Boston High School: Charlie Raff

Our 2014 Summer Football Primer

July, 8, 2014
7/08/14
11:52
AM ET
Don't look now, but the first day of MIAA football practices is just 40 days away. Per our tradition every summer, ESPN Boston High Schools editors Brendan C. Hall and Scott Barboza whet your appetite for the gridiron with some players on the rise, surprise teams to watch, top teams and some food for thought.

Brendan Hall
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor


FIVE PLAYERS ON THE RISE

Drew Jean-Guillaume, Sr. QB/DB, Shepherd Hill
With a powerful frame and impressive speed honed during track and field season, Jean-Guillaume is a throwback-type option quarterback, a converted running back who’s as adept at powering through defenders as he is at evading or blowing by them. The Rams will be heavy favorites in Division 4, and Jean-Guillaume will have plenty of room to work behind a reportedly heavy line led by Boston College commit Chris Lindstrom.

Mekhi Henderson, Soph. DB, Xaverian
In a defense full of household names, Henderson is one of the Hawks’ brightest young stars. Often last season, he was left on an island against an opponent’s top target, and often he held his own. With his coverage skills and raw ability, the coaching staff has a luxury to get creative in the secondary.

Shane Combs, Sr. ATH, St. John’s (Shrewsbury)
It’s assumed that Combs, a Notre Dame baseball commit and ESPN Boston All-State selection during the spring, will take the reins at quarterback from last year’s Mr. Football finalist Drew Smiley. The Missouri transplant was one of the state’s most productive rushers during the playoffs, going over the century mark in all five postseason contests as the Pioneers reached the Division 2 state final.

Mike Maggipinto, Jr. RB, East Longmeadow
Somewhat quietly, the 5-foot-5 scatback eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark last year for the Spartans, running behind a great blocking scheme that continued to find unique ways to get him in space. Between Maggipinto and Plymouth North’s Christian Carr, this could be the year of the pint-sized running back.

Jahkari Carpenter, Sr. RB, Doherty
Among the area’s most elusive, Carpenter was a weekly highlight reel during the Highlanders’ run to the Division 4 state title, with runs like THIS, or THIS, or THIS. Junior Tavian Vassar is expected to have a bigger role in the backfield this year, which could make for an imposing thunder-and-lightning combination.

FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Billerica
The Indians hit a home run this offseason with the hiring of Duane Sigsbury as their new head coach, though they are considered a year or two away. Still, Sigsbury is one of the area’s brightest offensive minds, with a track record of making programs relevant in a hurry (see: Boston Cathedral). Similar to his other stops, there are already some terrific talents coming up the pipe.

Boston English
The Blue and Blue made history last fall to end Brian Vaughn’s first season at the helm, beating Boston Latin for the first time since 1997. Now, with dynamic dual threat Emmanuel Almonte leading the offense, they’ll look to continue last year’s momentum.

Cambridge
Long considered a powder keg for skill talent, head coach Ryan Saulnier has tapped into it, and found a lot of success running his brand of spread offense in his first season last fall. With Marcus Collins returning under center, and a new home in the Dual County League, the Falcons ought to be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in Division 2 North.

Leominster
Blue Devils graduated one of their most talented classes ever, but this is a program built to reload, not rebuild, under a great offensive mind in Dave Palazzi. Defensive coordinator Charlie Raff left to take over at Oakmont, but in his place comes former North Middlesex coach John Margarita. It’s too early – not to mention, lofty – to make any Neil O’Connor comparisons yet, but keep an eye on sophomore Noah Gray this fall.

Springfield Central
Similar to Leominster, the Golden Eagles have many holes to fill on the heels of its most successful season in school history. But they should have a solid defense again, led by lineman Kaleb Hunter-Sams, and the coaching staff should get a boost from the addition of former Putnam head coach Bill Watson.

Hall's Preseason Top 10:

[+] EnlargeJoe Gaziano
Brendan Hall/ESPNESPN Boston's reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Northwestern commit Joe Gaziano, leads a stacked Xaverian defense.
1. Xaverian
Little drama here as to who’s the top dog. With a star-studded defense that includes the likes of Northwestern commit Joe Gaziano, ESPN Boston’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013; linebackers Noah Sorrento, Kenny Kern and D’Aundre Holmes; and defensive backs Damion Wood and Mekhi Henderson; as well as a potent running game behind UMass-bound tackle Joe Parsons, and an innovative playmaker in quarterback Jake Farrell; the Hawks figure to start the year No. 1 in many polls.

2. Everett
Crimson Tide are licking their chops after a disappointing end to 2013 season, and as usual they reload with some of the most gifted skill players in the area. The interesting question is how they’ll fit Boston College-bound cornerback Lukas Denis into the offense; originally slotted as the successor to Jonathan DiBiaso at quarterback before injuries derailed his sophomore season in 2012, Denis showed flashes of brilliance in a multitude of positions last year.

3. Central Catholic
The Raiders’ featured one of the state’s best defenses a year ago in their D1 state title run, and they’ll be held in high regard again thanks to linebacker Markus Edmunds and safety Mike Balsamo, who is fielding multiple Division 1 FCS offers at the moment. Also keep an eye on Matt Milano, who was statistically one of the state’s most productive quarterbacks in the playoffs last year.

4. Mansfield
The Hornets dramatically altered their offense on the fly late in the season following a season-ending injury to wideout Brendan Hill, and it worked out as they took the D2 state title. A fully healthy Hill and another year of running back Miguel Villar-Perez, one of last fall’s most pleasant revelations, should make the Hornets the favorite in a tough D2 South.

5. Bridgewater-Raynham
Trojans always get the benefit of the doubt for their powerful running game and their “anyone, anywhere, anytime” approach to scheduling, and they’ll be a force again with Brandon Gallagher returning at tailback. But the question is whether the Trojans can sustain momentum and avoid last year’s fate, when they reached No. 1 in our statewide poll early, only to sputter in the second half.

6. Shepherd Hill
In short, Boston College-bound offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom Jr. is a force. But the fact that he is the Rams’ most dominant, yet possibly their lightest, should tell you something about what to expect in 2014. They’re arguably Central Mass.’s most talented team this fall, and while there’s a couple other heavy hitters contending in D4 – Holliston, Dennis-Yarmouth and Wahconah, for starters – these guys are my odds-on favorite. Look for them to put up a ton of rushing yards in head coach Chris Lindstrom Sr.’s double wing scheme.

7. Lowell
The Red Raiders made one of the biggest statements of the playoffs last fall in blanking St. John’s Prep 41-0 in the first round of the D1 North tournament. Syracuse commit Shyheim Cullen was exceptional at interior gap blitzes, baiting and confusing potential blockers to create chaos up the middle, and he’ll lead a talented defense that includes linebacker Nicolau Coury and defensive back Theo Bryant.

8. St. John’s (Shrewsbury)
Boston College-bound free safety Davon Jones is one of several early candidates for Defensive Player of the Year after recording 125 tackles and eight picks a year ago. Offensive coordinator Chris Moriarty is as creative as they come, and how he utilizes Jones and athlete Shane Combs in the offense will be one of the more interesting storylines of the season’s earlygoings.

9. Brockton
We’re still in wait-and-see mode after another season of unrealized expectations in Brockton, but it’s hard to deny the talent the Boxers have coming back. Keep an eye on Boston College-bound lineman Aaron Monteiro, who has some raw potential and a powerful frame at 6-foot-6 and nearly 300 pounds.

10. Dennis-Yarmouth
Division 1 recruit Michael Dunn lined up at nearly every offensive position last year for the Dolphins in their run to the D4 state final, and he may very well do it again. Defensively, this kid is a treat, regarded as one of the state’s premier shutdown corners. As usual, Paul Funk’s frenetic read option scheme will be a tall task to keep up with.

Others to Watch: Attleboro, Barnstable, BC High, Doherty, Holliston, Marblehead, Oliver Ames, Plymouth North, Pope John Paul II, St. John’s Prep, St. Peter-Marian, Tewksbury, Wahconah, Walpole

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

1. Spread offense has been the growing trend in Massachusetts over the last decade, and we’re now seeing its influence at all levels of the game. But at the other end of the spectrum, we’re seeing more and more teams dip into playbooks from decades and decades ago for some wild success in the running game. We’ve romanticized Nauset’s Single Wing offense for years. At Holy Name, Mike Pucko dug into Dutch Meyer’s World War II-era playbook and installed a fullback-less “Triple Wing” offense for the Naps’ Thanksgiving contest with Milford, a game they won 35-14. Last year’s D5 West Final featured a Pistol Flex Bone (Hoosac Valley) versus a Wishbone (Easthampton). Tewksbury, last year’s D3 state champ, calls running plays out of an encyclopedia of formations from every family of offense. Factor in all of the traditional Double Wing success stories like Shepherd Hill, Holy Name and Somerset-Berkley, too. Running offense continues to diversify in this corner of the country, and if you’re an X’s and O’s junkie like me, you are having a blast watching it.

2. LSU took some negative backlash last fall when they received a verbal commitment from a freshman early in his season after an apparently intense summer of recruitment from a number of SEC schools, but this doesn’t appear to be a trend going away any time soon. Early offers are still fairly uncommon for football prospects in this part of the country, though it’s worth noting St. Sebastian’s incoming sophomore Blake Gallagher received an offer from Nebraska last month. Beyond the concerns about pressure and bloated expectations, the biggest question I have is this: What if the recruit stops growing, or has just peaked earlier than his peers? I’m interested to see if Maryland head coach Randy Edsall’s proposals for recruiting reform gain any traction. Among other things, his plan stipulates schools can’t make a written offer until a player’s senior year, and that the offer must come with permission from the school’s admissions department.

3. I’m on record as saying I hope the true state championship format the MIAA rolled out last year is here to stay, but I’m also in favor of giving it some tweaks. First and foremost, get rid of the second automatic qualifier for leagues. Weak leagues were rewarded at the expense of teams like Medway and Pope John Paul II, teams who finished with winning records in qualification period but were pushed all the way out of the eight-team field in their respective divisions to satisfy undeserved automatic berths. Leagues should be restricted to one automatic qualifier, or two if it is a two-tier league. I also question whether a seven-game regular season is enough of a window to properly gauge a team’s strength. Expanding to an eight-game season and starting it on Labor Day Weekend could satisfy that, and could be a good gate opportunity for many schools as well.

***

Scott Barboza
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor


FIVE PLAYERS ON THE RISE

Michael Balsalmo, Sr. RB/FS, Central Catholic
A standout on the Raiders’ Division 1 championship season a year ago, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder holds a couple of offers (Bryant, Wofford) entering the season. Here’s better there will be more to follow.

Christian Carr, Sr. RB, Plymouth North
For what Carr might lack in stature, he makes up for in elusiveness. A consistent 100-yard-per-game rusher in his junior season, he broke out with a 351-yard performance in the Eagles’ playoff win against Dighton-Rehoboth.

Jake Gibb, Jr. QB, Stoughton
In his first season under center, Gibb led the Knights to the Division 3 South final before falling to Plymouth South. Gibb will have them contending for the Davenport division title again.

Kyle Murphy, Jr. OL/DL, Attleboro
The two-way lineman was a driving force behind the Blue Bombardiers’ breakout season last year. It’s only a matter of time before the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder starts getting colleges’ attention.

James Sullivan, Sr. RB/S, Tewksbury
Sullivan announced himself to a statewide audience on the biggest stage last year, racking up 125 yards and three touchdowns in the Redmen’s win over Plymouth South in the Division 3 state title game. With graduations, Sullivan will take on an even bigger role this year.

FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE

Braintree
The Bay State Carey should again be one of the more interesting races to watch across the state this year, and the Wamps might be primed to take a big step forward after last year’s 4-7 mark. One to watch is inside linebacker Derek Anson, who’s only added to his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame.

Doherty
The Highlanders were historically good in 2013, capturing their first state title while beating Dennis-Yarmouth for the Division 4 championship. Although several key contributors have graduated, they can still make a run

Natick
It might not be the aerial display we’ve seen in recent years with Troy Flutie at quarterback, but the Redhawks will be one worth watching as Brian Dunlap returns from a season missed due to injury (Lisfranc fracture) last year.

Quincy
After a 7-4 campaign last season, are the Presidents ready to challenge for the Patriot Keenan title? With promising running back Jhave Handsom-Fields (8 TD as a sophomore) and quarterback James Lam returning, the time could be now.

Somerset-Berkley
The Raiders return a big class of juniors, including feature back Chip Wood back in the fold and Jacob Cabana rushing off the edge. Another EAC title could be in the cards.

Barboza's Preseason Top 10:

1. Xaverian
The Hawks will have some questions to answer on offense, but deserve the top spot on defense alone, with Defensive Player of the Year Joe Gaziano returning along with the state’s best secondary group.

2. Central Catholic
The Raiders peaked at precisely the right time last year, capturing the first true statewide Division 1 title. Some of their biggest playmakers have graduated, but Michael Balsamo’s primed for a breakout year.

3. Everett
The Crimson Tide are undoubtedly still smarting over last year’s home playoff loss to Central Catholic. We all know what that means.

4. Bridgewater-Raynham
Here’s betting tight end/defensive end Connor Reagan is one of next year’s breakout performers.

5. St. John’s (S)
You never know what you’re getting from the Pioneers’ offense game to game, and it’ll be intriguing to see how the group develops this season. But you have to like any group with athletes of ilk of Shane Combs and Davon Jones.

6. Lowell
I’ll take my chances with the linebacking corps the Red Raiders have returning, anchored by Shyheim Cullen and Nicolau Coury.

7. Brockton
The Boxers will not be pushed around inside the tackle box, with perhaps the biggest returning offensive line in the state, including Aaron Monteiro (6-6, 300) and Uzziah Hilliard (6-0, 280)

8. Mansfield
Mike Redding will come up with creative schemes to avoid Brendan Hill being double-teamed on both sides of the ball. Connor Finerty will also look to expand on a promising sophomore season.

9. Dennis-Yarmouth
The Dolphins fell just shy of the Div. 4 state title in a riveting matchup with Doherty. They might not be denied this year.

10. Tewksbury
The Redmen might not match the size and physicality of last year’s state championship squad, but having James Sullivan in the backfield is still enough to win.

Others to watch: Arlington, Attleboro, Billerica, BC High, Holliston, Leominster, Oliver Ames, Shepherd Hill, Stoughton, Wahconah, Walpole.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

1. The football playoff system is here to stay – well, at the very least for two more years. While there are still pockets of dissent, the sentiment across the state is that the first year determining true state champions across six divisions was a success. It even drew over some who’d been opposed to the playoff proposal originally and voted against the measure. The build up and drama of the first seven weeks leading up the start of the tournament brought a different dimension of intrigue to the season. Still, detractors remain and, as Brendan ruminated earlier in this feature, there’s still room for improvement regarding the means of automatic qualifiers and the discrepancies that exist between the respective athletic conferences’ rubrics – including, most importantly, the weight of league games. But with one year in the books, I declare the system to be a success. Now, let’s start tweaking the framework.

2. Which brings me to my next point: get rid of Thanksgiving. This is going to be a highly unpopular opinion in some neck of the woods, but it’s simply a reality of what’s put in front of us. At the end of last season, I talked to many athletic directors who complained about a diminished gate return from their Thanksgiving Day games. That’s a natural feedback of the playoff system – which in some place requires teams to “double up” with their Thankgiving rivals. In change, that has deemphasized the pomp and circumstance surrounding Turkey Day. As a result, that left some Thanksgiving Day matchups to resemble more of an exhibition game in tone – althought don’t tell that to St. John’s Prep and Xaverian, or Foxborough and Mansfield. The result is a hodgepodge of situations that follow teams into what used to be the biggest day of the regular-season football calendar: ie a non-playoff team vs. a team that’s bound for a championship game, or two teams who are playing out the string on a season that’s already ended. I counter those scenario’s are really no different than what existed in the year B.P. (Before Playoffs), but the current arrangement has only emphasized was already apparent – Thanksgiving is an exhibition. Minus the Catholic Conference or Merrimack Valley Conference duels which resulted in playoff berths in previous years, Thanksgiving largely was such. Only now have the detractors used the playoff system to highlight the faults in Thanksgiving Day that already existed. What Thanksgiving Day has always been about is the rivalry. I ventured to North Attleborough last year when the Red Rocketeers (already eliminated from the playoffs) hosted Attleboro (who were just eliminated the previous week in the sectional final). The scene was what you’d become accustomed to – with an overflow crowd at Community Field. They were all there to watch an exhibition game. Why not make that game mean something more again? Why not play the game before the first frost?

Recap: No. 6 Leominster 41, Shepherd Hill 14

September, 28, 2013
9/28/13
12:02
AM ET
DUDLEY, Mass. -- Facing the spread offense in its first two games, No. 6 Leominster spent this past week delving into the nuisances of some old-school football. The Blue Devils opponent Friday night was Shepherd Hill -- a team with a predominant reputation in running the double wing.

Certainly, one week does not allow enough preparation time to handle this style of offense, and during the first half, it showed. Leominster was having trouble figuring out who to key on in this tightly-bunched set-up.

But as good teams learn to do, the right adjustments were made and the Blue Devils threw a net over the Rams in the second half by allowing zero points en route to a 41-14 victory at Carmignani Memorial Field.

"Shepherd Hill grinded us pretty good in the first half but our defense really stepped up in the second half," said Blue Devils coach Dave Palazzi. "That's just getting the job done when you need to get it done. Credit our defensive coaches Charlie Raff, Kevin Murphy and Mike Vaillette for the adjustments they made at halftime. They did a great job coaching these kids up and the kids were listening. There was a lot of violence going on underneath those piles and a lot of big hitting by both teams. I really don't see that team losing to many ball games the rest of the way. They are well-coached and talented."

Leominster, the defending two-time Division 1 Central Mass. Super Bowl champions, improve to 3-0.

But this one did not come easy. As expected, Shepherd Hill (2-1) proved to be a staunch opponent. A Division 4 program, the Rams proved they are a team to be reckoned as the season moves forward. They gave Leominster all it could handle in the opening half, with solid running from junior quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume and senior running back Jake Gelb. At the half, Shepherd Hill only trailed 20-14.

But the Ram offense looked much different over the final 22 minutes. Leominster showed more patients, waiting to see who would get the ball out of the double wing first and then strike, instead of anticipating. Having rolled up 169 yards in the first half that finished with Guillaume diving in from a yard out to trail by just six points, it appeared as though the Blue Knights had a legitimate fight on their hands.

Getting the ball to begin the second half, the Rams gave it away after failing to convert on a fourth-and-four play. Leominster's offense (438 yards), which has proven that it can score from anywhere on the field, did just that. A 66-yard touchdown run by junior back James Gurley on the ensuing possession had the Blue Devils in front 26-14.

Following a four-and-out by the Rams, Leominster again drove down field, capped off by senior quarterback Neil O'Connor's 38-yard scoring strike to Mayson Williams (3 receptions, 104 yards, 2 TD) to make it a 34-14 contest with a minute remaining in the quarter.

While Shepherd Hill's struggles on offense continued to mount, the Blue Devil offense was chomping at the bit to get the ball back. Late in the final quarter they put a bow on this one after junior Eddie Rivera scored on a 4-yard run around left end.

Leominster opened this tilt off in fine shape. Taking the opening kickoff, the Blue Devils marched 50 yards before O'Connor (9-of-14 for 188 yards, 3 TD, INT) found receiver Jake Allain (3 catches, 62 yards) 10 yards past the secondary for a 47-yard touchdown. Shepherd Hill shook off that score by mounting a drive of its own moments later. The Rams marched 77 yards before Jean-Guillaume (70 yards on 17 carries) busted up the middle from 12 yards away for the score. Jean-Guillaume also added the conversion run giving Shepherd Hill an 8-6 lead midway through the first quarter.

But the Blue Devils responded with another long drive that ended with Gurley (105 yards on 9 attempts) barreling in from the 3. However the conversion pass failed and Leominster had to settle for a 12-8 lead.

"We knew this was going to be a tough game coming in," said O'Connor. "Shepherd Hill is a very tough team that likes to pound it. They're big up front and their running backs and quarterback run hard.

“Our line also played great and were able to open things up for everyone and we were able to create some space. When everything is working we can be tough. Our coaches had us prepared for this one. Coming off wins over St. John's (Shrewsbury) and Lowell last week we were happy to get out of here with a win tonight."

Midway through the second quarter a solid drive by Shepherd Hill, which lost to Nashoba Regional in last year's Division 2 Central Mass. Super Bowl, ended abruptly after coming up a yard short on fourth down. Handing the ball back over to the Blue Devils, they were able to increase their advantage to 12 points after Williams, on a comeback screen, hauled in O'Connor's pass and bolted 57 yards down field into the end zone.

The Rams, once again, didn't fret as they put fourth a sustained drive following the score. They even tossed in a new wrinkle as Jean-Guillaume rolled outside the pocket and connected with Gelb in stride for a 33-yard reception. That, in turn, set up Guillaume's touchdown run in the final minute before halftime, slicing the deficit to six going into the break. Shepherd Hill finished with 273 yards of offense.

"That was a very good, tough football team we played," said Rams coach Chris Lindstrom, a former Boston University standout defensive end who spent three years in the NFL with the Bengals, Buccaneers and Chiefs. "This is new for us to play this level of competition but I thought we held our own for the most part. I feel we're still going to be a very good football team. We just need to re-group but I think we are very explosive. Overall I thought we did a nice job tonight. I felt the longer we were out there playing a very good team on both sides of the ball the better we're going to be."

Recap: No. 8 Leominster 33, No. 9 Lowell 20

September, 21, 2013
9/21/13
2:07
AM ET


LOWELL, Mass. -- Since the beginning of the preseason, much has been made about Lowell's funky, frenetic offense, a blur-paced spread scheme sprinkled with enough smattering of screens, draws, crossing routes and zone reads to keep a defense on its heels in no-man's land trying to envelop it all.

It was enough of a concern for Leominster head coach Dave Palazzi that earlier this week, he said he called his players and coaching staff "on the carpet", challenging their toughness and mental discipline. As it turns out, the best defense tonight against the Red Raiders' Oregon-like scheme was to keep them off the field.

[+] EnlargeNeil O'Connor
Ryan Kilian for ESPNBoston.comQB Neil O'Connor (222 offensive yards, 4 TDs) and the Leominster offense dominated time of possession in their 33-20 win over Lowell.
The Blue Devils (2-0) dominated time of possession in this highly-anticipated regional battle between two state title contenders, rolling out to a 26-6 lead in the third quarter en route to a breezy 33-20 defeat of Lowell (2-1) where the aggressor was never in question.

"We just said, to a man I asked them to step up and be the man at your own position, and respond to their first punch," Palazzi said. "I thought they did that."

The Red Raiders drew first blood, marching 64 yards in nine plays, punching it in from five yards out on an inside zone from Ngaiiva Mason (15 carries, 86 yards) for a 6-0 score less than three minutes into the contest.

Leominster responded with an offensive look trademark of Blue Devils teams past, but not used yet in 2013 -- preseason, or last week's home-opener. Palazzi rolled out a "double wing" formation -- a red zone staple for Blue Devil squads prior to the coach's arrival in 2011 -- on the next series, and took Lowell's 3-5 defensive front by surprise. They marched 77 yards in 14 plays and six minutes, twice converting fourth and one in their own end, punching it in on a 17-yard strike from quarterback Neil O'Connor (156 passing yards, 3 TD; 16 carries, 66 yards, TD) to fullback Matt Banchs (4 catches, 69 yards) for his first of two touchdown catches.

Lowell's next two drives were three-and-out's that lasted a combined 2:09, and Leominster responded each time with scores. First, they capped a 63-yard, 12-play, six-minute drive with a 36-yard strike from O'Connor to Mayson Williams, running a fade route down the left sideline. The next trip down, the Blue Devils went 66 yards in 17 plays, eating up all but 13 seconds of the final 6:08 of the first half. James Gurley (26 carries, 91 yards) punched it in from a yard out on fourth and goal for the 18-6 halftime margin.

Leominster received to start the second half, and opened with another monster drive, this one going 80 yards in 15 plays and seven minutes, capped with a nifty 10-yard option keeper by O'Connor, followed by a rollout pass to Jarell Addo on the two-point conversion for the 26-6 score.

In the fourth quarter, Leominster sandwiched another O'Connor-Banchs touchdown pass, this one for 19 yards, in between two pretty scoring strikes from Brian Dolan to Jack Galvin.

Owning the clock: Between Leominster's six-minute drive to end the first half, a 15-minute halftime break, and the Devils' seven-minute opening drive of the second, it felt like Lowell's offense was off the field for an hour of real time.

Leominster dominated time of possession in the first half, holding on to the ball for 17:33 of the first half to Lowell's paltry 4:27 on four offensive drives. A big part of that was Lowell's combination of uber-fast no-huddle tempo and failure to convert on third downs. In the first half, the Red Raiders averaged 20 seconds, sometimes less, between plays; after their game-opening scoring drive, they failed to convert another third down the rest of the game, finishing 2-of-7 on the night.

Part of Leominster's practice week involves what players call "Intensity Tuesdays", a grueling mixture of sprints and suicides coordinated by assistant coach Charlie Raff. Against this high-powered scheme, O'Connor felt he and his teammates were conditioned well enough to hang around with them.

"He [Raff] definitely pushes us," O'Connor said. "We know why we’re doing it, and it’s for these reasons. They’re not doing it because they hate us, they're doing it to help us. We understand that, and it pays off."

As a result, Leominster out-gained the Raiders 207-68 in first half yardage, running 43 plays to just 14 by Lowell. For the game, they outgained Lowell 386-211 from scrimmage. Superstar receiver Galvin, an ESPN Boston Preseason All-State selection, finished with two catches for 90 yards and two scores; but he was held without catch until the final 8:41 of the game.

Such is the mortal flaw with many of these uptempo, copious "Blur" schemes. When everything is clicking, these offenses look exotic. But, as tonight explicated, they sure can unravel in a hurry.

Asked if he contemplated slowing the pace down at all, Lowell head coach John Florence said simply, "It’s not really our style. We want to go put the defense under duress and go from there."

Fourth and guts: Everett coach John DiBiaso's decision last week to go for it on fourth and two from his own 23 last Friday in a loss to Xaverian, and it has been a topic of discussion this week. DiBiaso's gamble, while not his first rodeo, ended up backfiring. Palazzi's gamble with it tonight, meanwhile, showed how big gambles can pay off.

The Blue Devils were a perfect 3-for-3 on fourth downs tonight, all of them coming within their own end. Twice on their first drive of the night they converted on fourth and one, first from their own 32, then from their own 43. Later in the first half, the Blue Devils converted a fourth down from their own 29.

Asked about how much he weighed the risk of such decisions, Palazzi said there was "no doubt in my mind" he was going to go for it on those fourth downs.

"What I saw the first half, the first drive out of Lowell, I thought this could get out of hand quickly," Palazzi said. "I just thought that was the play of the game, it was intuition. It was an out of control call, I agree, but I just felt it in my gut that we needed to get a first down there.

"The tables could have turned there. We punt there, and they go down and score, we’re down 14 now. It’s a different ball game, we’re [probably] spread out, trying to throw the ball around and that’s really not what we’re trying to do."

Often, such a maneuver is meant to test the skin of his players -- experienced or inexperienced, proven or unproven -- and see what kind of backbone they possess. No question, that factor weighed into the decision making.

"We knew we were coming up here to an Eastern Mass. team, a Division 1 team, we’ve played big games before but we had to match their intensity," Palazzi said. "That was part of the call, we just had to see if we were tough enough because as you see they’re a great team, great players, they were real physical on film."

Double Wing catches Raiders off-guard: The "Double Wing" package was often a staple of Leominster squads under legendary former coach John Dubzinski, particularly in the red zone, and it had been a novelty package seen in spurts the first two seasons under Palazzi. But neither in the preseason, nor last week's home-opener against St. John's of Shrewsbury, did we see any shred of the formation.

Suffice it to say when the Blue Devils opened up in the package early in the first quarter, and stayed in it for the most part throughout the half, it took Lowell by surprise. The Red Raiders deploy a 3-5-3 defensive front, a scheme known for its ability to disguise its blitzes, and one that better suits its speedy personnel. The linemen's one-inch splits in the double wing strip a defense of virtually all of its blitz packages, and Florence admitted this typically isn't a look they've had great success against.

"We see a little bit of it, with Tewksbury, it’s obviously something we haven’t played well [against] the last three years, and tonight was another example of that," he said. "With our style of defense, and the linemen we have, that’s a weakness for us to be in. We have to come ready [for that].

"It was obviously very difficult [defending it]. They chewed the clock the second quarter, and I think we knew it was coming on the sidelines, we just didn’t hit our gaps correctly and just let them push the pile. We were playing with our pad level too high."

Palazzi didn't want to get into a track meet with the Raiders, and felt this was their best method at keeping the game at a comfortable tempo. In basketball terms, Leominster matched Lowell's full-court press with a Princeton offense.

"[They run a] 3-5 with some very good athletes in there," Palazzi said. "We just thought with this league, and the way they run football, and a lot of the teams they play are throwing the ball like it’s backyard football, we just decided we’re going to go a little power football and see where we’d start. It kept on working, so we kept running it, and the kids were fired up about it. But Lowell made a lot of adjustments, they’ve got a great staff, they did a great job adjusting to it at the end."

Banchs moves the chains: Gurley took on a Yeoman's load, and paid for it after the game ("I’m feeling sore, but it’s a great win for the team," he chuckled), but an underrated part of Leominster's success on offense tonight came from the fullback Banchs. In addition to blocking for Gurley, Banchs was a vital part of the passing game.

All four of Banchs catches, including the two TD strikes, came in the flats. Out of the I-formation, Banchs would shoot up through the middle of the line and release to the flat, where a Lowell defender often failed to pick him up. O'Connor, rolling to his left or right, would hit him perfectly in stride for an easy first down and possibly more.

LEOMINSTER 33, LOWELL 20

LEO 6 12 8 7 --- 33
LOW 6 0 0 14 --- 20


First Quarter
Low - Ngaiiva Mason 5 run (kick failed) 8:38
Leo - Matt Banchs 22 pass from Neil O'Connor (kick blocked) 2:31

Second Quarter
Leo - Mayson Williams 36 pass from O'Connor (pass failed) 7:10
Leo - James Gurley 1 run (rush failed) :08

Third Quarter
Leo - O'Connor 10 run (Tim DeCarolis pass from O'Connor) 3:59

Fourth Quarter
Low - Jack Galvin 73 pass from Brian Dolan (Evan McHugh kick) 8:41
Leo - Banchs 19 pass from O'Connor (Christian Lewis kick) 5:52
Low - Galvin 17 pass from Dolan (McHugh kick) 5:02

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