NEEDHAM -- Dave Duffy had a simple message for his Needham High football team at the first practice of the season.
Duffy belted out to his players that the target in the Bay State Conference was going to be squarely aimed at the Needham Rockets this season, and for good reason.
Needham is fresh off the arguably the most successful season in the history of the program after collecting its first playoff victory in the two-plus decades under Duffy. The Rockets came up short at Gillette Stadium, but with 33 seniors back on the team —- and Ryan Charter getting the nod as starting quarterback after a successful, and also somewhat surprising, sophomore season -— there is optimism in Needham that the forward momentum will keep on rolling this year.
“They want to do it for each other and they know what teamwork is all about,” Duffy said. “I think there is a big target on us and everybody wants to knock us off. We have to keep the fumbles down, the turnovers down and the penalties down and play tough football.”
The trip to last year’s 9-4 record and run to Gillette Stadium didn’t come without its bumps and bruises. Duffy watched starting quarterback Drew Burnett go down with a season-ending injury mid-way through the season against Milton, and several other skill position players got bit the by the injury bug along the way.
Charter came in and kept the offense potent, and this year he will be asked to take on a bigger role as leader of the team.
“He’s got to be the leader of the offense,” said Duffy. “Last year he had great help and this year we’ve got leadership all over. He’s got to manage the offense and manage the football and not get worried if something happens. He’ll be fine. He did it last year and he’s been working hard all summer.”
Charter went 4-3 as a starter last year and had one of his best games of the season in the Rockets playoff victory over New Bedford, when he threw for 183 yards and accounted for three touchdowns.
With a little seasoning from last year, Charter is looking to improve and take what he learned onto the field entering his junior season.
“A lot of my game is built on confidence,” said Charter. “When you make a mistake you can only make up for it with the next play. You need to forget the past and move on to the next play to eliminate any bad thoughts in your head and now let that one mistake affect the rest of the game.”
The Rockets certainly have some holes to fill on the offensive side of the ball, but stability at the quarterback position seems to be something Duffy and company don’t have to worry about, and Charter said he is chomping at the bit to get another taste of the Gillette Stadium experience.
“There was no achievement in just getting there,” said Charter. “We wanted to win that game and I still feel like we could have won that game too. We have a lot to prove this year after losing a couple of great seniors and I’m excited.”
NEEDHAM AT A GLANCE
2011: 9-4 (8-2 in Bay State Carey) Lost in Div. 1 Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium
Coach: Dave Duffy (25th season)
Key Returnees: Ryan Charter, Jr., QB, 6-2, 175lb; Dan Sheehan, Sr., RB/LB, 6-0, 195lbs; Mitch Hildreath, Sr., OT/DE, 6-2, 225lbs; Nico Panepinto, Sr., WR/DB, 5-1, 175lbs; Tim McCarthy, Sr., TE/DE, 6-0, 195lbs; Ned Connolly, Sr., OG/DL, 5-10, 175lbs; Mike Panepinto, Jr, RB/DB 5-10, 165lbs; Jake Murphy, Sr., RB/DB, 5-7, 165lbs.
Strengths: Senior leadership, Quarterback play.
Outlook: The Rockets survived injury after injury last season and didn’t seem to miss a beat as they made it all the way to within a game of their ultimate goal. The depth that ultimately saved their season last year might not be there this year, and losing a key guy — like a Ryan Charter or any other offensive weapon — might come back to haunt the Rockets this year. Charter won’t have safety valve tight end Mark Riley or Mike Vespa out of the backfield this year, but look for Nico Panepinto to be the speedy, deep threat receiver for the Rockets. Jake Murphy, Mike Panepinto and Robby Pisano are all backs who will benefit greatly from former Belmont Hill head coach Kevin Flemming, as he works full-time with the running backs this year. Mitch Hildreath is the only starter back on the offensive line and Duffy will need to get a solid wall to let Charter in the offense do what they do best offensively.