Brendan Hall/ESPNBoston.comKenny Calaj is expected to take over tailback duties this fall for Everett, which hasn't lost a game since 2009.It's the weekend before the Fourth of July, so we're doing our patriotic duty bringing you the first look at our predictions for the upcoming football season in our latest Roundtable discussion.
ESPN Boston High School co-editors Brendan Hall and Scott Barboza and correspondent Adam Kurkjian have provided a preseason Top 10, five players to watch, storylines and five surprise teams for the 2012 season:
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
PRESEASON TOP 10
1. Everett – I have some headlight fluid I’d like to sell to the folks evangelizing this myth that the Crimson Tide somehow have question marks coming back on offense.
2. BC High – A nasty defense led by man-child Luke Catarius is why Eagles are everyone’s early favorite to win their third Division 1 title in five seasons.
3. Xaverian –The 500-pound backfield of Maurice Hurst Jr. and Hunter Taute might be the state’s most punishing power-running tandem.
4. Leominster – They’ve been talking about the Blue Devils’ 2014 class since they beat Everett, Brockton and St. John’s of Shrewsbury in succession in freshman ball. Time to saddle up.
5. St. John’s Prep – Jonathan Thomas is one of the best individual offensive talents in the state, but Eagles need to show more consistency than their 2011 product.
6. Barnstable – Red Raiders are loaded at the skill positions, and have one of the state’s best linebacking corps led by Andrew Ellis and Ryan Litchman.
7. Longmeadow – Alex Rotsko is leaving the cupboard full, with a loaded senior class led by two of the finest linemen outside I-495, Lou Calabrese and Rob McClure.
8. Duxbury – Let’s put it this way. Rumors of Dragons’ demise, following one of their greatest seasons in school history, have been greatly exaggerated.
9. Mansfield – When in doubt, make the Hornets your favorite in the Hockomock.
10. Natick – It’s very possible that quarterback Troy Flutie will lead the state in total offense.
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Brian Dunlap, Soph. WR, Natick – In his first varsity action in Week 1 of 2011, his 15th birthday, he caught over 220 yards. There hasn’t been a wideout with this combination of IQ and physical maturity at such a young age in a while.
Jalen Felix, Sr. WR, Everett – Tide legend Manny Asprilla is the first name that comes to mind when you watch this guy in the open field.
Sha’ki Holines, Sr. LB/TE, Springfield Commerce – UMass-bound star is probably the least talked about prospect of all the Bay Staters currently committed to Division 1 FBS schools. Hits like a brick, commits to the second level in run blocking, and has a diligent motor.
Nick Peabody, Sr. QB, Barnstable – Has the size and tools of a Division 1 quarterback, and has that calm under pressure that last fall led the Raiders to their first playoff appearance in a decade.
Quron Wright, Sr. RB, Holy Name – Lilliputian scatback will likely surpass current Philadelphia Eagles fullback Emil Igwenagu this fall as the school’s all-time leading rusher.
Storylines to Watch
Cape Cod Crusade
An unprecedented four teams from the Cape & Islands region won Super Bowl titles last fall. That number, combined with the sudden recruitment of UConn-bound Nauset star Brendan Battles, shed light on what the insiders already know: Cape talent is thoroughly on the rise. Past the cottages and picturesque seashores, this is a tough place to live year-round, and it reflects in the teams’ pound-for-pound toughness on the field.
Logjam in the Hock
With the Hockomock officially expanding from 10 to 12 teams this season, the Kelly-Rex (or Large) division looks like this: Mansfield, North Attleborough, King Philip, Franklin, Attleboro and newcomer Taunton. The former three will generally be perceived as the favorites, however this is a wide-open league. There isn’t a team with a slim chance to take the division here. Watch how this race unfolds, then try telling yourself we need to protect the sanctity of this “Super Bowl” system.
Springfield on the Rise
Putnam’s Melquawn Pinkney and Springfield Central’s Sacoy Malone put Springfield football on the map last season, with each rushing for over 2,000 yards and the former breaking Cedric Washington’s sacred single-season state record for yards and touchdowns. Long-time Western Mass juggernaut Longmeadow is facing an uncertain future after the departure of its legendary head coach; meanwhile, Valdamar Brower and Tyrone Mathis are building powerhouse programs at Central and Commerce, respectively, and Putnam is bringing some talented young players up the ranks. The future is now in the City of Firsts.
Save The OCL
Over the last decade, no league has been raided more than the Old Colony League, a sobering thought considering its rich history. With Taunton departing, the OCL will operate as a three-team league in Division 1A this fall. Mergers with the Big Three or Atlantic Coast League have been entertained, but put off. And with the Bay State Conference seeking applications for potentially up to three new members, there is the temptation for a school like Bridgewater-Raynham to apply. Can the OCL be saved, or will it be divided and conquered?
New Blood Rising at QB
After three years of Jonathan DiBiaso, Nick LaSpada and A.J. Doyle, a new batch of quarterbacks is set to make waves across the state. Keep an eye on Nick Peabody (Barnstable), Brendan Craven (BC High), Justin Mount (Westford), Garrett DelleChiaie (Leominster), Troy Flutie (Natick), Drew Belcher (Reading), John Dillon (King Philip), Ryan Charter (Needham) and Austin DeCarr (Xaverian).
5 Teams That Will Surprise
Taunton – The Tigers turned some heads at the MHSFCA combine last month, when they rolled out a baker’s dozen and every one of them had double-digit reps on the bench press. Is something brewing after a 1-9 campaign in 2011?
Dartmouth – You don’t schedule Catholic Conference schools unless you have something in the tank, and the Indians’ junior class is reportedly pretty good.
Dennis-Yarmouth – How do you follow up the greatest season in school history? You don’t, but the Dolphins have some green gems coming up through the ranks. Not to mention, another branch of the Montalto family tree within that.
Abington – Preseason talk in the South Shore League will probably be dominated by East Bridgewater and Mashpee again, but the Green Wave should make a splash behind running back Babila Fonkem.
Pembroke – Titans graduate a lot of talent from the 2012 class, but if there’s one thing we know, it’s that Bob Bancroft has had a Midas touch wherever he’s gone.
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
Preseason Top 10
1. Everett – It might be an old convention, but it’s true. The Crimson Tide will remain in the top spot until they next lose a game. We’re not saying they’ll run the table again, but anything short of another Super Bowl title is a disappointment, particularly with the road-graders they have on the line.
2. Xaverian –Either way you slice it, we could make the Hawks and BC High 2 (a) and 2 (b). We’re giving Xaverian the slight edge for now because I like the matchup in the trenches.
3. BC High – The Eagles are starting from square one when it comes to the running game, but we’ll see if Mr. Football award candidate Luke Catarius will get more opportunity to shoulder the load. Or, he’ll simple continue blowing the opposing team’s backfield from his linebacker position.
4. Leominster – Showed they’re for real with a huge win at Gillette Stadium in last year’s Super Bowl. And they’re going nowhere.
5. Barnstable – Red Raiders only scratched the surface of their potential last season. The bar should be set that much higher next year.
6. St. John’s Prep – The Eagles were very young last year and took a ton of lumps for it. They’ll be that much better for it this season.
7. Longmeadow – Even without Alex Rotsko , do we really think much will change with the Lancers?
8. Duxbury – The Dragons have had some exceptional athletes in the last couple of years, but they still have some horses in the stable on the line and in the backfield.
9. King Philip – John Dillon is the type of quarterback who doesn’t cost his team games. That, along with the defense, is why the Warriors will keep winning.
10. St.John’s (Shrewsbury) – Will the Pioneers have enough to unseat Leominster? Maybe not, but an experienced returning roster will keep them in the running in Central Mass.
5 Players to Watch
Andrew Ellis, Sr. LB, Barnstable – A lot will be made of the Red Raiders’ offense this season, but Ellis led a stout defense that was superb in the second half last season.
Alex Jette, Sr. RB/DB, North Attleborough – With a strong group of Hockomock running backs moving on in recent years, the time is ripe for the 6-foot, 170-pound back to take over the league rushing title.
Lucas Bavaro, Sr. S/TE, St. John’s Prep – Be prepared for another year of highlight hits from the playmaker.
Dan Noviello, Sr. TE/DE, Bridgewater-Raynham – He’ll be the key to the Trojans’ blocking scheme and their black and blue presence on defense.
Jon Hurvitz, Sr. RB/DB, Duxbury – Seeing a lion’s share of the carries after Henry Buonagurio’s injury last season, Hurvitz is poised for a breakout season this year.
Storylines to Watch
The Year of the Big Man?
A lot of this year’s offseason recruiting news has centered around a good crop of linemen getting Division 1 college attention. Xaverian’s Mo Hurst Jr., Everett’s John Montelus, BC High’s Jack McDonald, Millis-Hopedale’s Jon Baker have all committed or fielded offers in the last few months.
Sea change in Tri-Valley League?
Will someone finally be able to knock Holliston off its pedestal? (Looking at you Hopkinton and Westwood.) And might the little Millis-Hopedale collaborative that could be the strongest team in either division?
How does Auburn bounce back?
Shepherd Hill’s upset of the Rockets was one of the most memorable moments of 2011. Does Auburn have enough to get back to the top of the SWCL standings?
Can Needham repeat Bay State Carey success?
Will Ryan Charter’s first full season under center get the Rockets back to the Super Bowl?
Is there any way New Bedford pulls out its third straight Big Three title?
Dennis Golden has put the program in the right direction. Do the Whalers have enough to find yet another way to get “past” Brockton?
5 Teams That Will Surprise
1. Sharon – Hey, how many people believed Brendan and I when we said to watch out for Oliver Ames in the Hockomock Davenport?
2. Arlington Catholic – The Cougars are going to be difficult to run or pass against with 6-footo-4 DL John Strezzo coming off the edge.
3. Wakefield – The Warriors were dealt a rude awakening by Dennis-Yarmouth in the Super Bowl, but return a solid core of players from last year’s Middlesex Small division championship team.
4. Dartmouth – Don’t want to steal Brendan’s thunder here, but the Indians are a darkhorse in the OCL race. For real.
5. Marshfield – Will the Rams reclaim their post atop the ACL this season? They just might.
Preseason Top 10
1. Everett – Too much speed, and maybe the program’s best offensive line ever.
2. BC High – Joe Gaff takes over and keeps the machine humming.
3. St. John’s Prep – No one in Division 1 returns more experience.
4. Xaverian – If the defense improves, the Hawks could finish a few spots higher.
5. Leominster – Will have the state’s best group of juniors.
6. Longmeadow – One of the state’s best offensive lines and a stable of good backs.
7. Bridgewater-Raynham – Trojans will be stacked on both lines.
8. King Philip – Experienced lineup and one of the best defenses in the state.
9. St. John’s (Shrewsbury) – Plenty of young talent got experience a year ago.
10. Duxbury – Dragons reload with superb defensive line and running game.
Five Players to Watch
Luke Catarius, BC High, LB/FB, Sr. – Tackling machine the heart and soul of the BC High defense.
Maurice Hurst, Xaverian, DT/RB, Sr. – People his size (6-2, 285) shouldn’t move that quick.
John Montelus, Everett, OL, Sr. – Everything you are looking for in a high school offensive lineman and college prospect.
Jarod Taylor, Mashpee, RB, Sr. – Supremely gifted back with size, speed, power and instincts.
Jon Thomas, St. John’s Prep, RB, Jr. – Will put up monster numbers and may even play a little defense this year, too.
Storylines to Watch
The new football playoff proposal, and whether or not it passes
This has huge ramifications for the sport and its future across the state. The current system is as bad as it gets yet there are plenty in the community who feel this plan still has too many flaws.
How will Everett replace all-time state passing leader Jonathan DiBiaso?
At this point, it is looking like the Crimson Tide will turn to rising sophomore Lukas Denis. A talented dual-threat signal-caller, Denis will get thrown into the fire immediately with a trip to Leominster.
Can the Boxers get off the canvas?
Brockton suffered its first losing season since 2001 last year, was shut out four times and scored less than four points per game in the six losses. The Boxers face a murderous first four games in BC High, Reading, Xaverian and St. John’s Prep that will give an indication whether or not this traditional powerhouse has recovered from 2011.
Is Leominster ready to take the next step?
The Blue Devils have always been a Central Mass. power, but rarely beat Brockton and have never beaten Everett. Now, with a rising junior class expected to be one of the best in the state, second-year coach Dave Palazzi could boost this program up a notch in the season opener when the Crimson Tide come rolling into town with what should be the consensus No. 1 team in the state.
How will coaches Joe Gaff and Nick St. George handle the responsibilities of taking over for Jon Bartlett at BC High and Alex Rotsko at Longmeadow, respectively?
Gaff has been handed the keys to a Ferrari at BC High and St. George returns a loaded lineup from the top program in Western Mass. With such high expectations at each school, it will be interesting to see how the new men in charge handle the pressure.
Teams That Will Surprise
1. Haverhill – Running back Chance Brady will be the best in the Merrimack Valley Conference and this is an early favorite in the Small Division.
2. Stoughton – Maybe not a total shock to people paying attention last year, but the Black Knights return a ton and have an interesting non-league tussle with Bridgewater-Raynham.
3. Lowell – Despite the loss of all-everything quarterback R.J. Noel, the Red Raiders return a good nucleus and will be in the mix for the MVC Large crown.
4. Fairhaven – Former New Bedford quarterback Rudy Bulgar is building this South Coast Conference team into a contender and has some nice returning pieces to work with.
5. Westford Academy – If the defense can take a few steps forward, the Grey Ghosts will have the offense to match as they make a run at a Dual County Large title.