Last Monday, we unveiled our fifth annual statewide preseason Top 25 poll. Today, we continue our annual countdown of the poll with our final installment, featuring our top five teams.
NO. 5 ST. JOHN'S (SHREWSBURY)
Coach: John Andreoli (11th year, 92-31)
Last season: Division 2 state finalists, lost 28-14 to Mansfield
Returning starters: 11 (4 offense, 7 defense)
Key returners: Davon Jones, Sr., RB/DB, 5-10, 185 lbs; Sam Norton, Sr., DT, 5-9, 210 lbs, Nick Calvano, Sr., WR/DB, 5-7, 175 lbs; Shane Combs, Sr., QB/RB/DB, 6-1, 210 lbs.
Strengths: Defense, physical strength
Outlook: Another year, another deep and talented starting lineup boasted by the Pioneers, last year’s Central Mass. Division 2 champion. The Pioneers lost some major contributors off of last year’s team, including all-state quarterback Andrew Smiley, but coach John Andreoli is confident especially in the ability Combs, Jones, and Calvano to make big plays on the offensive side of the ball. Currently, Combs is splitting equal reps at quarterback with Tim Cassidy. “The jury is still out,” Andreoli said on the quarterback decision, “Both he and Tim Cassidy are taking equal snaps. They both have very different skillsets...it’s a different look when each one of them is in there.” Jones, a hard-hitting Boston College-committed safety, has proven to be one of the state’s top players over the past couple of years, but it’s his on the field leadership that is standing out so far this fall. Jones is the only four-year starter in the history of the program. “The thing that impresses me most about him is that he's really assumed a leadership position, with the way he conducts himself on the field, and the way he takes control of the defense,” Andreoli said, “And offensively the level of maturity that he has brought takes him to the next level.” Several players have found a way to make a name for themselves early on in camp, partly too because of the work they put in over the offseason. Andreoli said that this year’s team has the most physical strength collectively of any squad that he’s coached at St. John’s: “The amount of guys that we had were able to bench 185 for multiple reps was the most we ever had here. That's kind of been the foundation as the first thing. On the defensive side of the ball, our secondary has really shown a tremendous amount of speed, athleticism, and physicality in our first week.” Keep a close eye on Marc-Eddy Paul, Michael Corinna, Mitch Earley, and Sam Kloczkowski – all of whom have made a big early impact early on in practice.
NO. 4 MANSFIELD
Coach: Michael Redding (27th, 217-66-4)
2013 Record: 13-0, Division 2 State Champions
Returning Starters: 11 (5 offensive, 6 defensive)
Key Players: Brendan Hill, Sr. TE/SE 6-5, 228 lbs; Mike Carpino, Sr. OL/DL 5-9, 210 lbs; Tyler Smith, Sr. OL 6-1, 205 lbs; Andrew Horstmann, Sr. OL 6-2, 225 lbs; Curtis Boisvert, Sr. RB/DB 5-8, 180 lbs; Joe Moreshead, Sr. LB 5-10, 180 lbs; Q'ra Guichard, Sr. LB 5-8, 195 lbs; Connor Finerty, Jr. LB 5-11, 195 lbs; Nick Borsari, Sr. DL 6-2, 270 lbs; C.J. Daniel, Sr. LB 5-11, 170 lbs.
Strengths: Offensive line, linebackers, defensive line, running backs/receivers
Weaknesses: Inexperience in the secondary, adapting offense to personnel
Outlook: The Hornets completed their own version of a revenge tour last year, turning a loss in the 2012 D2 EMass Finals into an undefeated 2013 season and winning the first ever Division 2 State Championship. The biggest concern for the Hornets will come on offense and finding the pieces to replace quarterback Kyle Wisnieski, receivers Michael Hershman and Kyle Hurley and the elusive Miguel Villar-Perez. But to counter that, Mansfield possesses one of the most talented tight ends in the entire state in Brendan Hill, a member of the ESPNBoston Preseason All-State Team. Hill, who has received interest from multiple D1 programs, will likely garner the majority of attention from defenses so Mansfield will need to develop other options. Matt Carafa will likely step in and be QB1 for the Hornets while Curtis Boisvert will see a good amount of carries out of the backfield. Last year, Michael Redding talked about having some inexperience on the offensive line but this year they return three starters – Carpino, Smith, and Horstmann – and will rely on their line to help carry the offense. Defensively, the front seven is very strong led by linebackers Q'Ra Guichard and Joe Moreshead, arguably two of the more underrated players in the Hockomock League. They also return linebackers Connor Finerty and CJ Daniel as well as Brendan Hill and Nick Borsari, who will both be on the defensive line. The question on defense will be about replacing the strong defensive backs they had a season ago, led by Mike Barresi and Aurien Dawkins. Boisvert will likely be called on to be the anchor of that group. It won't be an easy start either for Mansfield as they begin the season on the road in New York against powerhouse Archbishop Stepinac.
NO. 3 EVERETT
Head Coach: John DiBiaso (23rd season at Everett, 271-66-1 overall)
2013: 8-2, lost Division 1 North final to Central Catholic
Returning starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
Key Players: Lukas Denis, Sr. Ath./DB, 6-0, 175 lbs.; Nick Orekoya, Sr. RB, 5-10, 200 lbs.; J.J. Colimon, Jr. TE/DL, 6-4, 250 lbs.; Erick Browne, Sr. OT/DT, 6-3, 270 lbs.; Mark Cardwell, Sr. 6-0, 225 lbs.; Jordan McAfee, Soph. QB.
Strengths: Athleticism in offensive and defensive backfield; size and physicality on offensive line.
Weaknesses: Lack of game experience at key positions.
Outlook: Perhaps more than any Everett team in recent memory, this year’s edition of the Tide is full of X-factors. The hype is abundant, but there are lingering questions. The athletic potential is apparent, but there’s a lack of on-field experience together. The one surefire thing the Crimson Tide do have returning is Lukas Denis, who joined the long lineage of Everett defensive backs to give their commitment to Boston College. Denis, who’s on-ball coverage skills are unparalleled in the region, will again be relied upon heavily as a hybrid back/wide receiver. Of course, that too depends on which form Everett’s offense will take. There are big things predicted for sophomore signal-caller Jordan McAfee whose yet to make a start. Meanwhile, Billerica transfer Nick Orekoya provides a stout presence at running back – one that can both break tackles and out-run hits. On defense, the Crimson Tide are short on game experience at linebacker, but should be able to generate on the pass rush with senior Mark Cardwell.
NO. 2 CENTRAL CATHOLIC
Head Coach: Chuck Adamopoulos (18th season, 123-62)
2013: 11-1, won Division 1 State championship
Returning starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Key Players: Michael Milano, Sr. QB, 6-1, 170 lbs.; Michael Balsamo, Sr. RB/S, 6-1, 202 lbs.; Markus Edmunds, Sr. RB/ILB, 5-11, 210 lbs.; Jorge Elias, Sr. G/DT, 6-0, 215 lbs.; Pat Dziedzic, Sr. OT/DT, 6-1, 220 lbs.; Dan MacDonald, Sr. OT/DT, 6-3, 260 lbs.; Justin Landry, Sr. C/ NG, 5-11, 270 lbs.
Strengths: Experience at quarterback, inside linebacker and safety; defensive front seven; big game experience.
Weaknesses: Lack of game experience at wide receiver and outside linebacker; kicking game.
Outlook:The Raiders rolled through Everett and Xaverian on the Road to Gillette and snuck up on some observers – we’re included – en route to the state’s first true state championship in Division 1. This year, they’ll be the targeted team, with a good mix of returning key contributors from last year’s title team. The added good news for Central is that many of its returning starters are back at its most important positions. That includes senior four-year starting quarterback Michael Milano, who was among the statistical statewide leaders in just about every category during last year’s playoffs. “He led our team in rushing last year and, I think for the people that followed us every week, that while [Cody] Demers made a lot of the big plays, Michael [Milano] did a lot of the things that made us successful, making such a big jump from his sophomore to his junior season.” The Raiders also return a few key members of its vaunted 3-4 defense, including free safety Michael Balsamo and inside linebacker Markus Edmunds. Edmunds, who led the team in tackles last year while eclipsing the century mark, will be working beside a new-look linebacking corps, but “I don’t know if he’s going to have a better year statistically this year because he was so good last year, but he’s going to have a lot more on his shoulders. We had two seniors at outside linebacker last year, who were both pretty smart kids as football players and they helped him make calls. So he’s got a little bit more on him in a leadership role.”
NO. 1 XAVERIAN
Coach: Charlie Stevenson (21st season, 172-62-1)
2013: 10-2, lost in Division 1 State Championship
Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 9 defense)
Key Returnees: Joe Gaziano, Sr. TE/DE, 6-4, 242 lbs.; Damion Wood, Sr. WR/FS, 5-11, 200 lbs.; Joe Parsons, Sr. OT/DT, 6-5, 285 lbs.; Jake Farrell, Sr. QB, 6-3, 185 lbs.; Noah Sorrento, Sr. RB/OLB, 5-9, 185 lbs.; Kenny Kern, Sr. FB/MLB, 6-0, 227 lbs.; Elijah Pierre, Jr. OL/NG, 6-0, 260 lbs.; Mekhi Henderson, Soph. CB, 5-9, 175 lbs.; D'Aundre Holmes, Jr. RB/FB/OLB, 5-11, 205 lbs.; Coby Tippett, Jr. WR/CB, 5-9, 165 lbs.; Ernest Simon, Sr. WR/CB, 5-9, 180 lbs.; Nick Allsop, Jr. C/DT, 6-3, 248 lbs.
Strengths: Defense, experience at quarterback, skill position depth
Weaknesses: Experience at offensive line.
Outlook: There’s no hiding it, and there’s no way the coaching staff can sandbag it: This defense is going to be pretty good. Led by the Northwestern-bound Gaziano, the reigning ESPN Boston Defensive Player of the Year, the Hawks return virtually everyone defensively, and are solid at just about every position in the front seven. The strength of the defense may lay in the secondary, where the Coastal Carolina-bound Wood has been playing with a violent chip so far this preseason, and the quick-twitched Henderson figures to be the top draw at corner after a promising freshman campaign. "He’s a fierce competitor," Stevenson said of Wood. "He likes to make plays against the opponent, and I think he’s serious about that. He’s playing hard when he’s out there, that’s a good thing to have." Offensively, the Hawks have a few holes to fill, but on the right side they should be fine with the UMass-bound Parsons returning at right tackle. Gaziano was mostly used in-line for run support last season, but the Hawks have so far experimented with him in a "flex" role, lining him up in the slot or splitting him out wide. He made a few dazzling grabs in Saturday’s scrimmage with B-R, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the traditionally conservative Hawks don’t get him more involved in the passing game this fall. "When he gets inside a cornerback, that’s a big body for the cornerback to come through," Stevenson said. "He’s a big guy who can run and catch, and once he catches the ball –- I’m not gonna say he’s quick –- but he brings a pretty good load with him. Clearly, we’re going to get him more involved in our pass attack." Farrell, a baseball star during the spring, is entering his second year under center and demonstrates above-average arm strength. He won’t be depended upon to run the ball, with the entire backfield back, but his improvisational skills are noteworthy.
-BRENDAN C. HALL