Starting each Friday during the season, we will discuss the hot-button issues of the moment from around the state with some of the most knowledgeable local writers. This week, we are joined by correspondent Bruce Lerch, New England Prep Stars founder Ryan Kilian, HockomockSports.com founder Ryan Lanigan, and Brockton Enterprise staff writer John Botelho as we discuss two lacrosse juggernauts, the baseball landscape, and whether or not Hockomock softball is King Philip's to lose.
1. WILL ANYONE BEAT DUXBURY IN BOYS' LACROSSE THIS SEASON?
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor Scott Barboza: Well, maybe the better question here is whether anybody in-state can beat the Dragons. Duxbury’s schedule is stacked with out-of-state challenges, including New York state champion and fellow FAB 50 squad Jamesville-Dewitt.
As for Duxbury’s competition in-state, I think we look no further than No. 2 Lincoln-Sudbury. The Warriors paid their dues with a lot of underclassmen forced into big roles last season; they’ll be that much stronger for it this year and into the postseason. Plus, I feel they’re the one team that can really match fire with the Dragons. With Dan Delaney, Jordan Dow, Matt Hall, Chris Giorgio and Henry Guild, L-S has offensive mettle and depth.
I think beyond that, there are some questions about each of the next group of teams in D1, looking ahead to potential postseason opponents. Can Needham get to that next level and how much can Nico Panepinto fill the shoes of Will Stenberg? How does Billerica move on from Grant Whiteway? There are a lot of holes in the lineup of St. John’s Prep as well, but John Roy always keeps that team in contention. So the greater question remains, who’s going to be the team to step up and challenge Duxbury for the D1 crown? As of right now, that team looks to be L-S.
Ryan Kilian, New England Prep Stars: Duxbury always plays a loaded schedule with talented New York powers in Niskayuna, Garden City, Jamesvill-Dewitt, and Irondequoit highlighting the 2012 schedule. Playing that type of talent is amazing preparation for the MIAA state tournament and another D1 State Title run.
There is no question that this may be Duxbury's most talented team in recent years and it is going to take an A-plus game from any Massachusetts team to come close to knocking them off. That being said Duxbury has a run of three games in one week at the end of April that consists of Lincoln-Sudbury, Needham and Hingham. They should be playing their best ball at that time and will need to be as they also face off against a strong Wellesley team, led by All-American goalie Connor Darcey, and New Hampshire's top team in Bishop Guertin in early May. There is no question that Duxbury will take on anyone and everyone year in and year out.
Duxbury has talent and depth at every position and the hype is warranted as they come off another State Championship in 2011 with a lineup of D1 talent that flows into their bench returning. Senior attack and Fairfield commit Paul Hellar could be the best player in Massachusetts that people do not talk enough about and the same can be said for defenseman Max Randall, who is headed to Dartmouth next year.
Bruce Lerch, correspondent: If so, it will likely be a team from New York as Jamesville-Dewitt and Garden City represent the biggest obstacles to a perfect season for the Dragons. That said, given the schedule the play, don't surprised to see someone like Lincoln-Sudbury or Wellesley give them a hard time. Catholic Conference teams St. John's Prep and BC High always play the Dragons tough as well.
John Botelho, Brockton Enterprise: The Dragons play as tough a schedule as anyone in the state, featuring several other elite Bay State teams as well as Irondequoit (Rochester, NY) who checks in this week at No. 18 on the ESPN FAB 50. Even with one test after another coming and a bull's eye already on their back as the reigning state champ, Duxbury is good enough to run the table this year.
Even the best efforts from other teams might not be enough to knock off Chris Sweet's squad this year, and that's not slight to anyone else. One could reasonably argue this Duxbury team could roll with some pretty good college teams. Anyone doubting that should take a look at where this team's stars will be next year. Eight seniors from this team are taking their talents to division one programs next year.
Not just any division one programs, either. Jay McDermott (Syracuse), Seamus Connelly (Duke), Matt O'Keefe (Johns Hopkins) and James Burke (Penn State) are all committed to schools currently ranked in the Nike/Inside Lacrosse Top 20 poll. Reilly Naton (Yale) and Max Randall (Dartmouth) are headed for the Ivy League. Henry Buonagurio will take his goal-tending ability to Drexel, who was ranked as high as No. 7 in 2010. Andrew Buron (Stony Brook) will play for a team that was in the NCAA tourney two years ago. Six other seniors on this year's team will be playing college lacrosse also, next season.
Before those guys move on to some of college's elite programs, they can put an exclamation point on what has already been an impressive high school career (in addition to their lax success, all eight played on the Dragons' Super Bowl teams the last two years) by going undefeated wire-to-wire and finishing as the best team in the Bay State again.
2. WITH LINCOLN-SUDBURY BEATING WESTWOOD ON MONDAY, HOW DOES THE DIVISION 1 GIRLS' LACROSSE LANDSCAPE SHAPE UP?
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor Brendan Hall: Whatever thoughts people had about some potential goaltending issues at Lincoln-Sudbury might have been convinced otherwise following Monday’s thrilling win over Westwood. Yes, I know it sounds strange saying a team played well defensively when they gave up 12 goals; but there is some very good talent playing in front of sophomore goalie Megan Mullins, led by Notre Dame-bound midfielder Rachel Sexton. And it goes without saying, if Mullins continues to repeat performances like she had against the Wolverines, the Warriors are going to be a tough out for anyone in the state.
Overall, I think the L-S win underscores the parity across the Division 1 landscape this year. It won’t be Westwood and everyone else in 2012, not with two loaded juggernauts (Andover, Lincoln-Sudbury) in the North; and not with Needham and Notre Dame of Hingham (coached by Westwood coach Leslie Frank’s daughter, Meredith) awaiting in the South. All four of those programs return some promising talent that I feel is on par with the Wolverines, moreso in the years past.
Also not to be forgotten is Western Mass power Longmeadow, which comes in at No. 3 in our preseason poll and is expected to take that district again; and Westborough, which thoroughly has a program under way now after some marquee wins over Eastern Mass powers in 2011.
Bruce Lerch: That was a program-defining victory for Lincoln-Sudbury and certainly shakes the foundation of the girls lacrosse season here in the early going. When all is said and done though, I just feel that Westwood is simply too talented and too well-coached to be denied in the end. And it's the end that matters most.
3. THE CATHOLIC CONFERENCE IS THE TOUGHEST BASEBALL LEAGUE IN THE STATE. WHAT'S THE NEXT TOUGHEST?
Brendan Hall: There’s certainly a case to be made this year for the Merrimack Valley Conference, which is loaded at the top between Lowell, Chelmsford and Central Catholic. I think any time you have multiple ACC commits in one conference, such as the Bay State Conference, a case can be made. Same for Middlesex, thought between Lexington and Reading it might be more top-heavy than the rest.
All that said, I think the Dual County League bests them all. Take a look at Acton-Boxborough, which plated 11 runs on BC High in a loss Wednesday and took Lowell into extra innings two days before that. Boston Latin is expected to make a run this year, with a deep stable of quality arms. The sleeper of the bunch might be Newton South, behind UMass-bound first baseman John Jennings.
And then there’s Lincoln-Sudbury, which has won 11 straight league titles and two of the last five Division 1 state titles. Every year the Warriors graduate Division 1 talent – last year, that included Vanderbilt righty and Yankees draft pick Adam Ravenelle – yet they always find a way to win 15 games thanks to a deep core of varsity-ready talent.
When it comes to draft-ready prospects in Massachusetts since the turn of the centuary the prep schools and the Catholic Conference have put out a good amount of picks. But take a look at the talent the DCL has turned out, including Wayland’s Brandon Anderson (2003, Rockies), A-B’s Scott Weismann (2008, Detroit Tigers) and Ravenelle. For purposes of this discussion, we can include Newton South’s Travis Dean, who transferred to Worcester Academy but returned to South in the spring of 2010 and did not play for the Tigers, but was taken by the Yankees in the 30th round.
Bruce Lerch: Look no further than the Dual County League, with reigning state champion and perennial power Lincoln-Sudbury leading the way. Acton-Boxboro reached the Div. 1 North final last year and is expected to be this season's favorite, while Boston Latin seems to be on the rise and Newton South has the talent to sneak up on some teams.
John Botelho: In the South Sectional anyway, the answer to this question -- for any sport -- has seemed to come from one league throughout the school year: The Hockomock League. Franklin's impressive run all the way to D1 South championship last year came on the heels of being tested by one good team after another in the Hock, and this season will be no different.
It's not hard to find high school aces in this league (Oliver Ames’ Ryan O'Shea, Franklin’s Tyler Buck, Mansfield’s Adam Blake, and North Attleborough’s Troy Richardson, to name a few), but the depth of this league goes a lot deeper than that. Half the teams in the league made the postseason a year ago, and two of them advanced to at least the South Sectional semis in either Division 1 or Division 2. In fact, the Hockomock League has had at least one team reach the South Sectional semi-finals every year since 2007.
This year should be no different, as Franklin returns a good core of guys from last year's title run. Even if the Panthers can recreate the magic, no one should be surprised if Oliver Ames is the last team standing at the end of the Div. 2 South Sectional. In addition to O'Shea -- a Central Michigan commit and ESPN Pre-Season All-State selection, the Tigers are swimming in talent. Junior captain and shortstop David MacKinnon might be the best player on the team, and could have more helium toward college interest than any junior in the league this season. Matt Harding is already a two-year starter at catcher, and the team's clean-up hitter. David Holmes gives Leo Duggan another horse on the mound. He'd be the ace of most area teams.
4. WHICH BASEBALL TEAM(S) WILL BE THE BIGGEST SURPRISE?
Brendan Hall: Out in Central Mass, it seems like the Division 1 favorites outside of Milford and St. John’s (Shrewsbury) will rotate quite a bit. Right now the sleeper might be Burncoat, after knocking off No. 19 St. Peter-Marian 7-1 last week and currently sitting at 3-0 following a rout of Worcester Tech today. But to the experts, the Patriots aren’t a surprise, considering the talent in the infield led by Rhode Island signee Regan Aghdam. Same goes for Nashoba, whose ace Charlie Butler has signed with Maine and tossed a no-no in his first start of the year.
I know we have Barnstable currently ranked, but of all the contenders in Division 1 South they are the one nobody’s talking about. My case for the Red Raiders falls unto the right arm of their UConn-bound senior ace Willie Nastasi. He’s got a wiry frame at 6-foot-5, and a pretty loose arm, but you’re looking at a pitcher who’s long and can build some lean, fast-twitch muscles. I know he reached the high-80’s last summer; my prediction is he’ll touch 90 once it gets warm down in Hyannis.
I’m not sure how much of a sleeper this will end up being, but Pentucket is certainly a team to look for in Division 2 North. They’ve got one of the more intriguing pitching prospects in Alex Ministeri, a crafty lefthander who’s signed with Coastal Carolina – as true a power in college baseball as you’ll find. His numbers don’t jump off the page like some other higher-profile players (46 IP, 53 K, 3-4, 2.89 ERA); but with a mid-80’s fastball with plenty of movement and a projectable 6-foot-3 frame, the ceiling is high for him.
Bruce Lerch: I'm going to drop down to Division 4 and give Rockport a little love. Just surviving the Cape Ann League and getting into the tournament guarantees they will be battle-tested. Last year it was Georgetown who made a run to the state final. This year, I'm looking at the Vikings with the talented trio of Conor Douglass, Tucker Meredith and Mike Tupper.
John Botelho: The East Bridgewater Vikings are going to cause fits for opponents all season. After returning all but one starter from last year's team -- which knocked off eventual division 4 state champ Cohasset late in the season, and led late over South Sectional top seed Middleboro – this team is primed to break out.
Having one of the best players anywhere in the state in the form of Casey DeAndrade helps. Teams have to pick their poison with him. Pitch to him, he hurts you with his bat (he hit better than .600 last season, homered on his first swing of this one against Carver last week). Pitch around him, he hurts you with his legs (he swiped 24 bases a season ago). He's also Pat Cronin's staff ace, and has an entire season in that role under his belt already. As good as DeAndrade was on the gridiron -- where he was a standout and ESPN Boston All-State selection, with more than 10 yards per carry and had 24 touchdowns -– Casey’s probably a better baseball player.
What's worse for opponents is DeAndrade and partner in crime Tim O'Brien (they combined one more than 100 TDs during a three year run as the starting EB backfield) are playing with a chip on their shoulder. To cement their place in East Bridgewater history, both have made it clear they need to check winning a South Shore League crown off their bucket list. O'Brien hit nearly .400 last season and swiped 20 bases himself. The ultra-athleticism can be found throughout the rest of the roster, and the team scores runs in bunches because of their ability to put pressure on. Fellow speedster Andrew Benson teams with DeAndrade and O'Brien to form, perhaps, the fastest outfield in the state. Cronin preaches strong defense, and guys like Jimmy Sullivan and Ethan Forrest give him that up the middle, and third year starter, junior Austin Goldberg supplies rock solid defense behind the plate.
A year ago, the Vikings spent the entire season figuring out the identity of their pitching staff. Fast forward one year and they return all of their varsity innings. Sophomore Mike Kelly seems impervious to pressure, and made his varsity debut when he picked up the win in relief against Cohasset last year. Kelly took the ball in game one against Carver and didn't disappoint, going five innings and striking out seven while allowing just one flair single. Forrest, who missed most of his sophomore season with an ankle injury, gives the Vikings a very talented third option, and Brett DeBenedictis flashed an electric arm at times on the mound this year.
If this team has a weakness, it's not an obvious one and they will contend for both the SSL crown, as well as the Division 3 South Sectional title this season.
Ryan Lanigan, HockomockSports.com: The surprise team to watch in baseball is Oliver Ames. They finished 15-5 last season but were bounced in the first round to Milton. The Tigers feature Central Michigan University-commit Ryan O’Shea on the found and fellow captain Jim Sullivan. I expect a much deeper tournament run this year with a chance to be a serious contender for the D2 South Crown. Two other teams to look out for are Franklin, who won the South last year but I expect a better regular season this time around, and Stoughton, who could play spoiler to a lot of teams.
5. WITH NORTH ATTLEBOROUGH BEATING MANSFIELD 6-0 ON TUESDAY IN SOFTBALL, IS THE HOCKOMOCK STILL KING PHILIP'S TO LOSE?
Scott Barboza: Make no bones about it, King Philip is still the favorite in the Hock and to win the D1 state title, but it might be the best softball conference in the state, top to bottom. The Warriors are in the driver’s seat because of Meghan Rico, but she’s not the only true ace the league has to offer. Mansfield’s Trish Hansen was also an ESPN Boston preseason All-State teamer and, evidenced by North Attleborough’s win over the Hornets, the breakout performer of the year could be Red Rocketeers sophomore hurler Meg Colleran who’s coming off an impressive freshman season.
Speaking to the depth of the league, there are plenty of teams across the state who would love to have Oliver Ames ace Elizabeth Batsinelas in the circle and the Tigers might have their most loaded team in recent memory, according to former head coach Bob Huckabee who’s now at Apponequet. Franklin also looks to be much improved after hanging with KP in a scoreless gat me through six innings before falling 4-0 in the season opener for both teams.
That being said, the league still runs through the Warriors.
Just shudder to think how good the league will be next year when the Hockomock welcomes perennial state softball powers Milford and Taunton to its ranks.
Ryan Lanigan: As usual, the Hockomock League is turning out another competitive season, this time in softball. With Mansfield, King Philip, North Attleboro, Oliver Ames, and Franklin all looking to go deep into the post season, there will always be tough games.
Is the league up for grabs, though? Not quite. As long as Meg Rico is still pitching, the Warriors are the favorites. Rico is arguably the best hurler in the state and combined with Olivia Godin, Alyssa Seigman, and a slew of other top players, a chance at another state championship isn’t far-fetched. I still expect Mansfield to be the second best team in the league behind Briana Chiusano but as we’ve already seen this season, North Attleborough is looking to win it all. As it always is in the Hockomock, you can never downplay one game, as seen by Sharon and Stoughton who already have two wins.
Bruce Lerch: With standout ace Meg Rico on the mound and a potent lineup supporting her, the Hockomock League was, is and will be the Warriors to lose. As is the Div. 1 state championship.
John Botelho: Not only is the Hockomock still King Philip's to lose, but so is the division one state title. Led by 2011 ESPNBoston Ms. Softball Megan Rico, this team has won 42 straight and 50 of 51 en route to winning the last two D1 state crowns. In fact, the only player anywhere in the state who has dominated their sport the same way Rico has might be Andover's Nicole Boudreau in basketball. Herb Brooks famously said to his team "Vladisav Tretiak; if you score on him, keep the puck because it does not happen often."
The same could be said of getting a hit of Rico. That's not exaggeration for effect either -- last season she gave up 29 hits in 21 starts. Runs are even harder to come by, and the George Washington signee surrendered just seven last year while posting a 0.15 ERA. Anything short of KP's win streak reaching 68 with a third straight state championship will come as a surprise.