NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. -- Asked about some of his individual goals for this season, North Andover quarterback Brandon Walsh deferred to his teammates, stating he just wants to win his tier of the CAL/NEC title and "make noise for ourselves".
No problem, Brandon. Consider the latter done.
The Knights made plenty commotion last fall, pretty much all of it positive, as they embarked on a 10-game win streak following a season-opening loss at archrival Andover, winning the Cape Ann Large title outright in the process. The Knights took a beating to Super Bowl runner-up Concord-Carlisle in a Division 2A playoff, but not before Walsh made terrific case for the postseason accolades bestowed on him, throwing for 1,525 yards and 23 touchdowns and adding another 695 yards and 13 scores on the ground.
Since then, the anticipation for Walsh's final act has only grown. His searing fastball was on display in the spring time for the Knights, who rode him and Mike Weisman to the Division 2 North baseball crown; in the last month, his accuracy in the short and mid-range passing game was on display as the Knights made successful runs in the Northeast 7v7 tournament and the Under Armour 7v7 tournament at Gillette Stadium.
The 6-foot-2 Walsh has received varied amounts of Division 1 interest, and perhaps ultimately projects somewhere in the FCS leavel. While some college scouts would prefer he be an inch or two taller, he makes up for it with a high release point. And while his arm strength isn't off the charts, his ability to hit his guys in stride in short and medium routes kept defenses on their toes all season long. He's been blessed with footwork that buys him time in the pocket, and isn't afraid to lower his shoulder when need be.
"With all his ability, you could just be satisfied with that," head coach John Rafferty said. "But probably what I like best about him is that his attitude in the offseason was fantastic."
Unlike last season, though, the road figures to be much tougher in 2011.
Once again, the Knights will open the season trying to solve the riddle that is Andover running back Andrew Coke, a returning ESPNBoston All-Stater who dipped, dodged and danced his way to the tune of 1,800-plus yards, and threw defenses for a loop with his turn in "Wildcat" packages. After that comes a visit from a Reading squad that once again features plenty of new faces but what is expected to be deep in talent.
Not to mention, the new four-tier CAL/NEC alignment -- which the Knights will be breaking off from next year, when they become the 11th member of the Merrimack Valley Conference -- has them jumping up to Division 1A and facing a much tougher league schedule. Lynn Classical and Lynn English will prove their mettle, as will their Thanksgiving rival, a Masconment squad that figures to improve with linebacker Kurt Hunziker back in the fold.
Still, at the risk of looking too far ahead, this is a squad considered one of the few teams who could hang with juggernaut Everett in Division 1A, and there are certainly some firm pieces in place. Specifically, a line anchored by seniors John Miller, Greg Ryan and Nate Hitchcock should buy Walsh some time. Meanwhile, Danny Laorenza leads a talented cast of receivers in Rafferty's spread scheme.
"Everyone, basically we're all on the same page," Walsh said. "We've done a lot of board work, everyone knows where they're going and what they're doing. It helps that they know where they're going to be on the field. They work hard."
The most interesting piece might come in the form of 6-foot-6 junior Isaiah Nelsen, who saw his sophomore year cut stunted by a knee injury. He's made a name for himself on the hardwood, and that has many wondering just how much potential that translates to on the gridiron.
"He did pretty well as a sophomore, stepping in," Walsh said. "He got banged up, but he's right back on the same page, stepping up and making big plays. I look forward to throwing to him."
NORTH ANDOVER AT A GLANCE
Coach: John Rafferty (10th year, 70-40)
Last year: 10-2, lost in Division 2A Playoffs
Key Returnees: Brandon Walsh, Sr./S QB, 6-2, 195 lbs (1,525 passing yards, 23 TD; 695 rushing yards, 13 TD); Johnny Miller Sr. OL/DE, 6-3, 205 lbs; Greg Ryan, Sr. OL/DL; Nate Hitchcock, Sr. OL/DL; Stephen O'Grady, Sr. LB, 6-2, 205 lbs; Bobby Trickett, Sr. LB, 6-1, 185 lbs; Glen Hartford, Sr. OLB; Ahmdi Oguru, Jr. DB; Danny Laorenza, Sr. WR/S, 5-10, 180 lbs
Strengths: Passing game, run defense.
Weaknesses: Inexperience at cornerback.
Outlook: The Knights have been one of the Merrimack Valley's more consistent programs the last several years, and leading the charges has been Walsh. His breakthrough came a season ago with 23 touchdown passes, and it's not out of the realm to think he'll end his career with 60-plus (he's currently at 41). The Knights have a strong senior class led by Walsh; their inexperience may lie at the corners, but with Walsh and Laorenza roaming at the safety positions they may not have to worry as much. The road will be tougher this year, and one probably shouldn't expect another one-loss campaign with Andover, Reading, Lynn English and Lynn Classical on the schedule. But when it boils down, Walsh is one of the state's elite in an unusually deep class of quarterbacks in Massachusetts. The development of tight end and basketball standout Isaiah Nelsen, a raw prospect but one whose size and footwork can't be ignored, could be the difference-maker.