HOLLISTON, Mass. -- Todd Kiley says he's had to do "a lot less barking" with his Holliston Panthers this year.
The eight-year head coach says this year's team is farther along than any of his teams have been at this point in camp, and there are several reasons why. The most prominent one coming out of preseason camp seems to be the evolution of senior quarterback Sean Mayo from go-getting gunslinger to the team's spiritual and emotional leader. "From the first day without pads (August 23), he took this team by the horns," Kiley said.
Of course, the writing's on the wall. The Panthers wore many teams down with their speedy, huddle-free spread offense and blitz-heavy defensive schemes. But in the Division 3A Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium, they struggled to establish a running game and never got in a rhythm. And so a squad that had averaged 35 points a game to that point faltered big, 38-15.
"As soon as we put on the pads, we think about the last time we took them off last season," noted senior running back Kevin Curry.
But the motivation goes even deeper.
On Sept. 5, 2008, the Panthers' final scrimmage of the preseason against Apponequet Regional, 16-year-old Joey Larracey collapsed suddenly after getting hit in the chest, and was pronounced dead later that night. A few nights later, 10-year-old honorary captain Tim O'Connell succumbed to leukemia after more than a year-long battle.
The Panthers canceled their first game of the year, against Oliver Ames. The whole ordeal was, in the words of Ryan Barrett, "a nightmare"; to this day, the death of the popular student and teammate resonates deep under the team's skin.
"No one was talking, we were all speechless," said running back Kevin Curry of the 48 hours that followed Larracey's death.
"You don't want any team to go through that, it's the worst possible thing that could happen," said linebacker Ethan Rayner.
But that tragedy has never been lost on anyone in this town for a second. If anything, it's brought incredible closure to a community that already considered itself fairly tight-knight. As Mayo put it, "That brought us from a team to a family. Ever since the passing of Joey, we love each other. He's all of our brothers."
Said Raymer, "People in this town said we kind of carried this community, helped them get through a tough time. I'm really proud of myself, proud of us, for doing that."
Larracey's legacy, and his uniform number 73, was the pulse and the throttle of the Panthers' Super Bowl run last year. His mother, Charlene, often spoke to the team after games. In week six, wide receiver Christian Baker booted a 37-yard last-second field goal to beat previously undefeated Medway, took off his helmet to reveal the numbers "7" and "3" written on his cheeks, and simply told reporters, "That was for Joey."
The modus operandi hasn't changed. Larracey's number remains stenciled into the black paw print on the 25-yard lines of the team's home stadium. The energized fans, known for their inspired antics last year -- uniformly showing up in red shirts bearing "73", storming the field after wins, chanting Wu-Tang Clan lyrics, filling up the parking lot 2 1/2 hours before games and sometimes outdrawing home crowds at away games -- are expected to return.
Friday night, the second annual Joey Larracey Bowl commences, with the Panthers facing Framingham in a scrimmage (i.e. no kickoffs). And they will once again utilize their "7-3-7" warmup formation, which is exactly how it sounds -- seven in one row, three in the next, in honor of Larracey's "73" and O'Connell's "7".
"You just get the chills," Mayo said of the formation.
"It's nothing like any other team does," Curry said. "It really does bring us from a team to a family. We're out there doing it for a purpose."
"We talk about doing it Joe's way," Rayner said. "Doing everything 110 percent, just like Joey did it every play."
"On and off the field," added Curry. "Great kid, great student, great leader."
So it goes without saying that, with the Super Bowl loss, the plethora of speed returning (eight TVL first-teamers) and Larracey's memory hanging over it all, the Panthers are fired up. With Mayo in his third year calling the shots on offense, and targets like the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Barrett (Kiley calls Barrett, who currently holds an offer from Bryant, "a versatile kid that allows our offense to stay versatile,"), there's a whole lot to like.
Offensively, they're often at their best when running at a no-huddle pace, a tempo they've coined "blood" around here.
And very often these days, the phrase is all-encompassing.
HOLLISTON AT A GLANCE
2009: 12-1 (9-0 Tri-Valley), lost in Division 3A Super Bowl
Coach: Todd Kiley (8th year, 55-23 overall)
Players to watch: Kevin Curry, Sr., RB/OLB, 5-10, 175 lbs (303 rushing yards, 10 touchdowns); Sean Mayo, Sr., QB, 6-0, 170 lbs (2,010 passing yards, 26 total touchdowns); Ryan Barrett, Sr., TE/DE, 6-5, 225 lbs; Ethan Rayner, Sr., OG/LB, 5-11, 215 lbs; Christian Baker, Sr., WR/DB/K, Sr., 5-11, 170 lbs (308 receiving yards, four touchdowns); Jake Frechette, Jr., RB/DB, 5-9, 165 lbs (1,201 rushing yards, 10.3 yards per carry; 300 receiving yards, 15 total touchdowns); Kevin Lamarque, Sr., OL/DL, 6-2, 275 lbs; Dan Barone, Jr., WR/S, 5-9, 160 lbs (362 receiving yards, five touchdowns); Dan Miller, Sr., WR/LB, 5-10, 165 lbs; Jonathan Rossini, Sr., OT/LB, 6-1, 190 lbs.
Strengths: Speed, experience at skill positions.
Weaknesses: Replacing starters on offensive line and linebackers.
Outlook: Kiley's high-powered spread offense is back and should be sharp as ever, what with eight first-team league all-stars returning. Offensively, the Panthers will utilize the no-huddle again, and will return key speedsters like Frechette and Curry. They'll be lining up Barrett in a variety of positions -- out wide, in tight -- to get him in space. But look out for Barrett's downfield blocks, too -- "he's second to none," Kiley said of his blocking skills. The key, as last year's Super Bowl loss showed, will be to establish a consistent run game. Defensively, the Panthers will be moving pieces around to fill the void at linebacker, but Rayner will be rock-solid in the middle of the field, while Lamarque and Barrett lead the front four. Overall, there is alot of speed to be accounted for this season, which makes the Panthers a favorite to repeat as TVL champs.