LEOMINSTER, Mass. -– Dave Palazzi has been a quarterback all his life, so by now he’s used to this kind of pressure.
In Leominster, the football coach doubles as a de facto ambassador of the city, to a level matched by only a few other communities in the Bay State. Palazzi knows this all too well from his days quarterbacking the Blue Devils, where he was part of their 1982 Super Bowl winning squad, and now he’s under the microscope again as head coach of the Blue Devils, two years removed now from replacing the legendary John Dubzinski.
Pressure is something he’s used to overcoming. He recalls his days quarterbacking UMass in the late 80’s, getting booed after throwing pairs of interceptions, but ended his career as the program’s all-time leader in total offense (since surpassed). He went 2-20 in his first two years as head coach at Millbury, only to endure Super Bowl-winning success throughout the 2000’s decade.
Last season, the Blue Devils started off 0-3 –- losing in succession to Everett, Hudson and then Milford –- before rolling off 10 straight wins en route to the program’s first Super Bowl title in a decade, beating rival St. John’s of Shrewsbury in the Division 1 Central title at Gillette Stadium.
The Leominster fan base was massive that afternoon in Foxborough, with some fans having to find seats in the 200 level, and is considered one of the largest crowds ever for a high school game at Gillette since the stadium began hosting Super Bowls in 2007. The 2011 season has re-ignited football fever in Leominster, and Palazzi is hoping the momentum carries over.
“Any time Leominster wins at anything, people get excited,” Palazzi said. “Last year was the first year, everyone wanted to wait and see what happened. The way we crescendo’d towards the end of the season got people fired up, got them talking about Leominster football. People that didn’t come to games could come this year, hopefully that excitement builds over to this year.”
Junior co-captain Neil O’Connor, a lifelong Leominster resident, says he’s noticed a change around town.
“I think a lot of people are excited, coming off of last year,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of things to get the community involved, and give them something to cheer for.”
Now comes the follow-up act. On offense, the Blue Devils must replace 80 receptions in Josh Caouette, Kyle Sanders and Kevin O’Connor, and 192 carries (with no fumbles) from Geraldo Rivera. A host of fresh faces will be looking to take over at tailback, among them Mayson Williams, James Gurley, and sophomore Ed Rivera. Shane O’Donnell and Kinzaqui Winters should be serviceable as fullbacks.
Making it all click is senior Garrett DelleChiaie, an undersized but scrappy quarterback who has thrived in Palazzi’s offensive system. Once he got his reads down last season, the Blue Devils never lost again, and he enters his senior season a preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection.
The difference between year one and year two has been maturity, Palazzi said, but also a more intuitive approach. The position has becoming more intrinsic for the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder, and he has looked more comfortable in the preseason. He’ll be counted on even more in a leadership spot this season, with the new talent at the skill spots and an offensive line that has gotten lighter.
“Last year, it was every play, ‘Garrett you’ve got this, Garrett the safety’s going to be there, Garrett remember your steps’,” Palazzi said. “I still say that to him, but it’s a quicker process. He doesn’t have to remember how to say the play, he doesn’t have to remember where the guys are going to be, so it’s all more natural now.
“Now he has more of an opportunity to read the defense. I’ve played the position, so now we’re at that level more where I can tell him where the defenders are coming, where the blitzes are coming, and how to take advantage of some of that stuff. We haven’t played a game yet, but that’s what I’ve seen out of him in practice so far, being able to recognize those things whereas last year he was just learning all of that.”
At the wide receiver spot, Neil O’Connor will be one to watch. In the Blue Devils’ scrimmage yesterday afternoon with Natick, DelleChiaie connected with the speedy junior for two scores, one a 58-yard middle screen and the other a 45-yard post down the deep left seam.
Look for O’Connor to lead a green defense too, roaming at free safety and making some heady plays. It’s a raw defense, replacing nine starters and led by linebackers Jason Valera and Matt Banchs at the linebacker spots.
“We have some talent, yeah, but they haven’t played on Friday nights,” Palazzi said. “We’ve got to replace nine guys on defense, and they showed some good signs out there, but we had some breakdowns in the secondary when we shuffled guys in. Everett’s got that speed, we’ve got to lock that down. They’ve got to step it up.”
LEOMINSTER AT A GLANCE
2011: 10-3, won Division 1 Central Super Bowl
Coach: Dave Palazzi (2nd year at Leominster, 79-46 overall)
Key Returnees: Garrett DelleChiaie, Sr. QB, 5-11, 170 lbs.; Neil O’Connor, Jr. WR/S, 5-11, 170 lbs.; Jason Valera, Jr. LB, 6-0, 190 lbs.; Mayson Williams, Jr. RB/DB, 5-10, 165 lbs.; Jarell Addo, Jr. WR/DB, 6-1, 170 lbs.; Shane O’Donnell, Sr. RB/LB, 5-9, 185 lbs.; Lucas de Horsey, Sr. OT/DL, 5-10, 225 lbs.; Shane Fallon, Jr. OG/DL, 5-10, 185 lbs.; David Knight, Sr. C/DL, 5-10, 185 lbs.; Matt Banchs, Jr. LB, 5-10, 175 lbs.
Strengths: Quarterback, team speed, strong junior class.
Weaknesses: Inexperience on defense, offensive line.
Outlook: After winning its first Super Bowl in a decade, before one of the largest crowds ever assembled for a high school Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium, football culture is back to a fevered pitch in the Pioneer Plastic City. Now comes the tall task of spinning that momentum forward, and the Blue Devils will turn to a green but talented returning core to get it done. Once DelleChiaie figured out Palazzi’s demanding system, the Blue Devils rolled off 10 straight victories, and this preseason he has a more intuitive grip of the offense. That should help them break in a new core of receivers and running backs, led by the versatile O’Connor and Williams. Valera, O’Connor and Banchs highlight a 2014 class that has been getting hype the last two seasons, and all three will be expected to lead a defense that is replacing nine starters. Overall, this is a group that may have to overachieve this season to replicate 2011’s success, but all the pieces are in place to remain a dangerous bunch for the next two years.