons, nearly pitching a shutout of Mansfield in the championship game. Some signal-callers across the Bay State put up gaudier passing figures than Belcher, but few were more efficient, completing 107 of 169 passes for 1,710 yards, 21 touchdowns and just two interceptions. And none were as physically imposing when they tucked the ball and ran as when Belcher came around on a quarterback power; he carried 138 times for 804 yards and 15 scores, running a spread-oriented offense that often deployed "heavy" personnel for its base package.

And still further, Belcher's winning ways are without peer. Among active quarterbacks in the MIAA, none have won more games as a starting quarterback than Belcher, who has gone 21-4 since the start of his sophomore season in 2011. Only Springfield Central's Cody Williams (20-3, 86.9 percent) has a better winning percentage than Belcher's 84, among quarterbacks with at least two year's varsity experience.

What separates him from the rest?

"Work ethic," Fiore said. "He wants to know about defenses, he wants to know about offenses, he wants to know football. He wants to understand it. Case in point, our 7-on-7 stuff, those tournaments all summer long, he called every single play for us -- every formation, every play, no cards, no book. Shoot, I don't know what else to say [but] glowing things.

"He's throwing BB's in the air, he's picking apart coverages, the wideouts are communicating stuff they want to hear back to him. It's good stuff. It's real good stuff. I don't know where it goes from here, but I'm sure it will end up positive. He's an outstanding kid."

Said Belcher, ""I've always had a chip on my shoulder my whole life. Every single day, I'm trying to get better. That's how I believe -- if you're not getting better, you're getting worse. ... Being from Reading, we've always had great history at quarterback, with Chris Pizzotti, Jimmy Murphy, Stan Andre, Brian Bourque, so I'm just trying to be like those guys, and work hard every day. That's what they did."

So now, here comes the elephant in the room -- why no scholarship offers yet for Reading's "best ever" quarterback?

Of the four quarterbacks selected to ESPN Boston's Preseason All-State Team, Belcher is the only one who remains uncommitted without any offers; Williams (Monmouth), Natick's Troy Flutie (Boston College) and St. John's of Shrewsbury's Andrew Smiley (Navy lacrosse) have all found future destinations. Boston College and Delaware are the latest to reach out to Belcher, and they -- like everyone else -- want to see senior film.

Scouts seem to be divided as to how he projects to the next level of football. He won't dart around the field, extending the play with 4.5 speed when the pocket collapses, like Flutie. He doesn't run an uptempo no-huddle offense, reading backside ends and making defenders whiff with lacrosse-esque shiftiness, like Smiley. Belcher is more of a throwback, a big-bodied type who can take hits in the pocket and deliver vicious throws in a timely fashion.

But if there are frustrations mounting in Reading, they're certainly keeping them in-house.

"It doesn't matter to me," Belcher said. "If we handle everything we can as a team, that stuff will just take care of itself. That's how I'm playing it off. I'm just looking forward to the season, and trying to win a state championship. I'll let that other stuff take care of itself."

Coach: John Fiore (9th season, 76-28)
Last Season: 13-0, won Div. 2 EMass Super Bowl
Returning Starters: 12 (six offense, six defense)
Key Returnees: Drew Belcher, Sr. QB; Liam Kenneally, Sr. LB/FB; Andrew Bourque, Sr. OL/DL; Rob DiLoreto, Sr. TE/LB; John Donnellan, Sr. OL/DL; Jimmy King, Sr. OL/DL.
Strengths: Running game, quarterback, offensive line
Weaknesses: Run defense, inexperience at secondary
Outlook: The Rockets lost a little firepower in the passing game, where they must replace Ryan Maney, a long target who stressed defenses vertically last season. But this is a deep receiving corps that will look to nearly a half-dozen bodies to get involved in the passing game, including DiLoreto, who figures to have an even bigger 2013 campaign after showing some promise in passing leagues this summer. Elsewhere, it's more of the same gameplan for the Rockets, who will pound the ball in between the tackles with power plays behind an offensive line that returns three starters. The most intriguing piece of the offense might be Kenneally, who will serve in an "H-back" role lining up at tailback, fullback and wing tight end, can set the edge in the running game and release to the flat for some quick catches to move the chains. Defensively, it will be interesting to see how the Rockets experiment with Belcher. Last season, he saw time at linebacker in sub packages. This season, it looks like Belcher will be the starting free safety. After two seasons of staring down safeties, Belcher feels like it's a smooth transition going the other way. "I'm reading defenses like that, and I'm able to know what he's thinking," he said.

A script revision for Flutie, No. 5 Natick

September, 1, 2013
Stop if you’ve read this script before.

A man named Flutie, under center, tries to will his team to victory during the final minute in an improbable circumstance. It was all there in Natick’s Division 2A Super Bowl versus Beverly at Gillette Stadium last year – that is, except for the fairytale ending.

After the Redhawks lost a classic, 28-21, with Beverly capping its first-ever perfect season after two Natick Hail Mary prayers went unanswered, Troy Flutie couldn’t bring himself to think about football for about a week. Then, he picked up the game film. By his count, he watched it five times from beginning to end, picking over the finer points, noting improvements to make for his senior year.

“It’s tough to look back at this play here, or that play there that might have turned the game out differently, but it is what it is,” the Boston College commit said. “You can only get better from it, that’s all you can do.”

Flutie realizes the path to get back to Gillette has become more difficult. Now in a loaded Division 2 South field in the MIAA’s new playoff scheme, the No. 5 Redhawks will have to muster another season full of magic to reach a championship game.

Again, Natick will rely upon its spread offense, operated by Flutie, to get them there. Aside from the ESPN Boston All-State quarterback, who threw for 3,135 yards and 35 touchdowns against eight interceptions last season, the Redhawks have another All-Stater in junior wide receiver Brian Dunlap. While Dunlap’s been held out of Natick’s most recent preseason scrimmages with a lower leg injury, there’s plenty of depth behind him. Flutie reports that senior Alex Hilger, who was held out of most of 2012 due to injury, has looked great early. He also expects big things from returnees Andrew Boynton and Justin Robinson.

And then, of course, there’s the X-factor to the Natick offense: Flutie’s feet. Adept at making throws on the run, Troy, like his uncle before him, almost seems more at ease when play breaks down around him.

“Coach Mort [Mark Mortarelli] knows how I play the game and he’s 100 percent behind me,” Flutie said of his penchant for scrambling out of the pocket. “That means a lot to me. Usually, it’s our offensive coordinator, Matt Brenneman, or my dad [Darren], who’s yelling at me to stay in the pocket.”

Flutie sees room for improvement in that aspect. It’s among the takeaways he gleaned from watching last year’s Super Bowl defeat.

While he’s most likely to follow his father’s path as a wide receiver at BC, his focus is making himself the best quarterback he can be. He wants to become a more patient passer, one who feels the rush and stands his ground.

“I have to work on that myself to become a better quarterback,” he added.

But no matter which Flutie it concerns, Plan B is never a bad option.

Coach: Mark Mortarelli (Fourth season, 25-10)
2012: 11-2, lost in Eastern Mass. Division 2A Super Bowl
Returning starters: 10 (six offensive, four defensive)
Key Returnees: Troy Flutie, Sr. QB; Brian Dunlap, Jr. WR; Alex Hilger, Sr. WR; Mike Abbruzzese, Sr. FS/WR; Justin Robinson, Sr. WR; Gus Black, Sr. RB/OLB; T.J. Collins Jr. LB.
Strengths: Returning skill players.
Weaknesses: Experience on offensive/defensive line and running back.

Outlook: While the Redhawks’ offense shouldn’t tail off much from 2012, the key position battle worth looking at is running back, where all-leaguer Nick Lee graduated. “I don’t think we could ever find another Nick Lee,” Flutie said. “He was like another quarterback back there for me. He’d help me a lot back there, checking out of plays. Now, I’m back there by myself.” A Kevin Faulk-kind of presence for Natick’s offense, Flutie lauded Lee’s blitz pick-up ability in the backfield as a key to his success. Look for sophomore Chad Kidd to pick up carries at running back in addition to senior two-way player Gus Black.

Natick’s secondary is deep and talented, with Mike Abbruzzese ready to break out after a solid junior year. Also, the linebacking corps might be a little light in game experience, but possesses play-making potential with a cast of Black, T.J. Collins, Justin Montgomery and Trenton Wright.

Williams entering folklore territory at No. 6 Central

August, 30, 2013
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- It would be so easy for Cody Williams to delve deep into the abyss of hype that encompasses him.

Nobody could blame him if he did.

Williams is regarded a hero of sorts around these parts. He is quarterback of the defending Division 1 Western Mass. Super Bowl champion Springfield Central High School, leading the Golden Eagles to their first postseason title in 11 years and, in the process, helped pull Central out from under the long shadow cast down by their well-established gridiron neighbors to the south -- stalwart Longmeadow High.

The countless number of congratulatory handshakes and hearty pats on the back Williams has received since Central's 27-0 defeat down of Longmeadow last December is enough to inflate anyone's ego. But not Williams. The senior has managed to keep both feet firmly planted on the ground, shrugging off the new-found attention that has received. For Williams, everything starts and finishes with team.

“I’m not into individual awards or personal accolades or things of that nature,” said Williams, who stands 6-3, 180 pounds and has a rifle for a right arm. “I only have one goal in mind and that is for our team to win a state championship. Nothing more than that.”

But deep down you know Williams is proud of his team's Super Bowl triumph over the Lancers -- a program that has barreled its way to the forefront of the Western Mass. football landscape, and has rightfully earned its place among state's very best over the past three decades with a record 13 Super Bowls to its credit, is certainly a major achievement. Factor in that Central lost to Longmeadow in the 2010 and 2011 Super Bowls, makes last year's feat all the more rewarding.

"We knew going into that game they had beaten us the previous two Super Bowls," Williams said. "We went out there and were determined not to let it happen again. It came down to who wanted it more. We just went out and executed and we prevailed."

By his own admission, Williams adheres to the ‘that was then, this is now’ theory. What took place nine months ago is in the past. The immediate focus now sits squarely on the present and future, with the realization that more work needs to be done.

Williams says his concentration centers on the larger picture in terms of maintaining Central's resurgence and its continuing efforts to transform itself into a top tier program. Winning a state championship would obviously do wonders to fortify that objective.

With last year’s MIAA ruling to do away with sectional Super Bowls by integrating a statewide six-division playoff system, the stakes have become a lot higher.

Central, a Division 2 entree, is considered one of the early favorites to compete for a state crown next winter, and it has the quarterback in place to do so. But the journey won't be easy.

“We know everyone is going to give us their best shot, especially after winning a Super Bowl” said Williams. “We just need to go out and play every game like it's a Super Bowl. We need to play all out at 100 percent full speed, rep to rep with no regrets. Just like we did last year.”

The Golden Eagles open their season on September 6th at Everett, the only team to defeat the Golden Eagles last season. They also face several formidable adversaries within the restructured AA Conference including Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Westfield and cross-city rival Putnam.

Having played sparingly as a freshman at the varsity level, Williams took full control of the quarterbacking reins at the start of his sophomore season and hasn't let go since. He is 20-3 as a starter, completing 197 of 325 passes for 3,076 yards, 35 TDs and only 12 picks.

When the circumstances call for it, Williams will run with the football too. He has gained 223 yards on 88 attempts, reaching the end zone 7 times.

Williams' skill set and ascending attributes has earned him a spot among the top-rated quarterbacks in the state. Enough so that he has already accepted a scholarship offer to attend Monmouth University in West Long Branch, NJ next fall. Monmouth, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, will be part of the Big South Conference upon Williams’ arrival in 2014.

Williams had received interest from several Division 1 schools but was often told he was their second or third choice at quarterback. Therefore, after receiving solid overtures from the University at Albany and Monmouth, Williams says his decision in selecting Monmouth consequently came down to them having the two programs of study he was interested in -- sports management and physical education.

Sixth-year Central head coach Valdamar Brower, who has had an up-close and personal account of Williams' progressions over the past three years, always believed his star signal-caller could play at a high-level collegiately. A stellar player in his own right at nearby Northampton High School and later a two time Division 1-AA All American defensive end at UMass, Brower offers no hesitation in his praise for Williams and his unlimited potential.

“He has grown physically, he has grown mentally and he has matured,” said Brower. “I’ve seen all three phases and I’m very excited about his development. He has great upside and that's not going to stop because Cody has a great passion for the game and is always looking to get better and he will get better.”

Williams' maturation process will be the one intangible most-closely examined this season. During a game against Chicopee High School last year, a skirmish broke out in which Williams was ejected for allegedly throwing a punch at a Chicopee player. What followed was an automatic two-game suspension as prescribed by MIAA rules which states any player ejected for punching another player must sit out the next two games. Although the decision was publicly scrutinized by Central coaches and players alike, Williams accepted his punishment and stood along the sidelines during those two games supporting to his teammates.

“To be honest I was and still am ashamed of myself for that,” said Williams, a team captain. “I realize I have to watch what I do and set the right example for other kids. My passion for this game is insane but I also know I need to control what I say and do.”

In spite of Williams’ absence, Central won its next two games with Williams’ cousin Ju’an Williams filling in as signal-caller and helping lead the Golden Eagles. When Cody Williams returned, the wins continued, culminating in their Super Bowl victory to cap off a remarkable 12-1 season.

“Nobody on this team ever likes to lose,” stated Williams. “Our goal is to be at the top and stay there. It’s always been that way no matter who is out on the field.”

Williams considers himself a football purist. He takes his craft quite seriously and spends most of his free time breaking down game film in an effort to dissect weaknesses and tendencies within an opposing team’s defensive scheme.

That inclination began early in his high school career and continues today. As a freshman, Williams got an early baptism to the various nuances and up-tempo speed of the varsity game first hand after filling in for then starter Tyler Dowd, who was sidelined with an injury. By his sophomore season, having absorbed valuable on-the-field experience as a freshman, Williams' progressions were now ahead of schedule. A strong, accurate throwing arm, his ability to read defenses and make adjustments on the fly and a perpetual work-ethic convinced his coaches he be moved to the top of the depth chart.

“He’s relentless in trying to get better, trying to learn and trying to make his teammates better,” Brower said. “He has a very high football I.Q. and continues to progress because he never stops in trying to become a better football player. As a team we have a lot of expectations this year.

"In regards to Cory, he had a big leadership role last year as a junior so we are looking for that to continue again this year. He is a lot more mature than I was at his age. Cody just needs to remain humble, be ready to fight and not lose who he is. A lot of people will pat you on the head but you still need to keep it going. You can never be content in this game. You constantly need to keep improving.”

Williams' father, Rich, serves as an assistant on the Central coaching staff. Despite having his father on the field with him, Williams says there has never been any preferential treatment given nor is any expected.

“He’s told me how it is ever since I was little,” said Williams of his father. “There is no parental favoritism here at all. He’s supportive of me but he tells you like it is. To be honest, if it were the other way around, it would have gotten me no where.”

Williams’ other primary support system comes from his mother Sarah, brother Luis Ortiz, brother Richard and sister Corina. All of whom, according to Williams, have played a major role in his maturity and strong upbringing.

Coach: Valdamar Brower (6th year, 40-20 overall)
Last Season: 12-1, Won Division 1 West Super Bowl
Returning Starters: 14 (seven offense, seven defense)
Key Returnees: Sr. QB Cody Williams, Sr. ATH Ju'uan Williams, Sr. LB Kenneth Marshall, Sr. OL/DL Sean Lee, Sr. RB/DB Da'Quon Clemons, Sr. OL/DL Khalil Walker, Sr. TE/LB Luis Ortiz, Sr. ATH Malik Johnson, Sr. RB/DB Troy Morrow, Sr. LB Jon Morales, Sr. RB/LB Marcal Davis
Outlook: Brower's building job at Central has been slow and steady, but after last year's Super Bowl-winning success the Eagles have evolved into a thoroughbred, with respect across the state. In the newly-aligned Division 2 West, the Eagles figure to be a heavy favorite, though some familiar foes (Putnam, Longmeadow, Minnechaug, Holyoke) figure to make life difficult along the way. In Williams the Eagles have one of the state's slickest passers, but also a winner (20-3 as a starter) with a certain urban bullheadedness not often seen in Bay State quarterback prospects. He'll have plenty of athletes to throw to on the perimeter, the most prolific his cousin Ju'uan, who will be used in a garden variety of roles on both sides of the ball. Clemons figures to be the incumbent at tailback, with his home-run capability and terrific upper body strength, but look for Morrow and Davis to be significant factors in the running game as well. Down in the trenches, the 6-foot-4, 260-pound Lee is one of the state's more unheralded offensive line prospects, while the burly Walker will be the war daddy in the middle of the defensive line, plugging the inside gaps. Overall, this could be the best team yet of the Brower era at Central, and there have been some good ones. The Eagles' Sept. 6 season-opener at Everett will be appointment viewing.

Lofty expectations for No. 7 Leominster

August, 30, 2013
LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- In two years at the helm of his alma mater, Leominster coach David Palazzi has restored the program to past glory.

With a pair of Division 1 Central Mass Super Bowls and four consecutive wins over rival St. John's of Shrewsbury, expectations are sky-high for the No.7 Blue Devils, who will now compete in a loaded Division 2 Central for a state title. Despite having to replace star quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie, Leominster returns a great deal of talent and experience from last year's championship squad, including a pair of do-it-all seniors.

Jarrel Addo has already captured the attention of the entire state. The UMass-bound athlete will line up pretty much everywhere on the field for the Blue Devils. During Leominster's scrimmage with fellow CMass power Auburn, Addo was spotted at safety, linebacker, stand-up defensive end, tight end, wide receiver and running back.

"Jarell is just a great blocker, he's got good hands, he jumps, he's tall, so he's gonna help us out in the pass game with some of those things obviously, run after the catch-type things," Palazzi said. "He was (on the defensive line) because of a particular defense. (Auburn) runs power stuff so we had to move him up there… We run a three-man front, so if teams start doing that to us, you have to do the math and move somebody up."

The quarterback position was the biggest question mark heading into camp, but it appears that senior Neil O'Connor has locked the job down. Palazzi will tell you he has the best receiver in the region playing quarterback, as O'Connor transitions from Leominster's leading receiver to its signal caller. The early returns have been positive for one of the more versatile athletes in the state, and Palazzi believes he has a true dual-threat under center.

"Yeah, that's a big deal when you can run the ball (with the quarterback)," Palazzi said. "He's been in the huddle for two years and he's been listening to the plays. He kinda knew to watch Garrett last year and learn the plays, so it's not like I'm teaching him new plays. He’s just doing them from a different position. I was confident and comfortable with what I saw."

But the Blue Devils won't win a state championship with two players, and with the speed they have throughout, they won't have to. Wide receiver Jake Allain seems poised for a breakout year, and the backfield is full of talent with Mayson Williams, Eddie Rivera and James Gurley all fighting for carries.

On defense, the Blue Devils have one of the fastest back-sevens in the state. Headlined by Addo and O'Connor at safety, Leominster will rely on its speed laterally to stretch out run plays, and the Blue Devils hope a physical three-man line will give those linebackers and defensive backs plenty of freedom to roam.

Questions of depth still loom on both lines, but Palazzi is confident his team will be ready for an opening week showdown with rival St. John's on September 13th.

2012: 9-4, Won Division 1 Central Mass Super Bowl
Coach: David Palazzi (3rd Season, 19-7 overall)
Strengths: Speed in the backfield and the secondary, versatility, experience
Weaknesses: Experienced depth on both lines
Returning Starters: 14 (7 offense, 7 defense)
Key Returnees: Jarrel Addo, Sr. WR/TE/DB; Neil O'Connor, Sr. QB/DB; Jake Allain, Sr. WR/DB; Jason Valera, Sr. ATH; Mayson Williams, Sr. RB/DB; Eddie Rivera, Sr. RB/DB; James Gurley, Jr. RB/DB
Outlook: Leominster should again be one of the best teams in Central Mass, and building around a pair of players like Addo and O'Connor on both sides of the ball is certainly a great start. Blessed with speed on both sides of the ball, Leominster has the potential to be a big-play offense, and will be tough to outflank on defense. The question will be depth. While Leominster seems to have talent and experience at the skill positions and in the secondary, the offensive and defensive lines are shorter in numbers. But, overall, this team has the look of a state title contender.

LeClair destined for breakout for No. 8 Brockton

August, 29, 2013
BROCKTON, Mass. -- If his junior year was any indication, Brockton High’s Aaron LeClair seems destined to be a breakout star for the No. 8 Boxers in 2013.

Last season, LeClair tackled many roles for the Big Three champs, seeing time as a running back, kick returner, punt returner and defensive back.

LeClair finished second on the squad in touchdowns with. He was second in rushing yards and total offense. The 5-foot-7, 175-pound running back averaged a whopping 7.17 yards per carry while rushing for more than 600 yards on 88 carries.

A shutdown defensive back for a stingy defense that led division one in points allowed, he pulled in two interceptions and led the team in pass defenses.

Electric as a return man, he averaged 23 yards per kickoff return, and an impressive 27 yards on punt returns -- including an 82-yard score against Pinkerton Academy.

“You look for guys like that, who are special, and try to get them every opportunity to take advantage of their talent,” said coach Peter Colombo. “Everything starts with physical abilities like that.

"We saw Micah Morel really emerge as a senior last year, and Aaron shows all the same promise. He’s already had two very good years and if he can take to the next level, it will be huge for us.”

LeClair’s stats hint toward the promise of a star year, almost as much as his bloodlines do.

“Aaron is the half-brother of the Thellens, Nate and Darren, who were tremendous players for us,” said Colombo. “He shows the same kind of football intellect that both older brothers possessed, and both those guys had great college careers and had tryouts at the big level.”

Before Nate played at Northeastern, and Darren at UMass, LeClair used to look up to both during their days playing at Marciano Stadium.

“I’ve always wanted to do it like them,” LeClair said. “It would be great if I can follow what they did.”

LeClair certainly will get ample opportunity to make his own name in a Boxers’ uniform this season, as the Boxers graduated much of their production from an offense that rushed for 3,232 yards on 472 carries during their runner-up Super Bowl showing. Led by star quarterback Austin Roberts, the Boxers graduated players who combined on 390 of the carries and 2,396 yards on the ground.

While much of last season’s talent were seniors -- the Boxers are replacing 18 starters this year -- LeClair proved to be one of the toughest to replace guys on the roster after he was inured in the team’s Big Three-clinching win over New Bedford in week 10. LeClair wouldn’t play another snap, making life easier on Brockton’s opponents.

“I think people kind of forget about how much we missed him last year after the New Bedford game,” Colombo said. “He was our second leading scorer behind Augie Roberts. I’m sure other coaches we played against were happy they didn’t have to worry about him because he is a game-breaking type of kid.”

Ready to shoulder the lion’s share of the load, LeClair also doesn’t plan to let the graduation of 18 seniors change the expectations for this year’s team. In fact, he has a simple message for anyone who doubts whether or not Brockton can create another magical season.

“Just wait for the season.”

2012: 9-4, Div. 1 Super Bowl runner-up
Coach: Peter Colombo (11th season, 86-33-1)
Strengths: Running back, linebacker, offensive line
Weaknesses: Quarterback, Varsity experience
Key Returnees: Aaron LeClair, Sr. RB, 5-8, 170 lbs; Aaron Monteiro, Jr. OG, 6-5, 295 lbs; Kervin Jean-Claude, Sr. LB, 6-0, 210 lbs; Max Castor, Sr. TE/DL, 6-0, 200 lbs.
Outlook: The Boxers saw five players -- Austin Roberts, Micah Morel, Joe Previte, Anthony Davis and Ryan Kelley -- who saw some varsity time in all four years graduate off of last year’s team, in addition to 18 starters. In 2013, they’ll lean on guys like LeClair and Kervin Jean-Claude, who made significant impacts a year ago, to lead the way. “Kervin had a great year for us at linebacker,” Colombo said. “He’ll be called on to be a leader on defense. Aaron has played on both sides of the ball for two years now.” Previte and Davis were both four-year starters on the offensive line, so filling those holes won’t be easy. Colombo is happy to have Aaron Monteiro ready to fill one of the roles, and believes there is plenty of reason to feel that way. “He obviously has the size that will attract some attention for the next level, but he has very good footwork already too,” Colombo. “We’re hoping down the road to get something out of him on defense too, but right now he’s going to play guard for us on the offensive line.” Even after graduating so many guys, there’s no reason to think this team can’t return to the playoffs this year, and they should be among the favorites to win D1 South.

Galvin ensuring legacy at No. 9 Lowell

August, 29, 2013
LOWELL, Mass. – It’s in Jack Galvin’s blood, but he doesn’t let on.

When asked about his family’s athletic exploits, he shyly mentions that his dad once played in the NFL. The Lowell senior wide receiver and outside linebacker, like his father, Blake, before him, has already carved out a niche in Red Raiders’ history. It’s difficult to live in the shadow of a program great, who went on to star at Boston College and, later, was drafted.

[+] EnlargeLowell's Jack Galvin
Michael Thorpe for ESPNBostonLowell wide receiver Jack Galvin has 1,862 receiving yards and 20 touchdown catches since the start of his sophomore season.
But the Galvin clan seems to have it all in perspective.

“My dad has always wanted me to do my own thing, whatever that is,” Jack said before a recent practice at Cawley Stadium. “There’s no pressure. If I want help, I can ask him, but otherwise, he just wants me to do what makes me happy.”

With that guidance, the younger Galvin is well on his way to cementing his own legacy at Lowell. Having tallied at least 60 receptions and 800 receiving yards in the last two seasons, including a career high 72 catches for 916 yards in 2012. He also caught 10 touchdown passes in both his sophomore and junior years.

That production has garnered Galvin interest from Division 1 FBS and FCS schools. Galvin’s keen to watch his college options play out, but says the Ivy League would be an ideal destination.

Yet, for a third straight season, Galvin and the Red Raiders’ receivers will have a new quarterback distributing the ball: enter Lawrence Academy senior transfer Brian Dolan.

Whether it was R.J. Noel (now starting at Sacred Heart) or Cam Latta in the previous years, Galvin and the Red Raiders offense has operated at a prodigious clip, averaging more than 30 points per game for the greater part of the last two seasons.

To ensure the trend continues, Galvin has spent just about every day of the summer months huddled up with his fellow receivers running the spread on Cawley’s turf.

“I think every time I passed by here, they were out on the field,” Red Raiders head coach John Florence said.

Whether it was 7-on-7 passing leagues or work on their own, Galvin says football is the currency to a tight senior group’s friendship.

“Yeah, that’s pretty much what we do,” Galvin chuckled. “We really love football, and we like hanging out together, so that’s what we do.”

Coach: John Florence (Third season, 15-7 overall)
Last Season: 9-2
Key Returnees: Jack Galvin, Sr. WR/LB; Alex Quintero, Sr. OL/DE; Ndeiiva Mason, Sr. RB; Keagan Latta, Sr. WR/DB; Shyheim Cullen, Jr. LB; Nicolau Coury, Jr. LB; Tom Smith, Sr. WR; Michael Holder, Sr. WR/DB; Musa Mansaray, Sr. LB; Angel Brito, Jr. OL/DL.
Strengths: Skill positions, athleticism.
Weaknesses: Lack of experience at quarterback.

Outlook: While the Red Raiders’ high-flying aerial attack gets its fair shake of attention, let’s not overlook half back Ndeiiva Mason. Operating in an offense that is inclined to the passing game, Mason still rushed for more than 800 yards. Florence feels the stat doesn’t tell the whole truth. “He’s a pretty good back, and if he worked in some other offenses, I think he’d put up some really big numbers,” Florence said.

On defense, the Red Raiders are big, physical and fast. With Alex Quintero rushing off the edge and juniors Shyheim Cullen and Nicolau Coury filling the holes at linebacker, Lowell might finally have the defensive corps it needs to make a postseason run in a loaded Division 1 North.

No. 10 B-R looks to rebound from tough 2012

August, 29, 2013
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. -- A difficult 2012 schedule made for a tough season for the No. 10 Bridgewater-Raynham football team a year ago.

The Trojans not only missed the playoffs for the second straight campaign -- after reaching the Div. 1A Super Bowl each of the two years before that -- but they endured their first losing season since 2008.

B-R took losses against Div. 1 Super Bowl champ St. John’s Prep, as well as MIAA playoff teams Duxbury and Brockton. They also lost to an impressive Stoughton team that just missed the postseason, annual Catholic Conference power Xaverian, and La Salle Academy -- a team ranked No. 1 in Rhode Island at the time.

It was a season that certainly didn’t go as planned for the perennial power, a program that won Super Bowls in 1998 and 2000 and is regularly a favorite in the Old Colony League. The results of last year, though, will not be forgotten by this year’s squad.

“These guys all remember how that felt last year,” said coach Dan Buron. “Guys here were frustrated by that. We know the schedule doesn’t get any easier this time around, so guys have worked really hard to make sure they don’t go through that again.”

In 2013, they open with No. 1 St. John’s Prep, No. 11 Duxbury and No. 15 Xaverian, so how do they avoid a repeat of a season ago?

It starts with a formula in the backfield that combines two impressive running backs, junior Brandon Gallagher and senior Arcel Armstead.

Gallagher, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound back who emerged as the top runner last season, will be paired with the speedy Armstead, who missed the second half of last year.

“Brandon had a fantastic year last year and he’s worked really hard in the offseason,” Buron said. “He looks great so far. Arcel had a very good offseason to, and he looks great as well.”

The two-headed monster has already been proven succesful by the Trojans’ week one opponents.

“Everyone saw how effective St. John’s Prep was with Alex Moore and Jon Thomas in a two-back system last year,” Buron said. “It made them very difficult to stop, because if you keyed on stopping one guy, the other could be used as a huge offensive weapon. It will be my job to find ways to get both of these guys the ball so they can make plays for us.”

Helping Buron’s two star running backs to make plays will be an experienced, and sizeable offensive line.

“It’s always nice to have at least one guy back who knows all calls to anchor our offensive line,” Buron said. “We have three of those guys this year.”

Shawn Whitaker, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound left tackle, returns to the Trojans trenches again this season. He’s joined by fellow returning-starters right tackle Nick Falconeri (6-2, 280) and center Evan Shockley (6-1, 230).

On the other side of the ball, the Trojans return a lot of guys who saw significant action a year ago.

Anthony Sullivan and Connor Regan with hold down the defensive end spots, while Will Fuller and Nick Whittemore will bolster the defensive line at the tackle positions. Devin Morris is back to lead the charge at linebacker, where he’ll be joined by Armstead for B-R.

“We have a lot of talent and a lot of depth up front, and we should be pretty strong there,” Buron said. “We do have some holes to fill in the secondary, but we have a lot of good players ready to fill those voids.”

2012 may have been a tough year that was tougher to forget, but with so many guys back in the fold for B-R, the Trojans are hoping to create a much more memorable 2013.

2012: 5-6
Coach: Dan Buron (21st season, 154-65-2)
Strengths: Offensive line, running back, defensive line
Weaknesses: Quarterback experience, secondary
Key Returnees: Brandon Gallagher, Jr. RB, 5-10, 185 lbs; Arcel Armstead, Sr. RB, 5-10, 175 lbs; Shawn Whitaker, Sr. LT, 6-5, 270 lbs; Nick Falconeri, Sr. RT, 6-3, 280 lbs.
Outlook: The Trojans are probably the preseason favorite to win the OCL, and should be among the favorites in Div. 1 South. Their schedule will be unkind again this year, but with a two-headed backfield as talented as theirs they should compete with anyone. Brandon Gallagher and Arcel Armstead will have to emerge as one of the best running back tandems in the state if this team is to compete for a Super Bowl. With that duo, plus an impressive offensive line lead by Shawn Whitaker, junior QB Matt Clement has all the tools around him to have a solid first year at starter.

No. 11 SJS looking for answers on defense

August, 29, 2013

St. John's of Shrewsbury will look to reclaim its spot atop Central Mass., and will lean on one of the state's best quarterbacks to do so.

Andrew Smiley took the region by storm in 2012, setting the Central Mass single-season passing record in his first year as the Pioneers' starter. Now a senior, Smiley will again lead the St. John's "Blur" attack, an offense similar to the no huddle scheme Chip Kelly made famous at the University of Oregon.

With a combination of numerous receiver sets, a zone read style option attack and break neck pacing, the Pioneers should again boast one of the best attacks in state.

But, there is the issue of defense…

Last season, the Pioneers gave up over 29 points per game, and allowed opponents to score 33 points or more each week during a mid-season four game losing streak. The defense did show flashes, and finished the year strong, allowing only a touchdown to rival St. Peter-Marian and 19 points in the first round of the CMass playoffs against Wachusett.

Coach John Andreoli knows his group has a ways to go on that side of the ball, but he's been encouraged by what he's seen so far in camp, and during the Pioneers’ scrimmage with state power Brockton.

"Our one's against (Brockton's) one's, I think it was pretty much a stalemate (Monday)," Andreoli said. "We've had a great week of practice… Particularly, working against our offense every day, it gives us something to work against that's a pretty good test."

One player that should help the Pioneers thrive on both sides is receiver/defensive back Davon Jones. The talented junior is expected to be Smiley's go-to receiver on offense, and close passing lanes in a hurry as a ball-hawking safety on defense.

A two-sport star that excels on the hardwood for the Pioneer basketball team, Jones' physicality and intelligence have caught the eye of his coach.

"First of all, (Jones) is a football player," Andreoli said. "He's always around the ball, and he's a physical kid on both sides of the ball. His yards after catch are yards that he earned by grinding it out and being physical… I think he's just continuing to develop as a player, and there's no doubt he has a real high ceiling, just on his football IQ and ability to play the game physically."

While St. John's always has numerous high profile games, they don't get much bigger than the season opener at rival Leominster. The Blue Devils have bested the Pioneers in the last two Division 1 Central Mass Super Bowls, and won their last four overall against St. John's.

Leominster scored 79 points in two games against St. John's last season, so that improving defense will be tested immediately.

Coach: John Andreoli (8th year, 66-18 overall)
Last Season: 8-5, Lost in Div. 1 Central Super Bowl.
Key Returnees: Andrew Smiley, Sr. QB, Davon Jones, Jr. WR/DB, Pat Ryan, Jr. LB, Jeff DeMango, Jr. DE.
Strengths: Experience at quarterback and speed at the skill positions.
Weaknesses: Inexperience and inconsistency on defense.
Overview: St. John's has, potentially, one of the best QB-WR duos in the state in Smiley and Jones, but will need to replace running back Shadrach Abrokwah and receivers Micah Cummins and John Giacoppe. Having a senior quarterback and a scheme that gives defenses no time to rest should help, but Smiley was hit early and often in a scrimmage against Brockton Monday, and he forced a few throws into coverage. But we'll chalk that up to early season growing pains, and assume an offense that averaged over 38 points per game last season will figure things out. Surprisingly, the defense was the star of the scrimmage, forcing three different “three-and-outs” and a turnover against the Boxers. The Pioneer defensive front isn't huge, but it holds the point of attack and has the speed to string out runs to the outside. If the Pioneer defense continues to improve, it could be a banner year for St. John's in brutal Division 2.
Communication is paramount to the defensive secondary.

For Barnstable cornerback Derek Estes and safety Hayden Murphy, it’s almost involuntary. It’s borne out of spending a lot of time together: watching film, playing ball, hanging out. When I caught up with the pair for this story, after a recent morning preseason practice, Estes and Murphy were hanging out watching the latest installment of the Jason Bourne saga.

“I look at Hayden and he can read off my decisions and pick me up when I need a cover over the top,” Estes said.

To which Murphy added, “I’m Derek’s last line of defense, not that he doesn’t hold it down because he’s pretty good at what he does, but he knows I’ve his back, too.”

It reflects a certain level of cohesion that’s found with Barnstable’s program since Chris Whidden, who’s also the Red Raiders lacrosse head coach, became head coach three years ago.

Last year, the Red Raiders fell painfully short of winning the Eastern Mass. Division 1A Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium, losing by a point to Everett, after snapping the Crimson Tide’s 28-game winning streak earlier in the year with an overtime victory.

Barnstable isn’t interested in being a flash in the pan, however. The impetus is to push the program forward.

“My point to the kids is that I have no intentions to rebuild,” Whidden said. “That wouldn’t be fair to the seniors. We need to feel like we’re taking the best shot every year.”

So, with that, the Red Raiders have added a couple noteworthy opponents early on, playing up in Division against Catholic Conference power and fellow preseason Top 25 squads BC High and Xaverian. They’re hoping to set a tone for the season that will carry over to their penultimate Old Colony League rivalry game against Bridgewater-Raynham – an annual slugfest.

“Even though we’re listed in Division 2 now, we want people to think about us in that tier of being a Division 1 team,” Estes said.

Coach: Chris Whidden (Third year, 18-6)
2012: 11-1, lost in Division 1A Super Bowl.
Key Returnees: Hayden Murphy, Sr. Ath./FS, 6-2, 200 lbs.; Derek Estes, Sr. CB/WR; Billy Grimmer, Sr. OG, 6-0, 260 lbs.; Dereck Pacheco, Sr. DE, 6-3, 225 lbs.; Justus Chaffee, Sr. RB/CB; Kristian Lucashensky, Sr. QB; Colby Blaze, Sr. WR/CB.
Strengths: Skill positions and secondary.
Weakness: Experience at linebacker.

Outlook: So what will the Red Raiders’ offense look like Week 1? It’s a question that’s worth asking and also one that could evolve over time. Gone is Nick Peabody. However, Whidden is high on senior Kristian Lucashensky, who studied under Peabody last year and saw mop-up duty. But Murphy also presents an intriguing backfield option. Having already played “quarterback” in Barnstable’s Wildcat scheme in previous years, don’t be surprised if the Red Raiders set up some kind of rotation under center, including Murphy. The key will be versatility on offense, and that will be enabled by running back Justus Chaffee, who should see an increased number of carries.

On defense, Barstable is built from the back out. Along with Murphy and Estes, Whidden is keen on senior corner Colby Blaze, who lost most of last season due to a collarbone injury and is among the top students in Barnstable’s senior class. Drew Lambert will also insert at strong safety. The focus is on the linebacking corps, which was among the best in the state last season. The Red Raiders are looking to fill some shoes, but Whidden is encouraged in the early going by middle linebacker Chris Kennedy, who saw action primarily at offensive guard last season. Adding to that theme, Whidden expects five players to start or make significant contributions on both sides of the ball.

Kramer boosts steady line for No. 13 Duxbury

August, 28, 2013
DUXBURY, Mass. -- Firing out of his three-point stance for the Duxbury High football team, Dragons’ captain Grant Kramer understands the importance of what he and his offensive linemates do on every single play.

“That’s where it all starts,” said Kramer, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound left guard for the Dragons. “It’s a group of guys -- in our case a real tight-knit group of friend -- just pushing and working together to get things going on offense.”

In recent years, the Dragons have annually boasted one of the state’s premier offensive lines -- which is among the biggest reasons they haven’t lost a regular season since week two of the 2009 campaign. Most impressive about Duxbury’s offensive line success is it has graduated a number of standout linemen, including Grant’s brother Aaron (2010) whose playing at Boston College.

Gordon Acha finished 2011 as ESPN Boston's Lineman of the Year before moving on to Elon College; last year, Rob Kosharek earned a scholarship to Holy Cross. Yet still, they’ve pushed forward. Given the size, and experience, across Duxbury’s offensive line, 2013 should prove no different.

“We’ve been really lucky to reload the last few years,” said coach Dave Maimaron. “I’m not sure how Duxbury has so many of these kids, but I’m glad we do. These guys aren’t just big and strong though, they all athletic too. We’ve been blessed.”

Kramer is the biggest body, but center Rick Lippard (6-0, 240), left tackle Jack Herlihy (6-5, 255) and Matt Boyle (6-4, 250) give Duxbury plenty of road graders ready to pave the way for quarterback Sean McCarthy and running Khai Perry.

Like Maimaron, Kramer couldn’t pin down just one reason the Dragons offensive line continues to be one of the strongest points on the team.

“I know I’ve been blessed with good genes, and I’m sure the other guys would say the thing,” Kramer said. “I think it really just stems down from the great coaching Coach Maimaron gives. We get a lot of help from our running backs and quarterbacks -- those guys make us look pretty good.”

To make sure they keep winning trench battles, this year’s version of the offensive line was most often found in the offseason moving a lot of weight in the weight room.

“We all worked really hard with at the Duxbury strength and conditioning stuff,” Kramer said. “I know for me, working out mostly with Jack (Herlihy) was always fun. Having another big guy with you, we were always trying to push out an extra rep on the bench or move up in weight on squats.”

Kramer and Herlihy have positioned themselves to become the next Duxbury linemen to move on to the college ranks.

Herlihy is still taking part in the recruiting process, and has garnered some Ivy League interest for the next level. Kramer passed on scholarship offers from Villanova and Eastern Carolina, and also couldn’t be tempted by Ive League recruiters.

West Point, the Army’s officer academy, just made more sense. Kramer will either enroll at West Point or West Point Prep next fall, but he’s excited to be a Black Knight.

“I went up in July for a one-day camp, and I just feel like it’s I want to be and where I belong,” Kramer said. “I’ll be honored to serve this country after I finish school there.”

But first, Kramer will have the honor of leading Duxbury’s offensive line as the Dragons pursue a sixth straight Patriot League Keenan Division title.

2012: 11-1, Lost in Div. 2 Playoffs
Coach: Dave Maimaron (Ninth season, 83-13)
Strengths: Offensive line, running back, quarterback
Weaknesses: Linebacker
Key Returnees: Grant Kramer, Sr. OG, 6-4, 270 lbs; Khai Perry, Sr. RB, 5-7, 175 lbs; Sean McCarthy, Sr. QB, 6-1, 185 lbs; Jack Herilhy, Sr. OT, 6-5, 250 lbs
Outlook: The Dragons are replacing a lot on defense, including 2012 Defensive Player of the Year Marshall McCarthy. Even as Duxbury figures out personnel to take on defensive roles, the offense will be able to shoulder the load given the strength of the offensive line, as well as the return of starting QB Sean McCarthy. Khai Perry is a dynamic runner who can make plays in a variety of ways, and will ensure the Maimaron’s squad is once again a balance one. This squad likely matches last year’s 29 points per game, so if the defense does its part, Duxbury will have a chance to hoist a third Div. 2 trophy in four years.

Lax the key for No. 15 Xaverian football?

August, 27, 2013
Forgive the Xaverian Hawks if they have a chip on their shoulders this season.

They're (how do you say in a politically correct manner?) a little ticked off about the way last season went. It was a losing season (4-7), and, as a result, the Hawks again fell short of a Catholic Conference championship, having last won it in the magical 2009 undefeated season.

Expectations never waver at the Hawk Bowl, and there's no exception for 2013. But with returning Conference champion and statewide preseason No. 1 St. John's Prep holding the gate and a stacked gauntlet of opponents in the newly formed Division 1 South sectional, Xaverian's path to postseason glory is wrought with peril.

“I think every year we have high expectations for ourselves,” junior defensive end and tight end Joe Gaziano said. “And, obviously, last year was a disappointment. But I feel this year we’re really motivated to work hard and we expect even more of ourselves this year, knowing what it takes to win and how hard it is to win.”

While the wins may have come up short in the fall, for Gaziano and several of his teammates who were members of the Hawks lacrosse team’s Division 1 state championship in June -- the program's first -- they might have found a springboard into football season. It’s certainly not unprecedented in recent MIAA history that a program wins championships in both lacrosse and football in a calendar year, with Massachusetts lacrosse scions Duxbury pulling the feat most recently in both 2011 and 2012. On both those Dragons squads, a number of players shared responsibilities in both the spring and fall.

Xaverian fits a similar mold this year, with seniors Shayne Kaminski and D.J. Sperzel (Providence College lacrosse recruit) and Gaziano starring in both seasons.

Yet, Kaminski wasn’t about to buy into the idea that one success necessarily begets another.

“It’s a different game. But we’re really trying to push the defense this year and I think we can be good.”

He continued, “Our goal for right now is just to beat Everett [in Week 1]. That’s as far as we’re looking right now.”

Coach: Charlie Stevenson (20th season, 162-59-1)
Last year: 4-7
Key returnees: Shayne Kaminski, Sr. RB/LB, 5-11, 198 lbs.; Joe Gaziano, Jr. DE/TE, 6-3, 230 lbs.; D.J. Sperzel, Sr. WR/S, 6-2, 190 lbs.; A.J. King, Sr. WR/S, 5-10, 180 lbs.; Nick Colantuoni, Sr. TE/DE, 6-3, 215 lbs.; Noah Sorrento, Jr. RB/LB, 5-9, 180 lbs.
Strengths: Depth at wide receiver, experienced pass rush.
Weaknesses: Depth at offensive line, experience on interior defensive line.

Outlook: The word around Clapboardtree Street is that defense has been the imperative this preseason. And it’s not a stretch to hint that the Hawks might have one of the best units in the state this season. Gaziano and Nick Colantuoni present a serious pass rush threat from the ends, while Kaminski, Noah Sorrento and Kenny Kerns will feature at the linebacker spots. Of course, the Hawks have to find a replacement for the departed Mo Hurst, now a freshman at Michigan. Well, you can’t really replace a player like that can you? “We’ll have a cast of hundreds,” head coach Charlie Stevenson said, alluding to the pool of players his staff is considering to fill the defensive tackle positions. On offense, there’s a quarterback battle that continues with senior Peter White and junior Jake Farrell vying for the job. Xaverian has depth at running back with Kaminski and Sorrento providing able options. But the Hawks are auditioning a several new starters along the offensive line. The early returns have been positive. “Our offensive line has been great so far,” Gaziano said. “We have a lot of new guys stepping up on the line with Joe Parsons, Ryan Mellen and Jeff Perez. I expect them to do a great job up front and help the run game and be a big, physical presence.”

Fresh look, promising outlook for No. 14 Walpole

August, 26, 2013
When it comes to postseason the last few years, it seems, Walpole just can't seem to catch a break.

Two years ago, the Rebels beat rival Natick on a last-second field goal to clinch the Bay State Herget and a postseason berth in Division 2A, only to get throttled by Dennis-Yarmouth in the playoffs. Last year, the Rebels finished 10-1 with a share of the Herget, only to sit at home with no playoffs after Thanksgiving by virtue of a dramatic loss to co-champ Natick.

Looking at the alignments for the new MIAA State Championship, the Rebels might have gotten a good break. They sit in a Division 3 Southwest that is without question weaker than D2 South, which includes Bay State rivals Natick, Needham, Wellesley and Braintree. A total of six D2 South squads are ranked in ESPN Boston's statewide Preseason Top 25 poll -- more than any other bracket in the state -- while just one other D3 Southwest contender, No. 24 Bishop Feehan, is represented.

Perhaps the Rebels have finally gotten a much-needed break after alternating the Bay State Herget's lone playoff berth with Natick for each of the last 10 seasons. But Rebels head coach Barry Greener has a decidedly large amount of experience to replace, and there are more immediate tasks at hand.

"I do think D2 is a meat grinder. As I look at the list, D2 is very talented, but D3 is extremely competitive," Greener said. "I think the biggest thing with a young team ... last year’s team was totally different. This team, they have to take it one day at a time, they've gotta get better every day, that’s all we’re focusing on."

The Rebels are looking to replace 17 starters from last season's 10-1 squad, including 10 on the defensive side of the ball. But this is typically a program that excels at developing sub-varsity players to make immediate impacts with the big boys, and Greener is confident in the fresh faces abound.

"I think we have, in spots, in a lot of areas we have pretty decent team speed," Greener said. "There's certainly a willingness to get better. We have a lot of kids that watched a great group of seniors that played for us last year. They had talent, they were just playing behind these kids [last year's seniors] and they were good ones. But now they know it’s their turn, and they're doing a pretty good job trying to take advantage of that."

For the few returning starters, expect even bigger campaigns. Connor Moriarty was one of the brightest second-half stars across Eastern Mass., assuming a majority of the offensive workload as injuries piled up. As the best overall player on both sides of the ball, and as a safety the program's only returning defensive starter, he'll be called upon for an even bigger load this season.

Offensively, Walpole will stick with its spread look from a year ago, with quarterback Will Bolster working with a deep stable of five to six receivers. With three returning starters in the trenches, expect great emphasis once again on the running game, with Moriarty as the feature back. His repertoire fits well with Walpole's running scheme, a mixture of inside and outside zones along with counters. Two sophomores, Steve Cuqua and Lovenchi Salvant, will provide depth in the backfield.

"He’s very quick strong explodes when hits hole, and so do the other two guys [Cuqua and Salvant]," Greener said. "Overall, Connor arguably could be our main gun. He’s great north to south, great subtle moves, but he's an attack-type runner. He runs quick and hard, not real big but he's really well put together."

Defensively, the Rebels have been in an odd front the last few seasons, mostly going with a 3-4 look but sometimes applying a 3-3 stack against the increasing amount of spread teams they face in the Bay State. There's enough spread looks in the conference now that the Rebels are switching to a 4-2-5 to combat the look, but also optimize the talents at defensive line.

Aidan Moore gives the Rebels a home run threat on the interior, with his combination of size and lacrosse-bred athleticism, while Nick Cordopatri and Chris Bender are threats off the edge. One of the more intriguing prospects is Noah Kung, a 6-foot, 215-pound nose guard with a sharp wrestling background who excels at hand-to-hand combat. Kung is potentially looking at The Citadel for college.

"He’s very hard to block, uses his hand well, sheds, swipes," Greener said. "We've used some hand-to-hand combat, martial arts stuff that the colleges have been using, and he's good at that. He reads pressure well, so he fights combo blocks well. In our scheme if we get combo blocked, we try to tie up both blockers without giving up ground, which frees up the linebackers, prevent their blockers from getting to [the second level] and he’s great at that. He's a great pressure guy, he gets the high-hat, kick=step, and gets off into his moves. He's very quick."

Coach: Barry Greener (5th year, 39-7 overall)
Last season: 10-1
Returning starters: Five (four offense, one defense)
Key returnees: Connor Moriarty, Sr. RB/S; Will Bolster, Sr. QB; Noah Kung, Sr. C/NG; Matt Ordway, Jr. OG; Nick Cordopatri, Sr. OT/DL
Strengths: Offensive and defensive lines
Weaknesses: Inexperience
Outlook: The Rebels must replace a loaded senior class from last fall’s 10-1 campaign, but Greener appears pretty confident in the fresh faces coming up in the program. It may take some time to get up to speed, but this is one of the deeper programs south of Boston when it comes to developing varsity-ready underclassmen. The biggest change will be the on the defensive side of the ball, where the Rebels are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5 look similar to one popularized by Gary Patterson at TCU. The switch was made to better fit the looks they’ll see in the increasingly spread-oriented Bay State Conference, as well as optimize the depth of their talented defensive line, led by Kung and Cordopatri. Moriarty is the Rebels’ best overall player on both sides of the ball; and with the spread-oriented Rebels returning three starters on the offensive line, they will continue to pound the ball. Moriarty is a terrific fit for Greener’s zone scheme, a one-cut, north-south runner who accelerates quickly through holes. Keep an eye on two sophomores, Steve Cuqua and Lovenchi Salvant, to boost the running game as well.