Boston High School: Brian Dunlap

Dunlap is ESPN Boston Offensive Player of the Year

December, 10, 2014
Dec 10
2:12
PM ET
ESPNBoston.com and its high schools section announce that Brian Dunlap, senior wide receiver of the Natick High School Redhawks, is the recipient of this year's ESPN Boston Offensive Player of the Year award.

[+] EnlargeBrian Dunlap
Jon Mahoney for ESPNEven with a foot fracture wiping out his entire junior season, Natick's Brian Dunlap still finished his career with more than 4,000 receiving yards and 67 total TDs.
The Offensive Player of the Year award winner was chosen by a panel of experts made up of ESPNBoston.com staff and correspondents, as well as analysts from Scouts Inc. Dunlap will be presented with the award at a later date, yet to be determined.

Dunlap joins Springfield Central's Cody Williams (2013), Barnstable's Nick Peabody (2012) and Catholic Memorial's Armani Reeves (2011) among past recipients in the award's history.

The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Dunlap leaves Natick as one of the most decorate wide receivers in the history of Massachusetts schoolboy football, with unprecedented 4,020 receiving yards and 67 total touchdowns. In the first game of his career in his freshman season of 2011, he recorded 215 receiving yards and three touchdowns, and seemingly never looked back, going over the 1,000-yard mark in each of his seasons on the field and recording 21 games of 100 receiving yards or more.

After a high-water-mark sophomore season in 2012, where he caught 86 passes for 1,570 yards and 21 touchdowns in the Redhawks' run to the MIAA Division 2A Super Bowl, Dunlap missed his entire junior season with a Lisfranc fracture on his right foot, suffered in the preseason.

Still, he came back as good as ever in his swan song season of 2014, hauling in 60 passes for 1,278 yards and 21 scores as the Redhawks reached the MIAA Division 2 South Semifinals for the second straight season. He also returned three kicks for scores (two punts, one kickoff) and added two rushing scores, for totals of 26 touchdowns and 2,104 all-purpose yards.

For his career, Dunlap caught 215 passes for 4,020 yards and 56 touchdowns, averaging 18.7 yards per catch. All-purpose, he finished with 5,759 yards and 67 total scores; that also includes 956 rushing yards, in which he averaged 8.9 yards a carry.

Dunlap will continue his career next fall at Harvard University.

ESPN Boston Mr. Football Award Finalists

November, 24, 2014
Nov 24
2:55
PM ET
ESPNBoston.com and its high school sports staff today have named five finalists for the its fifth annual Mr. Football Award, given to the top overall player in Massachusetts. The winner will be announced on Monday, Dec. 8, following the weekend's MIAA Football State Championships.

Natick's Troy Flutie took home last year's award, joining St. John's Prep's Alex Moore and Everett's Jonathan DiBiaso and Matt Costello among past recipients for the prestigious honor.

The winner will be presented the award at Gillette Stadium prior to the New England Patriots' home contest with the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 14.

***

Lukas Denis
Senior Defensive Back
Everett High School

The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Denis is the fifth Everett player in as many years to be named a finalist, more than any other school, joining the ranks of Jonathan DiBiaso, Matt Costello, Manny Asprilla and John Montelus. Denis has dominated all three phases of the game all season long for the Crimson Tide, who are making a record fifth appearance at Gillette Stadium for an MIAA Super Bowl championship on Dec. 6 when they face rival Xaverian for the Division 1 State Championship. At cornerback, Denis has recorded 45 tackles and two forced fumbles, to go along with a team-high seven interceptions -- two of which have been returned for scores. Offensively, he has totaled 14 touchdowns combined through the air and ground. Denis is currently committed to Boston College.

***

Brian Dunlap
Senior Wide Receiver
Natick High School

After a foot injury wiped out his entire junior season, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder rebounded with a record-setting senior season, setting state all-time marks for receiving touchdowns and receiving yards. Headed into the Redhawks' Thanksgiving contest with Framingham, Dunlap has 53 catches for 1,170 yards and 20 touchdowns, his third campaign with at least 1,100 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. For his career, he has 55 receiving touchdowns and needs 88 yards on Turkey Day to surpass 4,000 receiving yards for his career. Dunlap is currently committed to Harvard University.

***

Joe Gaziano
Senior Defensive End
Xaverian Brothers High School

Gaziano earned ESPN Boston's Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013 after racking up a dozen sacks to go with 53 tackles, three blocked punts and an interception. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound anchor faced double-teams nearly all season long for the Hawks, who have maintained the No. 1 spot in ESPN Boston's statewide Top 25 poll all season long and will face Everett for the Division 1 state championship on Dec. 6. Going into the Hawks' Thanskgiving contest with archrival St. John's Prep, Gaziano has recorded 42 tackles (19 for loss) and 12 sacks. Gaziano is currently committed to Northwestern University.

***

Chris Lindstrom
Senior Guard/Defensive End
Shepherd Hill Regional High School

The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder is the second offensive lineman ever to be named a finalist for the Mr. Football Award, joining current Notre Dame redshirt-freshman John Montelus, who was a finalist in 2012 at Everett High. Behind Lindstrom, the Rams were one of the state's most dominant rushing attacks this season, totaling over 3,500 yards and 46 touchdowns as a team through 11 games, averaging 325 yards per game and 7.2 yards per carry. On defense, Lindstrom was just as explosive at the end spot, recording 57 tackles (12 for loss) and a team-high seven sacks. Lindstrom is currently committed to Boston College.

***

Mike Maggipinto
Junior Running Back
East Longmeadow High School

Who says size matters? The 5-foot-5 waterbug has taken Western Mass. by storm this fall with wild numbers in the Spartans' unique rushing attack. Going into Thursday's matchup with Thanksgiving rival Longmeadow, Maggipinto needs just 11 yards to surpass the 2,000 mark for the second year, and just 33 to top last year's total (2,022). On the season, he has 222 carries for 1,989 yards -- including a season-high 346 yards in the Spartans' D2 West semifinal win over Springfield Central -- averaging 8.9 yards per carry to go along with 25 touchdowns. Earlier this season, Maggipinto eclipsed the 4,000-yard career mark; with another season like this, he could place himself among the rare handful of Massachusetts schoolboy greats to achieve 6,000 yards for their career.

After setbacks, a brilliant career for Dunlap

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
12:14
AM ET
NATICK, Mass. –- He’s always been tough on opposing defenses, but now we know that nothing can slow Brian Dunlap down.

After bursting onto the scene with an outstanding freshman season for the Natick Redhawks, Dunlap led the state in receptions (86), receiving yards (1,570), and touchdowns (21) as he helped Natick reach the MIAA Division 2A Super Bowl in his second year.

Dunlap became the first sophomore ever to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors, and seemed primed for another huge year when a Lisfranc fracture on his left foot derailed his 2013 season before it got started.

Now he’s back on the field, leading the state in receiving yards (906) once again, and relishing every moment, including a recent walkthrough in the freezing rain as Natick (7-1) prepared for a showdown at Marshfield (7-1) in the MIAA Division 2 South Semifinals.

“More than anything, I was just happy to be out there,” Dunlap said about his return to the field this fall. “I missed the games, and even the practices. Sometimes you’re so focused that you forget to take it all in, so I wanted to make sure that I really enjoyed my senior year.”

It didn’t take long for Dunlap to start enjoying himself on the field. In fact, he turned his first touch of the season into a long touchdown, and broke a 99-yard receiving touchdown at Wellesley in Natick’s third game of the season.

“That first touchdown of the year was the moment I realized I was back,” Dunlap recalled. “Then in the Wellesley game, we were backed up at the 1-yard line on a third and long and Nick [Olson] threw a great ball on a corner route. Running up the sideline past my teammates and seeing my dad in the end zone, it was one of those touchdowns that I’ll probably remember forever.”

Big Shoes to Fill

Dunlap wasn’t the only member of the Redhawks that had to make a difficult transition to start the season. Senior quarterback Nick Olson put aside his role as a full time safety to take over as the starter for graduated legend, Troy Flutie.

However, Olson had an uncommon familiarity with his primary target considering he had been playing pitch and catch with Dunlap since their days at Memorial Elementary School in Natick.

“Me and Brian grew up just a couple miles apart, and we’ve been throwing with each other for years,” Olson said. “He’d come to my house, or I’d go to his house and we’d run a couple of routes, so we definitely had a feel for each other and that made the transition pretty smooth.”

Olson and Dunlap may have blown away the competition during recess with ease, but playing at a high level for Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli would require plenty of work.

Of course, Dunlap’s no stranger to hard work, having earned acceptance to Harvard University while excelling in basketball and football at the varsity level. So it comes as little surprise that he was able to recover from his injury and develop chemistry with a new quarterback in a matter of weeks.

“It was remarkable to watch the stages that he went through,” said Mortarelli. To see him go from the wheelchair, to the cast, to the walking boot, and come back bigger, faster and stronger than he was before the injury was incredible.”

Mortarelli continued, “People think his talent is just natural, and while he is a gifted athlete, he’s also the hardest worker we’ve ever had at this program. He refuses to lose any competition, he’s a great leader, and the fact that he’s a great player is just gravy on top.”

Three weeks after Dunlap’s show stopping performance at Wellesley, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound wide receiver set a new school record when he scored his 56th career touchdown in a win over Milton. He’s scored at least two touchdowns in seven of Natick’s eight games this season, as he’s putting an emphatic stamp on one of the most illustrious careers in the history of Massachusetts high school football.

Excellence at First Sight

Very few freshmen are able to crack the varsity roster at their school, but Dunlap was so impressive that he forced his coaches’ hand.

“The very first night of [7-on-7] passing league at Xaverian, we knew that he’d be coming to camp with the varsity squad,” Mortarelli said. “He caught two or three touchdowns, and looked very comfortable out there. He was already very athletic, and physically and mentally mature enough that it was a no-brainer.”

In his first full season, Dunlap finished second in the state with 69 receptions, 1,172 receiving yards, and 14 touchdowns, so you can imagine how opposing defenses feel about his self-assertion that he’s gotten much better since then.

“My football IQ is higher. Obviously getting bigger has been helpful, but I think learning about the game and studying film has made an even bigger difference,” said Dunlap.

As defenses roll coverage his way, Dunlap’s used those football smarts to find ways to continue producing. He’s averaging 9.3 yards per carry on 31 rushes this season, and credits the coaching staff for designing deceptive plays that allow him to get open.

In Natick’s first round playoff bout with Duxbury, Dunlap carried the ball four times in the first quarter, and then proceeded to motion into the backfield before running a flat that resulted in a breathtaking 79-yard touchdown.

Nick Olson completed just four passes as Natick defeated Duxbury 48-22, and Dunlap caught all four for 157 receiving yards and three touchdowns (adding a fourth touchdown on an 88-yard kick return).

“He makes my job a breeze honestly. He knows the routes better than anyone on the team. He knows the game better than anyone, and he’s like a coach to me. He’s always teaching the other players. He’s taught me almost everything I know,” said Olson.

Dunlap’s contributions to the program seem to go beyond the field, but he’ll need to be at his best on the field if he wants to lead the Redhawks to a Division 2 Super Bowl, the one achievement that’s eluded him to this point.

Natick’s offensive players will have their work cut out for them when they face Marshfield on Friday, as the Rams are allowing just 10 points per game this season.

“They probably have the best defense we’ve seen all year, with a lot of big, strong kids,” Dunlap said. “It’s going to be a good test for us, but our team works hard every day. We have a lot of seniors, a lot of leaders, and a lot of underrated guys. I think we’re more balanced than we’ve been in the past. This is going to be a good test for us.”

Crimson Skies Ahead

Regardless of how the Redhawks’ season ends, Dunlap’s football career will continue at Harvard University next fall. The senior made his verbal commitment to the Crimson over the summer, and credits Harvard for continuing to recruit him despite his injury.

“Going to Harvard always seemed like a far fetched idea when I was little, but I went to their camp to work out the last few summers, and the relationship developed over the years. Everything sort of fell into place, and that’s why I don’t think there’s any place I’d rather be going,” said Dunlap.

Humble as ever, Dunlap was sure to credit his coaches for helping him reach a goal that he once considered to be a long shot.

“Our coaches put a lot of time in, and they really care about us not just as players, as people too. They showed a lot of character when I was injured last year, coming to visit after my surgery and checking in on me during rehab.”

Dunlap continued, “They treated me so well. They gave me one of the coaches’ hats, and treated me as a coach during my junior year. I think the whole process of being injured really shows you a lot about people, and I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me because they’re part of the reason I’m going to Harvard.”

When asked about how his star receiver would fare at the next level, Mortarelli didn’t hesitate to provide a ringing endorsement.

“I think he’s going to be lights out,” the coach said as his player’s practiced kickoffs in the rain. “He’s so mentally tough, nothing really gets him off his game. He welcomes all challenges, and he’ll respond the way he responds to anything, by taking it head on.”

In the meantime, Dunlap will take on the Rams vaunted defense, but as he’s proven time and time again, it’s going to take a lot to slow him down.

D2 South: Natick 48, Duxbury 22

November, 1, 2014
Nov 1
12:27
AM ET
NATICK, Mass. – The all-time leading receiver in the history of Natick football was having a relatively quiet game in the first round of the D2 South playoffs.

Senior wide receiver Brian Dunlap carried the ball four times for 15 yards in the first quarter, and failed to secure either of his two targets in the passing game. But it was only a matter of time before an athlete of Dunlap’s caliber provided Natick (7-1) with a huge play.

Midway through the second quarter, he motioned into the Redhawks backfield as if he was going to receive another handoff from senior quarterback Nick Olson. Yet as soon as the ball was snapped, Dunlap turned on a dime and ran a flat, catching Olson’s pass before blazing down the sideline for a big gain. Three Duxbury (5-3) defenders converged on the Harvard-bound wide receiver, but he eluded them all with one breathtaking cutback and turned the short completion into a 79-yard touchdown that put his team up 21-0.

“We designed that early in the week as a way to get me open,” said Dunlap. “The coaching staff’s done a tremendous job of putting new stuff in every week to try and find ways to get me the ball. We put in a lot of work on this practice field every day, and when it all comes together it’s a beautiful thing.”

That long touchdown was just one of Dunlap’s many highlights during Natick’s first-round victory. He racked up 156 yards and three touchdowns in the second quarter alone, and put the game beyond all doubt with an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that followed Duxbury’s second scoring drive of the night.

“Teams have done so many different things to cover Brian,” said Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli. “They press him, play a safety over the top, walk a linebacker up, hold him, they do everything to him, so we have to be creative. We wanted to be patient, to put the ball is in belly and let him carry it early, move him around a little bit to avoid double teams, then wind him out and a little bit and let him run.”

And run he did. Dunlap (317 all-purpose yards) and Chad Kidd (14 carries, 143 yards, 3 TD) were so effective in this game that Nick Olson (4 of 8, 156 yards, 3 TD), who threw for 1,374 yards over seven regular season games, was able to simply the hand the ball of most of the night.

Dunlap said that a 17-14 overtime loss to Walpole in the Bay State Herget League championship game last week helped motivate the Redhawks to perform well in the first round of the playoffs.

“The offense was definitely motivated. We’re not happy putting 14 points on the board, and that Walpole game was in the back of our minds during practice this week. Especially for the seniors, we didn’t want to lose this final game on our home turf.”

Bright Future: Duxbury’s senior wide receivers Cam Walsh (4 receptions, 63 yards) and Brian Zec (5 receptions, 115 yards) played well for the Dragons, as did senior linebacker Hunter Marston (7 tackles, 1 sack).

However, the future is bright for this program. Junior running back Collin Prudente (12 carries, 62 yards, 2 TD), sophomore quarterback Bobby Maimaron (15 of 31, 271 yards, TD, INT), and junior wide receiver Ryan Reagan (4 receptions, 91 yards, TD) performed very well against top-notch competition and will provide a solid core next season.

The Dragons also called up freshman running back Joe Gooley from their junior varsity squad, and the youngster showed impressive speed and vision on four carries.

Big Shoes To Fill: Olson’s outstanding season continues, and with a playmaker like Dunlap to target, he could continue to make Natick fans forget about a certain legendary quarterback that preceded him.

“Nick’s done a great job of filling a big role,” Dunlap said about his quarterback. “Troy [Flutie] was known as one of the greatest quarterbacks in Massachusetts history, and Nick’s found a way to make his name known by putting in the hard work and earning these results.”

In fact, after Dunlap’s game breaking 79-yard touchdown, the Natick fans began chanting. “Who needs Flutie?,” in reference to graduated Redhawks quarterback Troy Flutie. If Olson and Dunlap can deliver a D2 Super Bowl, their fan base may continue to feel that way.

Natick 42, Duxbury 27

NAT 7 27 14 0 --- 48
DUX 0 7 7 8 --- 22

First Quarter
N – Chad Kidd 4 run (PAT good) 5:56

Second Quarter
N – Brian Dunlap 36 pass from Nick Olson (PAT good) 7:56
N – Brian Dunlap 79 pass from Nick Olson (PAT good) 3:45
N – Chad Kidd 8 run (PAT good) 1:51
D – Ryan Reagan 11 pass from Bobby Maimaron (PAT good) 0:59
N – Brian Dunlap 2 pass from Nick Olson (PAT failed) 0:00

Third Quarter
D – Collin Prudente 18 run (PAT good) 7:23
N – Brian Dunlap 88 kickoff return (PAT good) 7:11
N – Chad Kidd 6 run (PAT good) 3:07

Fourth Quarter
D – Collin Prudente 10 run (conversion good) 4:40

Recap: No. 8 Walpole 17, No. 9 Natick 14

October, 25, 2014
Oct 25
8:51
AM ET


NATICK, Mass. – For whatever Jack Lavanchy might go on to accomplish in life, he’ll always have the memory of making a field goal with the game on the line in the final seconds.

It wasn’t just any game either. As No. 8 Walpole traveled to No. 9 Natick in a battle of unbeatens and with the Bay State Conference Herget division title on the line, the senior wide receiver and cornerback could have been struck with pangs of trepidation before setting up for what would prove to be the game-winning 28-yard field goal Friday night.

With the hopes of a town settled on his shoulders, Lavanchy split the uprights, giving the Rebels a 17-14 win.

For the last seven years, the game had decided the Herget title, with Natick getting the upper hand in recent years, including a wild overtime victory at Walpole last year, when the teams combined for 111 points. With Lavanchy’s boot, the Rebels returned the favor in serving the Redhawks a taste of the gut-wrenching loss they’d encountered a year prior.

With so much riding on one kick, it would have been understandable for a young man to falter. Lavanchy didn’t. And, for whatever emotions might have been bottled up inside his helmet in lead up to that kick, you certainly weren’t able to tell otherwise afterward. “Probably number one in the books,” was Lavanchy’s assessment of one of the finer high school football games you’d ever see.

“It’s a hyped-up game, but you try to stay mellow,” he added. “But we came to play, the defense played well.”

The kid’s just cool as a cucumber.

“I’m just elated”: So how did the Rebels beat the Redhawks?

It was one part plan, and another part execution.

Walpole’s coaching staff knew they needed to stop Natick’s Harvard-bound receiver Brian Dunlap coming in, but the myriad ways in which they’d have to stop Dunlap might have been another story.

Natick (6-1) used Dunlap across a number of formations, setting him in the backfield of what Rebels head coach Barry Greener called “Georgia” sets, pushing Dunlap in motion out of the backfield and, of course, split out wide. Dunlap accounted for Natick’s longest offensive play of the game with his feet. His 79-yard run on a jet sweep, which set the Redhawks up with a first-and-goal to go from the 1, led to Dunlap’s 1-yard touchdown for the game’s opening score, with the senior lined up at tailback in a two-back set.

Dunlap accounted for both Redhawks’ touchdowns, hauling in a 5-yard pass from Nick Olson (8 of 13, 94 yards) while motioning out of the backfield out of the same goal-line set used on his rushing touchdown.

“He’s a hell of a player, the best I’ve ever seen,” said Lavanchy, who drew the primary responsibility of covering Dunlap from his cornerback position. “The double moves will get you, he’s got quick feet.”

Walpole (7-0) countered Dunlap’s rushing score with some special teams wizardry.

Senior wide receiver and defensive back Andrew Papirio returned a punt 37 yards for a touchdown to tie the score, 7-7, with 9:59 remaining in the first half.

Unlike the game’s predecessor from a year ago, when the teams volleyed scores with each possession, the 2014 installment of the rivalry was marked more by clutch defensive stops. And Walpole struggled at times to finish drives, despite getting 159 yards from running back Steve Cuqua on 29 carries.

However, the Rebels were at their offensive best in the fourth quarter, with junior quarterback Tyler Berkland orchestrating the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.

Yet another of Walpole’s promising drives was threatened with sputtering out in Natick’s half of the field with a third-and-1 from the Redhawks’ 25. That’s when Berkland took the game into his own hands.

“Quick count. First sound. Go.” That’s how Greener summed up Berkland’s decision to check out of a running play to Cuqua and steam 23 yards in between the hash marks, setting up a first-and-goal to go.

“Our number one play – I probably shouldn’t say this – but if the quarterback sneak is there,” Greener said.

He paused and added, “Tyler Berkland is one smart cookie – a very smart quarterback. He understands the game, he understands fronts.

“If he sees it … What Natick was doing, their linebackers were filling great, their secondary was coming up hard in short-yardage situations – and if you hand it back to your tailback, it’s too much time that’s elapsed and they’re outnumbering you at the hole.”

Berkland eventually finished the 11-play, 79-yard drive with a 1-yard keeper on fourth and goal after T.J. Collins (2.5 tackles for loss) and Natick’s defensive front resisted.

“He’s a great athlete and he kept his head in it,” Papirio said of Berkland, a first-year starter. “He knew he had to make plays and he did.”

That score, with 4:13 remaining in regulation set the stage for Lavanchy’s heroics, after the Rebels forced a Natick punt with less than two minutes to play.

Papirio added his second noteworthy punt return, picking up a bounding ball on the fly and turning it down the left sideline for a 51-yard gain.

“Papirio had two big plays, one in the first half and one in the second half,” Greener said. “He’s just a warrior. I think they caught one ball on him all night. He was right there in coverage.”

After running a couple of plays and centering the ball between the hashes, Lavanchy’s 28-yard kick was the synthesis of Walpole’s plan: one part stifling defense, one part opportunistic offense, one part special teams prowess.

“I’m elated,” Greener said. “I’m just elated.”



 

Lack of pocket time: Olson entered the game with more than 1,200 yards passing and, with a stable of receivers at his fingertips, Walpole’s defensive brain trust knew getting pressure on the Natick quarterback would be paramount.

Greener said his staff targeted five sacks as a goal for the game. Well, the Rebels hit their mark and then some, tallying six sacks on the game, led by junior defensive lineman Xavier Andujar, who got his second sack of the game on the final play of the game.

“We played very little zone, we were in man most of the time and we were sending pressure to get at Olson,” Greener said.

Walpole’s defensive ends were a factor throughout. Despite playing through a shoulder injury, Chris Bender was a constant pest for Olson, contributing two pressures along with a tackle for loss.

“Bender didn’t play last week, with his shoulder it’s very painful,” Greener said. “He played in a lot of pain tonight, but sucked it up and went. [Nate] Porack played his usual, our tight end and defensive end, he’s smart as hell. Kevin Mansen came in and gave us some good time there as a sub, he’s another good, smart player and a senior.”

On the back end, Walpole stayed mostly in man, with a sprinkle of combo coverages sprinkled in. With pressure established up front, it limited the amount of time required for the Rebels defensive backs to trail the Redhawks’ stable of receivers.

“We had to give Dunlap extra attention, so Lavanchy was playing some man-under with our safety Jon Henri over the top,” Greener said.

Dunlap had as many carries (5, for 80 yards) as he did targets.

“He just had that one play that he hit big,” Greener said. “We turned it in pretty well, our defensive end played it great, but one of our linebackers must’ve gotten blocked because we didn’t get the fill – I’ll have to see it on film. But he cut it up and we didn’t have the scrape.”

Telestrator: Inside Walpole vs. Natick

October, 23, 2014
Oct 23
3:11
PM ET
NATICK, Mass. -- In this week's edition of "The Telestrator" ESPN Boston High Schools editor Brendan C. Hall and correspondent Mike Uva take a look further inside the key matchups for this week's ESPN Boston Game of the Week, No. 8 Walpole at No. 9 Natick.

In this segment, we take a look at the once-a-generation intangibles of Natick receiver Brian Dunlap and the versatility of Walpole defensive athlete Jack Lavanchy.

(Video by Greg Story)

The Telestrator - Walpole vs. Natick from ESPN Boston on Vimeo.

Player of the Week: Fenwick's Rufus Rushins

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
12:36
AM ET
PEABODY, Mass. -- Bishop Fenwick senior running back Rufus Rushins has already carved out a niche among the program and the state's most prolific rushers.

Already over the 1,000-yard mark for the season, Rushins is within sight of Crusaders legend Bobby Tarr and his program record for rushing yards in a career. Rushins inched closer to that mark with 273 yards in a 22-0 win over Catholic Central rival St. Mary's (Lynn), along with three touchdowns on Friday night.

ESPN Boston High Schools editor Brendan C. Hall caught up with our Player of the Week, presented by New England Dairy, for this interview on Monday:

*****
TOP PERFORMERS FOR WEEK 7:

Emmanuel Almonte, Sr. QB, Boston English - Compiled more than 300 yards of all-purpose offense, throwing for 172 yards with two TD, while rushing for 156 yards in a 46-12 win over West Roxbury.

Mike Buffoni, Sr. RB, Monument Mountain - Needed just seven carries to rack up 202 yards (28.8 yards per carry average), including two touchdowns in a 34-0 win over Drury.

Jeff Costello, Jr. QB, Lexington - Threw for 362 yards and four TD while completing 23 of 30 pass attempts in a 42-28 win over Winchester.

Brian Dunlap, Sr. WR, Natick - Tallied 122 receiving yards and two touchdowns to run his career total to 56, breaking the school's all-time scoring record in a 28-7 win over Milton.

Rufus Rushins, Sr. RB, Bishop Fenwick - Ran for 273 yards and three TD in the Crusaders' 22-0 win over St. Mary's (Lynn).

Natick's Brian Dunlap hitting full stride

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
11:34
PM ET
There was a time earlier this summer when Natick’s football coaching staff held its collective breath. After missing the entire 2013 season with a Lisfranc fracture on his left foot, wide receiver Brian Dunlap returned to the football field.

Dunlap was primed to set the state’s all-time receiving records, with a season that made him the first ESPN Boston All-State selection as a sophmore, when he led the state with 86 catches for 1,570 yards and 21 touchdowns. Then, his junior campaign was derailed before it started. Dunlap suffered his season-ending injury during a preseason scrimmage.

His return to the field came during offseason 7-on-7 passing tournaments. Since then, the concerns have eased.

“He looks tremendous right now,” Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli said Monday. “He’s the Brian Dunlap that we all remember – just bigger and stronger.”

On the long road back, Dunlap not only managed to make himself bigger, but also faster. The recent Harvard commit spent the summer working with the crew at the Athletic Evolution training center. Before participating in several area summer football camps, Dunlap pushed his foot to the limit. When he took a timed 40-yard dash, Dunlap was a fraction of a second faster this year than last.

“There was some good that came out of it,” Dunlap said. “If I couldn’t do leg stuff, I was kind of forced to do upper body work. I wouldn’t have done that before because I was concentrated on my legs and getting faster.

“I pushed myself, but I came along at whatever came comfortable. But now, at practice, I don’t think about it anymore.”

As much as Dunlap insists the injury hasn’t affected his performance, it has changed his perspective on the game.

The last time Dunlap was suited up for game action with the Redhawks was in the final game of the 2012 season at Gillette Stadium. In a classic finish, Beverly edged Natick, 28-21, for what was then the Division 2A Super Bowl. After two Hail Mary attempts in the final seconds of the game fell incomplete, Dunlap has been left to stew over the loss for nearly two calendar years.

“The last game I played has sat with me the entire time,” Dunlap said. “There’s nothing more motivating than that. I want to win the state championship more than anything.”

Having played varsity football as a freshman, it’s just about the only accomplishment Dunlap doesn’t have to his name as a high school athlete. He gave his verbal commitment to Harvard in July.

“I know that no matter what happens, they’re going to treat me the same way,” Dunlap said of the Harvard coaching staff. “They were the only school that didn’t take me off their board after the injury. That just speaks for itself. I can’t say how much that means to me, that’s pretty special.”

It’s another way that the injury has shaped Dunlap’s purview. Not that academics weren’t taken seriously before – he’s an honors student – but he now fully understands the tenuous nature of football. And, while football remains a priority, Dunlap knows that Harvard will advance his career in many ways.

“I’ve always focused on academics because it’s important to be balanced,” he said. “You can never get too focused on one thing. With the injury, I realized that any play can be your last.

“At some point, football’s going to end. And, even if you get to continue playing, if it ends, you might be able to have an education to fall back on.”

Dunlap’s book smarts came into play in his rehab, and Mortarelli praised him for his diligent work. It’s been evident in the early going. Dunlap hasn’t been limited during the first couple of days of practice.

That’s what Dunlap proved during the summer.

“During seven-on-sevens, at the South regional … He caught a million balls and a bunch of touchdowns,” Mortarelli said. “He didn’t take any plays off. I think that was the day that we took a big exhale and said that he’s ready to go.”

The anxiety is gone, now it’s time to play.

Top 25 Countdown: Nos. 25-21

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
12:21
PM ET
On Monday, we unveiled our statewide MIAA Top 25 preseason football poll. Today, we begin our annual countdown of the poll with Nos. 25 through 21.

NO. 25 NATICK
Head Coach: Mark Mortarelli (5th season, 35-11)
2013: 10-1, lost to Barnstable in D2 South semifinal
Returning Starters: Five offensive; Six defensive.
Key Players: Jared Abbruzzese, Jr. WR/LB/DB, 5-8, 160 lbs.; T.J. Collins, Sr. LB, 5-11, 185 lbs.; Brian Dunlap, Sr. WR/CB, 6-0, 175 lbs.; Chad Kidd, Jr. RB/LB, 5-6, 190; Trenton Wright, Sr. DE/TE, 6-2, 205 lbs.; Anthony Natarelli, Sr. OL/DL; Nick Olson, Sr. QB/FS; Tommy Ranucci, Sr. WR/DB.
Strengths: Passing game; defensive secondary; linebackers.
Weaknesses: Depth and experience on offensive line; size on defense.

Outlook: Even without last year’s Mr. Football winner, Troy Flutie, the Redhawks will still be able to air it out with the best of them, as senior Nick Olson gets his first crack at playing varsity quarterback. A returning starter at safety, Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli isn’t concerned about how the first-year signal-caller will fit in. “He’s used to the spotlight,” Mortarelli said of Olson. “He started every game for us at safety. He was a tremendous safety for us, he was all-league. He’s a varsity basketball player, too, so I think all of things in combination, this isn’t the first time for him under the lights.” Olson’s transition will be advantage by the return of a healthy Brian Dunlap. The Harvard commit was forced to sit out his junior year with a Lisfranc injury, but Mortarelli is happy to report he’s back at 100 percent. While defensive coverage schemes will naturally set around Dunlap, the Redhawks should be able to expose a soft underbelly as second-year starting running back Chad Kidd can provide tough yards in between the tackles. “I think we’ll run the ball a little more [this year],” Mortarelli said. “Coach [Matt] Brenneman, our offensive coordinator, likes to the throw the ball around a little, but we have a great running back in Chad Kidd. He’s a big, strong kid; he can handle the workload.” Meanwhile, Mortarelli is counting on junior Jared Abbruzzese among others to create complementary options in the passing game. On defense, Natick’s athleticism shines again. With a ball-hawking secondary last year, the Redhawks were routinely able to win the turnover battle. Natick graduated the leader of that group – Mike Abbruzzese -- but returns a few starters in Olson and Tommy Ranucci. The strength of Natick’s defense runs up the middle, with returning all-league selection T.J. Collins quarterbacking the group. While the Redhawks will not be the biggest defense in the state, they should be able to gain consistent pressure off the edge with returning three-year starter Trenton Wright. “We’re going to need to generate some pressure up front with a four-man rush,” Mortarelli said. “We can’t be blitzing all the time, so Trenton’s going to be a big part of that. He can create some havoc; he’s a rangy kid. We’re going to rely on him a lot for that.”
-SCOTT BARBOZA

NO. 24 MARSHFIELD
Coach: Lou Silva (34th season, 205-139-7)
Last Season: 5-6 (4-2 ACL), lost in Div. 2 South Quarterfinals.
Returning starters: 16 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Key Returnees: Jack Masterson, Jr. QB, 6-1, 190 lbs.; Dan Dalton, Jr. TE/LB, 6-5, 235 lbs.; Frank Catanoso, Sr. RB/DB, 5-8, 160 lbs.; Jason Darcy, Jr. WR/DB, 6-2, 185 lbs.; Matt Armstrong, Jr. TE/DE, 6-1, 180 lbs.; Shane Leonard, Jr. C, 6-2, 230 lbs.; Pat Kielty, Jr. OL, 5-11, 200 lbs.; Ian Duffy, Jr. LB, 5-8, 160 lbs.; Chris Lunn, Jr. RB/DE, 6-0, 185 lbs.; Fred Allen, Jr. MLB, 6-1, 210 lbs.; Josh Ramos, Jr. OL/DL, 6-3, 240 lbs.
Strengths: Quarterback, tight ends, offensive line, linebackers.
Weaknesses: Pass defense, experience at running back.
Outlook: The Rams offense found their identity down the stretch of the 2013 campaign and that was largely based on the superb play of quarterback Jack Masterson. As a sophomore, Masterson broke three school passing records and has many more in his sights for his junior season. Masterson’s favorite target, Dan Dalton also returns for his junior year and will present mismatches in the passing and running game. Dalton can lineup anywhere on the field and has all the tools for a monster season with his large frame (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), sure-hands and quick speed. Protecting the junior signal caller, center Shane Leonard anchors an experienced offensive line that also returns Pat Kielty and Josh Ramos. The Rams defense had difficulty taming high-powered offenses last season, allowing 40 or more points four times. Looking to this season, the Rams will have a talented front seven returning, led by MLB Fred Allen and Dalton at defensive end, but their defensive backfield remains a question mark with the loss of a handful of defensive backs. Offensively, the Rams running game took a big hit, losing their three top tailbacks to graduation in the offseason. Junior Chris Lunn is the favorite to take the brunt of the carries this season, while the search continues to another tailback to compliment him with. It has taken two years for the Rams to climb back to their perennial power status, but their talent-laden junior class will make Marshfield a team to watch out for this season. An experienced offensive line and the ability to stretch the field will give their young running game an added boost. With the Atlantic Coast League shrinking down to five teams this season, circle their September 26th matchup at No. 12 Dennis-Yarmouth to likely decide the ACL title.
-PHIL GARCEAU

No. 23 BARNSTABLE
Coach: Chris Whidden (Fourth season, 28-8-0)
Last season: 9-2 (3-0 OCL), lost in Div. 2 South Finals.
Returning starters: 4 (2 offense, 2 defense)
Key Players: Owen Murray, Sr. OL/DL, 6-4, 250 lbs; Clyde Perry, Sr. MLB, 5-11, 225 lbs; Colton Bergal, Sr. LB, 6-1, 225 lbs; Bo Delaney, Sr. WR, 5-11, 165 lbs.
Strengths: Linebackers, offensive line, coaching staff.
Weaknesses: Overall experience, defensive secondary, offensive backfield.
Overview: The Red Raiders have many holes to fill at the skill positions on both sides of the ball after losing 30 players to graduation, but Barnstable has the tendency to reload rather than rebuild. Of the 307 points scored in Barnstable’s 2013 campaign, only 16 points hit the scoreboard from non-seniors, meaning there will be plenty of position battles when the Red Raiders open camp. Head coach Chris Whidden praised his roster, citing their work ethic and coach-abillity as strengths for the team. Senior Owen Murray will bolster the offensive line from his position at right tackle, diverting the pressure from first-year starting quarterback Griffin Burke and carving holes for the running back-by-committee system in the backfield. MLB Clyde Perry is also one of the few returning starters on the Red Raiders defense and with Murray on the defensive line, Barnstable has a strong core up the middle to build around. It will be a trail by fire for this young Red Raiders team to begin the season. The first four weeks consist of No. 12 Dennis-Yarmouth, at No. 24 Marshfield, No. 15 BC High and at top-seeded Xaverian which will put Barnstable to the test early and often. Barnstable doesn’t begin Old Colony League play until mid-October, which gives them plenty of time to get their game on-track to defend their three-consecutive OCL titles and perhaps more importantly, an automatic bid to the Div. 2 South playoffs. Entering his fourth year at the helm, Whidden has never had a losing season and has shown that he can lead his troops into battle while getting the most out of each player on the field.
-PHIL GARCEAU

NO. 22 AUBURN
Coach: Jeff Cormier (16th season, 136-43 overall)
Last Season: 8-3, lost in Division 5 Central Quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Key Returnees: Mark Wright, Sr. RB/DB, 5-8, 180 lbs.; Dillon Bruso, Sr. OL/DL, 6-2, 250 lbs.; Josh Furmanick, Sr. FB/DL, 5-8, 195 lbs.; Nick Thomas, Sr. LB, 5-6, 160 lbs.
Strengths: Running game, receivers, competitiveness in camp.
Weaknesses: Depth.
Outlook: After going 63-2 with five Super Bowl titles from 2008-12, with a 41-game win streak sandwiched in between, the Rockets were as green as any point in Cormier's tenure last fall, returning just one starter on either side of the ball. It showed early, and again late when they were one of just four home seeds in Massachusetts to lose their first round playoff game, taking one on the chin to SWCL rival Bartlett in D5 Central. But it was quite the revelation for Wright, who led CMass in carries (258), rushing yards (2,111) and rushing TDs (25) in his first year starting with the varsity. "Once we get five yards, Mark will make his one cut and explode through the hole. As long as we get some decent blocking, he'll be able to make a play," said Bruso. Still, there's a bitter taste in the Rockets' mouths about the way things ended in 2013. "Everywhere we had to hear about it. Even kids from our own town were telling us we were done," Furmanick said. The Rockets are most known for their power running scheme, deploying two-back, double-tight personnel and seeking to outweigh their opponents at the point of attack. This year, with a giant target on Wright's back and a good grouping of perimeter skill players, the Rockets may throw more. Cormier is not ready to name a starting quarterback yet, with several players in the mix, but keep an eye on sophomore Steve Saucier. The undersized signal-caller puts good zip on the ball for a player of his frame, and showed some great flashes as a freshman last fall.
-BRENDAN C. HALL

NO. 21 TEWKSBURY
Coach: Brian Alyward (17th year, 102-82-1)
2013: 13-0, Division 3 State Champions
Returning Starters: Six (2 offense, 4 defense)
Key Returnees: James Sullivan, Sr. RB/SS, 5-11’ 215 lbs; Tom Casey, Sr. FB/MLB, 5-9 190 lbs; Ryan Bednarek, Sr. S, 5-9 160 lbs; Ethan Eloi Sr. DT/NG, 5-9 226 lbs.; Alex Schelfhaudt, Sr. T/DE, 6-0 195 lbs; Brendan O’Connor Sr. WR/CB 5-7 145 lbs; Mitchell Miskell, Sr. K, 5-10 160 lbs; Jimmy Hurtle, Sr. RB/CB 5-9 167 lbs; Jimmy Doran, Sr. OG/DT, 5-11, 215 lbs; Ryan Carey, Sr. RB/DB, 5-6 143 lbs.
Strengths: Physicality, running game.
Weaknesses: Inexperience at offensive line.
Outlook: Tewksbury will never be confused for its Merrimack Valley Conference neighbors that run spread offenses and like to throw the ball all over the field. The hallmark of Tewksbury has been its continuous physicality. Its run to last year’s Division 3 state championship was predicated on (no pun intended) its ability to run the ball and outmuscle teams on both sides of the ball. While it lost some linemen to graduation, impact players like Eloi and Casey return to anchor the middle of the defense. Sullivan will play behind them at strong safety, flanked by other skilled defenders. Offensively, the team will continue its multiple-running back approach that brought it so much success last season. “We feel pretty confident in all our backs,” said Alyward. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can contribute. We’re not going to have a need for a one-man show, nor do I think that would be effective. We’re going to try to stay as multiple as we can and try to use the same format as we do every year.” The starting offensive linemen on last year’s Super Bowl-winning team were lost to graduation, leaving spots open for players to try and create running lanes for Sullivan and others. Last year’s line continuity helped the team steamroll through D3 and allowed Sullivan to score over 20 touchdowns. “We have about 10 kids that are vying of those spots that have been good kids in our program,” said Alyward. “We’ll work with them and learn more about what we can do and what we can’t with them.” John Aylward, the quarterback of that undefeated team, also graduated, so the Redmen will have someone new under center to go along with that new offensive line. Juniors Brett Morris and Steve Hamel are in the running to take over for Aylward, with Morris the early odds-on favorite to win the job. On top of all that, as a defending state champion, the team now has a target on its back. It has not lost a game since November 2012, so it will get its opponent’s best game every week as they try to dethrone the champion. How the team reacts and responds to that pressure will determine whether the Redmen can duplicate last year’s success. “I told the kids at the start of our first practice, ‘Hey guys, you had such a special experience last year and a state championship under your belt and that’s money in the bank that no one can ever take away from you,’’ said the coach. “But now you just have to put it aside and understand that doesn’t buy us anything but a little more attention than in years before. So now we’ve gotta get ready to fight.”
-ANDY SMITH
When all the chips on Brian Dunlap's shoulders add up, they could equal a steal for the Harvard Crimson.

The Natick High senior wide receiver made public his verbal commitment to Harvard for the 2015 season this afternoon, while playing with his Redhawks teammates in an Under Armour Northeast 7-on-7 Regional tournament at Oliver Ames High School (a tournament they went on to win).



The 6-foot Dunlap chose Harvard over offers from Holy Cross and New Hampshire.

"They handle everything the exact right way," Dunlap said of Harvard. "They’re world class over there, and everything they do is just the way that I want it to be done."

Early on in his high school career, Dunlap was considered the jewel of Massachusetts' 2015 recruiting class, becoming the first sophomore ever to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors in 2012 after catching 86 passes for 1,570 yards and 21 touchdowns, leading the Redhawks to the MIAA Division 2A Super Bowl. By the end of his sophomore season, working with legendary quarterback Troy Flutie (now of Boston College), Dunlap had already accumulated 35 touchdowns, 155 catches and 2,742 receiving yards.

But just as he seemed on the verge of blowing up on the recruiting trail, injuries derailed those plans. A Lisfranc fracture on his left foot last August, suffered in the first scrimmage of the preseason, wiped out his entire junior season.

Whatever Division 1 FBS interest there was had cooled over the offseason. Dunlap said he doesn't take it personally, but he doesn't forget either.

"Obviously, I understand that. I understand why schools would be nervous [about] someone who’s injured," he said. "Harvard just really showed how much they cared, and that’s pretty special. Not a lot of programs are like that.

"I don’t want to hold any grudges, but there’s obviously stuff that I keep in the back of my mind when I’m training or playing or anything like that. Obviously, I remember stuff, little things . . . I don’t want to go into it, I respect every college coach and I understand why they do what they do, but obviously I have chips on my shoulders."

As for Harvard, the interest never waned. Offensive coordinator Joel Lamb -- a Natick resident, and the son of Hall of Fame former Natick coach Tom Lamb -- kept in close contact throughout the process.

"They treat all of their players and recruits like they would treat their own sons," Dunlap said. "That means the world to me, especially [as] somebody who got hurt, I know that no matter what they’ll always be there for me and care for me even if I get hurt.

"The coaching staff over there has been unbelievable, throughout the whole recovery. Even when I was hurt, Joel Lamb, the offensive coordinator, kept in contact with me. I know he really cares for me, and that means the world to me and my parents. They have an amazing tradition over there, a winning program. I couldn’t be more excited with the opportunity."

With National Letter of Intent Signing Day still seven months away, there remains the distinct possibility some higher-profile late interest could arrive. But Dunlap says he is whole-heartedly committed to the Crimson, no matter what the future entails.

"I’m a man of my word. Harvard’s treated me so well that I would never want to do something like that to them," Dunlap said. "They don’t deserve that. They’ve treated me so well that that’s not an option."

10 Off the Top: Week 3 edition

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
11:57
PM ET
A smattering of observances, trends, anecdotes, factoids and musings collected from around Massachusetts football in the last week or so:


10. One way-too-early prediction: Marblehead is going to cause some waves in Division 3 Northeast.


9. It might still be early, but Middleborough looks to have a playmaker for some years to come in sophomore running back Eddie Hart. While not the tallest in stature (he's 5-foot-7), the shifty Hart dazzled again in Week 2 with a 52-yard punt return for a touchdown in addition to 130 rushing yards on 15 carries, with two touchdowns, in the Sachems' victory over Coyle-Cassidy.


8. It was a rough second half for Weymouth's defense against Bay State rival Natick last Thursday, but someone worth keeping an eye on is Wildcats middle linebacker James Bradley. The senior showed good instincts and sideline-to-sideline pursuit (against a fleet-footed Redhawks squad nonetheless).


7. And while we're on those Redhawks ... After a week, it looks as though Alex Hilger will be Troy Flutie's go-to target with Brian Dunlap lost for the season to injury. But while teams might soon begin giving Hilger a Dunlap-like treatment with bracketed coverage, that's only to create more space for fellow senior wide receiver Justin Robinson to work, particularly along the seems of the field, as he did with increasing frequency during later stages of Natick's win at Weymouth.


6. As in six hundred. In a wild 64-39 win over Swampscott, St. Mary's (Lynn) accumulated just shy of 600 rushing yards -- well, 570 to be exact -- but Connor Sakowich, Jordan Manthorne and Abraham Toe put on a show no one will soon forget.


5. After making his college decision on Monday, Central Catholic senior running back/defensive back D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie offered his evaluation of the Merrimack Valley Conference this year -- as well as a pet peeve about scheduling.


"Very, very good competition," he said. "Lowell's great. Andover's good. Chelmsford's always tough. Billerica looks really good, too, their quarterback [Jordan Bolarinho] is putting up crazy numbers right now."


But then, again, "We don't get to play Methuen any more though. I'm a little bummed about that. It was always a great game atmosphere."


4. And another thing about Drummond-Mayrie ... When you talk to Raiders head coach Chuck Adamopoulos about his star two-way player, the first trait he'll bring up to you is his humility. Adamopoulos added that the most difficult thing for Drummond-Mayrie in his recruiting process was informing the five other offering schools of his decision. He took the time Monday to call all of the prospective coaching staffs before announcing his commitment to local media.


3. The number of consecutive wins No. 1 Bridgewater-Raynham holds over No. 14 Xaverian entering Saturday's Game of the Week matchup.


2. Speaking of those aforementioned Trojans, here's another factoid for you. In Saturday's 13-10 win over Duxbury, B-R did not surrender an offensive touchdown. It marked the first game during Duxbury head coach Dave Maimaron's 9-year tenure in which the Dragons did not score an offensive touchdown.


1. Undoubtedly, the story of Week 2 was how B-R quarterback Matt Clement dutifully played in the midst of a chaotic day for his family.

Saturday morning, Scott Clement suffered a heart attack while running the track at B-R. He'd been training for an upcoming 5K race. If not for a couple of Good Samaritans who were also around the athletic complex at the time and called 911, Scott Clement's life could have been in even greater peril.


He was rushed to Brockton Hospital where he underwent emergency surgery to insert a stent.


With Matt by his side, Scott Clement had one final message for his son before being wheeled into the O.R.: "Focus on what's at hand."


"I couldn't believe that's what he told me," Matt told me Tuesday. "He's the one going into surgery and he's telling me to do that? I told him he needed to focus on what he was doing more."


Scott Clement, a quarterback in his days at Holbrook High, also told his son he was to play that night against the Dragons. Matt led the Trojans to their second straight road win, en route to seizing the No. 1 ranking in our Top 25 poll.


The first thing Matt did after passing through Saturday's postgame handshake line was pick up the phone.


"I was just sad that he missed it," Matt said. "It was a great game, and he loves this program. He loves football."


Scott Clement was released from the hospital Monday evening.

Recap: No. 7 Natick 35, Weymouth 14

September, 13, 2013
9/13/13
1:04
AM ET


WEYMOUTH, Mass. – Alex Hilger was waiting for a game like this.

For most of the 2012 football season, all the Natick wide receiver and defensive back could do is watch from the sideline and cheer on his teammates, after a broken collarbone claimed most of his junior year. He still bears the scar of the injury, hidden underneath his shoulder pads.

The irony of the situation, in the No. 7 Redhawks’ 35-14 win over Weymouth Thursday afternoon, is that Hilger’s performance was, in part, due to the absence of one of his teammates. With ESPN Boston preseason All-State receiver Brian Dunlap lost for this season, the scene was set for Hilger to make up for lost time.

Hilger hauled in 14 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also showed up in the kicking game, connecting on each of Natick’s point-after tries and booting several kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks.

It came to the surprise of none on the Redhawks’ sideline, who saw Hilger’s efforts as a case of promise realized.

“We’ve always known Alex is pretty dangerous,” Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli said. “We knew if our offense was going to move the ball, he was going to be the focal point. And Troy [Flutie] is so good at finding the open receiver, and Justin Robinson stepped up, and Andrew Boynton stepped up. We just had a lot of guys make plays for us.”

Hilger deflected praise when asked if he’d become Flutie’s top target, instead crediting his quarterback for reading the defense.

“They were playing way off with their safety,” Hilger said, “and we were saying, ‘Hey, let’s just keep taking these short routes.’”

Along with Hilger, fellow senior Andrew Boynton also assumed a greater load in Natick’s passing game, grabbing a 15-yard touchdown pass from Flutie to open scoring in the second quarter.

The Redhawks (1-0) clung to a 14-7 half-time lead after Wildcats quarterback Matt Long lofted a fade to the back left pylon to Ryan Ainslie for a 21-yard touchdown pass with three seconds remaining in the second.

In the second half, Natick used four Weymouth (0-1) turnovers to run away with a win that looked much more difficult than the score indicated.

“We got a little luck, when they put one on the ground, but then we had a great drive and we punched it in,” Mortarelli said. “That was really the difference, in my mind.”

After marching down the field off the opening kickoff of the second half, the Wildcats lost a fumble at Natick’s 3-yard line on a first-and-goal rush.

Fifteen plays and 97 yards later, Flutie (22 of 29, 247 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) capped the statement drive with a 1-yard plunge over right guard.

“We talked about it in the locker room at halftime,” Hilger said, “one stop and a good drive and the game’s over.”

Oh, what a relief it is: For a few tense moments during the second quarter, Mortarelli’s stomach resided in his throat.

After running for a 5-yard gain on second and 9, Flutie pulled up lame on his left leg. The Boston College commit then sat out the next two plays and was replaced under center by junior Nick Olson, who would later go on to nab an interception.

Following the near brush with disaster, Flutie returned to the sideline in good spirits, insisting he was fine.

Aside from his contributions on game day, Flutie also assumed another role during practice this week: that of Weymouth’s multi-talented athlete David Harrison.

“You can’t simulate the speed of Harrison during practice,” Mortarelli said.

So he had the idea to use Flutie, perhaps the closest facsimile of what Harrison offers, on the scout team. Of course, that comes with perils of its own kind.

“It’s a little dangerous running your starting quarterback on scout team offense,” Mortarelli said.

A multitude of possibilities: Speaking of Harrison, a preseason All-Stater in his own right; there was the issue of exactly what form the Wildcats offense would assume. For the most part, Harrison was flexed out wide and sophomore Matt Long ran the read option at quarterback.

Long, who saw varsity snaps last year as a freshman, proved capable Thursday, making plays with his feet (a 49-yard run on Weymouth’s second play from scrimmage) and his arm (a pair of touchdowns to Ainslie, including a 55-yard play in the fourth quarter). Along with senior back Derrell Fernandez, the Wildcats have a stable of versatile athletes who can line up at multiple positions and create matchup problems for defenses.

Turnover battle: Both teams committed their share of turnovers Thursday, with the Wildcats’ four second-half giveaways factoring greatly.

The defensive secondary of both teams exhibited good ball instincts, primarily Weymouth’s Tyler O’Brien, who snagged two picks.

Natick safety Mike Abbruzzese also had an interception in addition to two fumble recoveries by the Redhawks in the second half.

A script revision for Flutie, No. 5 Natick

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
5:00
PM ET
Stop if you’ve read this script before.

A man named Flutie, under center, tries to will his team to victory during the final minute in an improbable circumstance. It was all there in Natick’s Division 2A Super Bowl versus Beverly at Gillette Stadium last year – that is, except for the fairytale ending.

After the Redhawks lost a classic, 28-21, with Beverly capping its first-ever perfect season after two Natick Hail Mary prayers went unanswered, Troy Flutie couldn’t bring himself to think about football for about a week. Then, he picked up the game film. By his count, he watched it five times from beginning to end, picking over the finer points, noting improvements to make for his senior year.

“It’s tough to look back at this play here, or that play there that might have turned the game out differently, but it is what it is,” the Boston College commit said. “You can only get better from it, that’s all you can do.”

Flutie realizes the path to get back to Gillette has become more difficult. Now in a loaded Division 2 South field in the MIAA’s new playoff scheme, the No. 5 Redhawks will have to muster another season full of magic to reach a championship game.

Again, Natick will rely upon its spread offense, operated by Flutie, to get them there. Aside from the ESPN Boston All-State quarterback, who threw for 3,135 yards and 35 touchdowns against eight interceptions last season, the Redhawks have another All-Stater in junior wide receiver Brian Dunlap. While Dunlap’s been held out of Natick’s most recent preseason scrimmages with a lower leg injury, there’s plenty of depth behind him. Flutie reports that senior Alex Hilger, who was held out of most of 2012 due to injury, has looked great early. He also expects big things from returnees Andrew Boynton and Justin Robinson.

And then, of course, there’s the X-factor to the Natick offense: Flutie’s feet. Adept at making throws on the run, Troy, like his uncle before him, almost seems more at ease when play breaks down around him.

“Coach Mort [Mark Mortarelli] knows how I play the game and he’s 100 percent behind me,” Flutie said of his penchant for scrambling out of the pocket. “That means a lot to me. Usually, it’s our offensive coordinator, Matt Brenneman, or my dad [Darren], who’s yelling at me to stay in the pocket.”

Flutie sees room for improvement in that aspect. It’s among the takeaways he gleaned from watching last year’s Super Bowl defeat.

While he’s most likely to follow his father’s path as a wide receiver at BC, his focus is making himself the best quarterback he can be. He wants to become a more patient passer, one who feels the rush and stands his ground.

“I have to work on that myself to become a better quarterback,” he added.

But no matter which Flutie it concerns, Plan B is never a bad option.

NATICK AT A GLANCE
Coach: Mark Mortarelli (Fourth season, 25-10)
2012: 11-2, lost in Eastern Mass. Division 2A Super Bowl
Returning starters: 10 (six offensive, four defensive)
Key Returnees: Troy Flutie, Sr. QB; Brian Dunlap, Jr. WR; Alex Hilger, Sr. WR; Mike Abbruzzese, Sr. FS/WR; Justin Robinson, Sr. WR; Gus Black, Sr. RB/OLB; T.J. Collins Jr. LB.
Strengths: Returning skill players.
Weaknesses: Experience on offensive/defensive line and running back.

Outlook: While the Redhawks’ offense shouldn’t tail off much from 2012, the key position battle worth looking at is running back, where all-leaguer Nick Lee graduated. “I don’t think we could ever find another Nick Lee,” Flutie said. “He was like another quarterback back there for me. He’d help me a lot back there, checking out of plays. Now, I’m back there by myself.” A Kevin Faulk-kind of presence for Natick’s offense, Flutie lauded Lee’s blitz pick-up ability in the backfield as a key to his success. Look for sophomore Chad Kidd to pick up carries at running back in addition to senior two-way player Gus Black.

Natick’s secondary is deep and talented, with Mike Abbruzzese ready to break out after a solid junior year. Also, the linebacking corps might be a little light in game experience, but possesses play-making potential with a cast of Black, T.J. Collins, Justin Montgomery and Trenton Wright.
NATICK, Mass. – ESPN Boston preseason No. 5 Natick conducted a tri-scrimmage with Braintree and North Attleborough on Wednesday.

Here are some thoughts and observations from the three sides:

The Missing: The proceedings were in some ways marked by who wasn’t there, with each of the sides suiting up without some of their top players. Natick saw top receiver Brian Dunlap held out after he’d rolled an ankle during Saturday’s scrimmage. The injury bug also bit Braintree Saturday against Stoughton, when starting tight end and defensive end Derek Anson suffered a high ankle sprain on his final rep. Meanwhile, North Attleborough wasn’t without its own issues, as quarterback/half back Jack Blasť was limited by a hip ailment.

Full tilt: Even in Dunlap’s absence, the Redhawks looked to be near midseason form in the passing game. Troy Flutie dazzled with his trademark elusiveness in the pocket, scrambling around the backfield to make several first-down completions against Braintree’s top defensive unit. The offensive highlight of the afternoon came on Flutie’s 20-yard connection to Andrew Boynton, who made an over-the-shoulder catch on a perfect fade thrown to back right pylon in tight coverage.

Filling holes: Boynton’s score wasn’t his only contribution. He also lined up in the backfield in some two-back looks shown by the Redhawks. Natick is looking for a new feature back, following the graduation of Nick Lee. Head coach Mark Mortarelli also worked in senior Gus Black and sophomore Chad Kidd at running back on Wednesday.

It’s not the only positional battle Mortarelli was keeping an eye on. In addition to Black (also a starting OLB), he’s looking to junior T.J. Collins (5-10, 175 lbs.) to fill a hole, as well as senior Justin Montgomery, who also sat out the scrimmage because of an injury.

Working against North’s spread concepts and the double wing and Wing-T formations of Braintree, Mortarelli believes the exercise served as a good preparation for what’s to come.

“We wanted to make our kids uncomfortable,” Mortarelli said. “I wanted to see who could adjust, who could make the change playing against two different styles. I thought we did a good job overall, defensively, today.”

Step right up: North head coach Don Johnson also used Wednesday’s workout to glean a bit more information about his squad, which returns just a few starters on either side of the ball.

With Blasť limited, senior James Kummer had the majority of snaps with the first team offense at quarterback. He was working behind a new-look offensive line, which returns just one starter – senior captain Evan Sweeney, who slides over to left tackle.

The preseason snaps have been particularly important to the young line. Johnson anticipates a deep junior class to help patch the other holes on the line with Max Kroll working at right guard while Connor Ryan steps into right tackle. The battle at left guard is among the tightest in camp with Dan Kummer and Pat Munley vying for playing time.

Once the line has come together, Johnson thinks the Red Rocketeers have the elements to move the ball.

“I like what we have in the depth of our backfield and the versatility there,” Johnson said. “I think we’ll be able to show some balance and be able to throw.”

Keep your eye on … : Well, you can see him from about a mile away.

Standing 6-feet, 7-inches tall and 260 pounds, Braintree tackle Ryan Houlihan commands attention. The physical lineman made his presence felt Wednesday, particularly in the ground game. He’s not just a big frame. Also a basketball player, Houlihan has the feet to match, and he’s begun to gain the attention of college recruiters. A host of Division 2 schools have inquired about Houlihan, but Harvard has also expressed interest.

With a bruising offensive line in front of them, Connor Columbus and Mike Mahoney should find running room. Third-year Wamps head coach Brian Chamberlain is also looking for junior hoop standout Keyshaad Dixon to have an impact at receiver.

And, if all goes to plan, the Wamps – who haven’t experienced a winning season in their last nine – could break beyond their three-win total from a year ago.

Roundtable: Best players, breakout stars, sleepers

August, 21, 2013
8/21/13
6:03
PM ET
Brendan Hall
ESPN Boston High Schools editor


Best QB: Cody Williams, Springfield Central
Best RB: Johnathan Thomas, St. John's Prep
Best WR: Brian Dunlap, Natick
Best TE: Brendan Hill, Mansfield
Best OL: Jon Baker, Millis/Hopedale
Best DL: Jon Baker, Millis/Hopedale
Best LB: C.J. Parvelus, Everett
Best DB: Lubern Figaro, Everett
Best passing offense: Natick
Best rushing offense: St. John's Prep
Best offensive line: St. John's Prep
Best defensive line: Reading
Best linebackers: Reading
Best secondary: Everett

THREE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Medway
Coach Dave McSweeney's affinity for power football isn't a secret, and this season he'll have two road-graders to run behind in Kevin Sheehan (6-4, 285) and Cam Smith (6-5, 290, Lafayette commit). If there's any exhibit for why we needed to change the postseason format, the most glaring sample might be the Mustangs, who went 19-3 from 2009-10 with no playoff berth. In this new playoff system, a gameplan like the Mustangs' is built for the long haul.

Lynn English
Perhaps this isn't a surprise pick so much as an affirmation. In a Division 2 North that is perceived to be wide open after heavy favorite Reading, the Bulldogs have enough talent to make a deep run. There has always been elite talent at the skill positions, but Preseason All-State selection Chris Tinkham gives them a presence in the trenches they've lacked the last few years, a rare "war daddy" type who overpowers the interior gaps. The biggest question will be where the Bulldogs put junior Jordan Javier, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Haverhill who is a matchup problem at his natural split end position but also throws one of the prettiest balls you'll see on the North Shore.

Quabbin
The Panthers struggled to a 4-7 tune last season in a weak league, but there is some promise. Quarterback Dylan Kierman is an underappreciated talent, who should get a boost from the return of slippery receiver Nick Thyden. The Panthers run a unique "Air Raid" scheme, and another year of experience with it could surprised teams in Division 4 Central.

THREE BREAKOUT ATHLETES TO WATCH

Lukas Denis, Jr. ATH, Everett
After an injury-shortened 2012 season in which he was the assumed successor to record-setting quarterback Jonathan DiBiaso, but barely saw the field, Denis is moving to the perimeter, where he will take a role similar to the hybrid slot-back role that Manny Asprilla made legendary in 2010. Defensively, he should serve as a terrific compliment in the secondary to highly-touted safety/cornerback Lubern Figaro, and has already begun to pick up some Division 1 FBS interest.

Alfred Adarkwah, Sr. WR, Doherty
Standing a long 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-7 wingspan, Adarkwah has an unusually large catching radius for a high school receiver. This summer in passing leagues, the Highlanders toyed with Adarkwah and Boston College-bound receiver Isaac Yiadom on the same side of 2x2 formations. Head coach Sean Mulcahy has to be excited with the possibilities that opens up -- just imagine sending those two on a post-wheel combo route. Or better yet, imagine running them on a bubble screen, taking advantage of both Yiadom's elite speed and Adarkwah's great downfield blocking skills.

Taj-Amir Torres, Jr. ATH, Amherst
Already a household name in track and field, where he was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year last spring as a sophomore after winning New Englands in the 100-meter dash, he's about to get a whole lot more attention. Boston College, UConn and UMass have already offered Torres, who made just 24 catches last season but made some incredible feats of athleticism. Hurricanes head coach David Thompson told us earlier this month "[We're] trying to get the ball in his hands every opportunity we get", so expect bigger numbers in 2013.

WAY TOO EARLY STATE CHAMPION PICKS

Div. 1 - Everett
Div. 2 - Springfield Central
Div. 3 - Walpole
Div. 4 - Doherty
Div. 5 - Auburn
Div. 6 - Millis/Hopedale

***

Scott Barboza
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor

Best QB - Drew Belcher - Sr. Reading
Best RB - Johnny Thomas - Sr. St. John’s Prep
Best WR - Brian Dunlap - Jr. Natick
Best TE - Rory Donovan - Sr. Cardinal Spellman
Best OL - Jon Baker – Sr., Millis/Hopedale
Best DL – Joe Gaziano – Jr., Xaverian
Best LB – Eddie Motavu – Sr., Tewksbury
Best DB - Lubern Figaro - Sr. Everett
Best passing offense - Natick
Best rushing offense - St. John's Prep
Best offensive line – Bridgewater-Raynham
Best defensive line - Reading
Best linebackers - Leominster
Best secondary - Everett

THREE SURPRISE TEAMS

St. Mary’s (Lynn)
OK, so a team coming off an 11-2 season and a Super Bowl appearance might not exactly be a surprise, but with a couple of other Catholic Central teams garnering the buzz in the preseason, let's not forget the Spartans have another season with Jordan Collier (1,495 yards, 18 TD).

Hingham

We've heard them knocking, but can they come in? The Harbormen have whittled the gap in recent years, particularly against Patriot League nemesis Duxbury, but they're still waiting to break through. They could have an in-road in Division 3 Southwest. An early non-leaguer against Oliver Ames should be a bellweather for things to come, but the real proof will come Oct. 5, against those aforementioned Dragons.

Wakefield
The Warriors fell short of their goal of winning the Middlesex League's Freedom division last year, but should be in the mix in a wide open Division 3 Northwest race. We'll have a better impression after a visit from Lynn English in Week 2.

THREE BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETES

Joe Johnston, Sr. RB/S, King Philip
Anybody who saw Johnston's hard-nosed 157-yard, 2-touchdown performance against North Attleborough last year knows Johnston's style. He's a burden for would-be tacklers inside the box, and once he kicks it outside, he's also very hard to catch.

Grant Kramer, Sr. OT, Duxbury
The younger brother of Boston College tackle Aaron Kramer, Grant is now ready to assume the role as the next great lineman on the Dragons' line (and there have been some very good ones in recent memory). He currently holds offers from Coastal Carolina and Villanova but has also expressed interest in attending West Point.

Connor Moriarty, Sr. RB, Walpole
When Rebels starter Mike Rando went out with an ankle injury near the midway point of the regular season last year, it was Moriarty who carried the load down the stretch. Expect even bigger numbers this year.

WAY TOO EARLY CHAMPIONSHIP PREDICTIONS:

D1 – St. John’s Prep
D2 – Springfield Central
D3 – Walpole
D4 – Doherty
D5 – Auburn
D6 – Millis/Hopedale

***

Josh Perry
ESPN Boston correspondent


Best QB - Drew Belcher, Reading
Best RB - Jonathan Thomas, St. John’s Prep
Best WR – Brian Dunlap, Natick
Best TE – Brendan Hill, Mansfield
Best OL – Jon Baker, Millis-Hopedale
Best DL – Andrew Bourque, Reading
Best LB – Kevin Bletzer, Catholic Memorial
Best DB – Lubern Figaro, Everett
Best passing offense - Natick
Best rushing offense – St. John’s Prep
Best offensive line – St. John’s Prep
Best defensive line - Reading
Best linebackers – Catholic Memorial
Best secondary - Everett

THREE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE:

Attleboro
A new coaching staff, the energy of a new field complex, and a strong crop of returning seniors could make the Bombardiers the surprise team of the Hockomock League. Attleboro has always been a sleeping giant and the program continues to find solid athletes, it’s now up to the new staff to build a system that fits the talent on the roster. With a couple of league rivals dealing with injuries and suspensions, Attleboro could sneak up on people.

Barnstable
Everyone assumes that there will be a significant drop off for the Red Raiders due to a big graduating class, but there is still potential to be a solid team in D2 and in the OCL. This may not be a another season with Barnstable holding the top spot in the poll, but it shouldn’t be written off either.

Stoughton
The Knights are expected to finish behind Oliver Ames in the Davenport, but don’t be surprised if they pull an upset or two and give the Tigers a run at the title. Watch out for running back Malachi Baugh, who will be getting the majority of the carries this season and is a beast to try and bring down.

THREE BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETES TO WATCH

Luke Morrison, Sr. TE/DE, Attleboro
Attleboro’s giant tight end/defensive end is a monster match-up on both sides of the ball and could be a real threat as Tim Walsh’s favorite target in the Bombardiers passing attack.

Ryan Charter, Sr. QB, Needham
Mike Panepinto has deservedly drawn praise as the star man on the Needham offense, but the senior quarterback, who has been under center for 1-1/2 seasons already, will have high expectations as the Rockets try to get back on top in the Bay State.

Kyle Wisnieski, Sr. QB, Mansfield
With the graduation of running backs Robbie Rapoza and Kevin Makie and the continued injury problems for wide receiver Michael Hershman the key cog for the Hornets offense will be its senior quarterback. Wisnieski’s ability to spread the ball around and pick the right options out of a still talented receiving corps that includes Brendan Hill is going to be the key for Mansfield’s run at a Hockomock title.

WAY TOO EARLY STATE CHAMPION PICKS:

Div. 1 – St. John’s Prep
Div. 2 - Nashoba
Div. 3 – Bishop Feehan
Div. 4 - Doherty
Div. 5 - Auburn
Div. 6 – Millis-Hopedale

***

Ryan Kilian
Founder and Editor-in-Chief, Massachusetts Prep Stars


Best QB - Drew Belcher, Reading
Best RB - Johnathan Thomas, St. John's Prep
Best WR - Brian Dunlap, Natick
Best TE - Rory Donovan, Cardinal Spellman
Best OL - Jon Baker, Millis/Hopedale
Best DL - Alex Quintero, Lowell
Best LB - C.J. Parvelus, Defense
Best DB - Lubern Figaro, Everett
Best passing offense - St. John's (Shrewsbury)
Best rushing offense - St. John's Prep
Best offensive line - St. John's Prep
Best defensive line - Reading
Best linebackers - Duxbury
Best secondary - Everett

THREE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Bedford
While Wayland and Concord-Casrlisle have earned the DCL Small Championship the past few years do not sleep on Bedford in 2013. The Bucs play one of the toughest schedules in Division 4 and the return All-DCL running back Olan Abner.

Chelmsford
While Lowell, Central and Andover are getting most of the early press in the MVC Large, the Chelmsford Lions return one of the State's top running backs in Jeff D'Auria, a seasoned young quarterback in Jack Campsmith and a nice nucleus of tough experienced defenders.

Archbishop Williams
If Archies can find early offensive balance to take some of the work load off the shoulders of star senior back Kylan Philbert-Richardson, they could make some noise in the D5 playoff hunt.

THREE BREAKOUT ATHLETES TO WATCH

Ian Kessel, Soph. RB, Haverhill
The St. John's Prep transfer saw late game carries last season as a freshman for Prep's Super Bowl Champion squad. The speedy halfback is now back home in the MVC Small, and with the graduation of work horse, All-State RB Chance Brady (Tufts), there should be plenty carries to go around.

Devin Lekan, Sr. DE/TE, Chelmsford
D'Auria and Campsmith return to lead the offense for Chelmsford's but it is the Lion defense could be the story if they stay healthy. The Lions feature the 2nd team all-MVC performer was the most impressive player in the games I saw last season.

Nick Orekoya, Jr. DB/RB Billerica
Orekoya saw a lot of playing time as a two-way starter for Billerica last season. With another year under his belt Orekoya should thrive in coach Rich McKenna's high octane offense.

WAY TOO EARLY STATE CHAMPION PICKS

Div. 1 - Everett
Div. 2 - Reading
Div. 3 - Tewksbury
Div. 4 - Dennis-Yarmouth
Div. 5 - Auburn
Div. 6 - Boston Cathedral

***

John Botelho
Editor-in-Chief, South Shore Sports Journal


Best QB - Troy Flutie, Natick
Best RB - Dylan Oxsen, Plymouth South
Best WR - Brian Dunlap, Natick
Best TE - Rory Donovan, Cardinal Spellman
Best OL - Jon Baker, Millis/Hopedale
Best DL - Steve Manning, Abington
Best LB - Kervin Jean-Claude, Brockton
Best DB - Lubern Figaro, Everett
Best passing offense - Natick
Best rushing offense - St. John's Prep
Best offensive line - St. John's Prep
Best defensive line - Auburn
Best linebackers - Brockton
Best secondary - Everett

THREE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Brockton
They're ranked pretty high in any poll you look at because people have just come to accept the fact that Brockton generally reloads. They graduated 18 starters from last season's Super Bowl team, including quarterback Austin Roberts, who was one of the best in school history. Roberts, Micah Morel and Joe Previte are all playing ball at prep schools this year, and Anthony Davis has moved on to Div. 1 Central Connecticut. Still, the Boxers will very solid again. They have a number of athletes and playmakers, including returning do-it-all Aaron Leclair. Transfer Jamal Williams is going to compliment him well, and sophomore Kerry Raymond is physically imposing at 6-foot-1 and 205. Aaron Monteiro's 6-foot-5, 295-pound frame gives Brockton an anchor on the offensive line. They have plenty of guys ready to step forward on the other side of the ball as well, led by Kervin Jean-Claude, Justin Ahanon and Leclair.

Abington
The Green Wave went unbeaten in their march toward a Super Bowl crown last year, but saw a slew of stars graduate. QB Brandon Cawley, TE/DE Pat Dwyer, FB Jack Malafronte, RB Babila Fonkem, DB Mike Walsh, OL Tyler Perakslis and OL Matt Diver are just some of the elite players Abington graduated. These guys won't miss a beat though, as they have a ton of talent back. Matt Kilmain broke out for more than 400 yards on 27 carries in two postseason wins last year, and he might not even be the best player back this season. Abington returns its top three tacklers from a year ago and has most of their front seven back on defense. Jim Kelliher has one of the best coaching staffs going at this point, and these guys look like they're headed back to the playoffs. (For bold prediction purposes, I'm also going to go ahead and say I think they beat Duxbury on opening night, because that's how good I think this team can be).

Stoughton
The Black Knights missed the playoffs last year because of the wrong day for a let down game, taking a tough defeat to eventual Super Bowl champ Sharon. The Knights lost some very good players, but leading running back Malachi Baugh is back in the fold and they return four starting offensive lineman, so there's no reason to think the offense won't be up to par again. The Hockomock League has proven in recent years to be one of the toughest to win, but a second guaranteed playoff berth can only help a team like Stoughton.

THREE BREAKTHROUGH ATHLETES TO WATCH

Aaron Monteiro, Jr. OL, Brockton
Monteiro has something that can't be learned, or even worked toward. His 6-foot-5, 295-pound frame is one that will draw the interest of coaches at the next level. Coach Peter Colombo is very excited about plugging the junior into his offensive line, and it's not just because of the size. Monteiro worked during the off-season to get himself stronger and is primed to be one of the best lineman in the state. He plays basketball in the winter, something that has helped him develop quick and agile feet for a guy his size.

Sam Malafronte, Jr. LB, Abington
Started at linebacker a year ago as a sophomore for the Div. 4 Super Bowl champs, and finished second on the team in tackles. A very good athlete who is a work-out warrior, Malafronte will team with Matt Whelan to lead a solid corps in the middle of the field for the Green Wave.

James Shea, Sr. WR, East Bridgewater
The Vikings have benefited from having tremendous athletes in the backfield the last few years (think Casey DeAndrade, Tim O'Brien, Andrew Benson and Kevin Lynch), but in 2013 their most dangerous player will be splitting out wide. Shea can run with just about anyone -- he finished sixth in the 100-meter dash in the South Shore League last spring -- and is going to wreak havoc pulling in passes all year.

WAY TOO EARLY STATE CHAMPION PICKS

Div. 1 - Everett
Div. 2 - Natick
Div. 3 - Plymouth South
Div. 4 - Doherty
Div. 5 - Abington
Div. 6 - Millis/Hopedale

SPONSORED HEADLINES