PEABODY -- The Reading Rockets are heading back to Gillette Stadium for the first time since 2010 -- albeit in a different context.
Propelled by steady play all afternoon from junior quarterback Drew Belcher, the Rockets won the East Regional of the Under Armour Northeast 7-on-7 Tournament this afternoon on the turf at Bishop Fenwick High School, beating St. John's Prep, 13-6, to secure themselves one of 10 spots in Wednesday's New England Championship at Gillette Stadium.
This will be the first trip to Gillette for Reading's football program since December of 2010, when the Rockets coughed up a three-score halftime lead to Mansfield in the Division 2 Eastern Mass. Super Bowl. The Rockets figure to be a favorite in Division 2 this season; but due to the inclusion of Central and Western Mass. squads to the six-game Gillette Super Bowl slate, the D2 Super Bowl will be played at another venue.
"It's awesome," Belcher said of winning the tournament. "There's a bunch of great teams out here, and it's really cool to win this thing. It's a big deal to us, because we've been out here all day, so it's good to win."
To win out, the Rockets had to outlast a competitive field full of surprises. After going 2-1 in pool play, they knocked off Northeast Regional champ Methuen, followed by Bedford -- which beat Reading in pool play -- to get to the final four on the Fenwick field turf. There, they had to knock off another surprise team, Manchester-Essex, to face Prep in the finals.
"We lost to Bedford at the beginning, but we got back at them," Belcher said. "That's my uncle [Bedford head coach Jack Belcher], so that was good to get back at them. And St. John's is obviously a great team, so that's a good accomplishment."
In the finals, the Rockets had to overcome a shaky start to pull this out. They went three-and-out on their first drive, then on their second drive, down 6-0, Belcher was picked off at the goal line.
They responded with a pick of their own on the Eagles' ensuing drive. Safety Chris Godwin broke for the right sideline, jumped the receiver's route, and snagged the ball as he tip-toed the sideline. The Rockets went to work quickly, with Belcher nailing a 15-yard strike to put the ball at the half-yard line. From there, Belcher hit Connor Sheehan in the shallow end zone, on a post, then converted the point-after pass for a 7-6 lead.
"That was huge," Belcher said of Godwin's pick. "We needed a big play, and he came up and made it."
The Rockets gave themselves some cushion on the next offensive series, with Belcher hitting his favorite target Ryan Maney on an underneath route through the shallow end zone for a 13-6 lead.
"He gave me a perfect ball," Maney said. "He's the hero today."
First class air: At 6-foot-4 and a sturdy 200 pounds, few at this level of competiton will question Belcher's ability as a runner. A majority of the Rockets' plays last season came out of two-back, shotgun sets, with Belcher calling his own number on options.
As the season went on, Belcher drew his continued praise from his head coach, John Fiore, for the advancements he'd made in the mental aspect of quarterbacking. With a focus on the physical aspect this off-season, Belcher looked polished this afternoon, and is one of the biggest reasons the Rockets are an early favorite to win their fifth consecutive Middlesex League title.
"I've done a lot of footwork stuff, which I need to polish off," Belcher said. "I'm working to make my arm stronger, and then I feel like I'm reading defenses a lot clearer."
Today, that mental aspect came into handy as well.
"I'm diagnosing what kind of defense they're in, and just seeing where the open spots were from there," he said.
The other big reason for the Reading hype? Depth at the receiver positions.
"It's crazy, we're returning every one of our wide receivers," Maney said. "So we've had time this year to get better. This year and last year, we were strong. One more year of maturity, and this is what happens."