Today, we kick off our high school football coverage with a preview of Stoneham High, fresh off an 0-11 season. Why Stoneham? Because we want to remind you that at this time of year, everybody is winless.
STONEHAM, Mass. -- Barely a half-hour into the first practice of the year, and Dave Pignone's voice is already getting hoarse.
"How many of you have heard the saying ‘practice makes perfect'?" the first-year Stoneham High head coach shouts to his players during an individual drill, the soaking rain serving as a backdrop.
Everybody gathered near Pignone raises a hand, to which he quickly rebuts, "That’s crap."
"If you’re not practicing the right way, then you’re just going to develop bad habits," Pignone says. "Practice makes permanent."
Pignone, the Spartans' square-jawed general who is also the school's athletic director, is full of expressions and sayings -- not to mention, full of bounce in his step -- on this first morning practice of the fall. On day one, it's back to basics. In his own words, things have "hit rock bottom" in Stoneham following an 0-11 season in 2009. So on this morning -- and probably more mornings to come -- the 52 players (freshmen included) are getting lessons in accountability and muscle memory.
"One of the things that we’ve talked about as a coaching staff … especially when you’re not winning, and we don’t know if we’re going to suddenly start winning here, realistically," said Pignone, who coached eight years at Central Connecticut State, the last four at defensive line. "More importantly, we’ve got to make sure it’s fun.
"We’ve already planned some things, even this week, that we’re going to do for team bonding and making sure kids realize that it is fun to be part of this program, rather than just getting screamed at every day out there."
Realistic, yes -- such is the modus operandi of many a team coming off a winless season -- but not without its silver linings. And the Spartans have a very good silver lining in their lone captain, senior offensive tackle/defensive tackle Chris Mooney. A former basketball power forward, the 6-foot-2, 296-pound interior lineman dominated the middle in his junior season last year, to the point where you almost wonder how the Spartans managed to go winless.
"I expect him to dominate this year," Pignone said. "Our expectations are to build around him offensively and defensively. Last year, he blew people off the ball offensively and defensively running through them. He's a kid that, not only does he weigh 290 pounds, but he runs as good laterally as some of our running backs."
Mooney, a first-team All-Middlesex selection last season, doesn’t look the part of fleet-footed, but he’s been known to broad jump nine feet. His physicality is impressive for someone of his stature –- he benches 335, deadlifts 680 and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds -- and has been garnering some Division 1 looks as a result. Rhode Island has shown the most interest so far, while Bryant, UMass, Boston College and numerous Northeast-10 schools have also come calling at one point or another.
"I've seen him in football games be bull-rushing, and then put on the brakes, turn on a dime and cut laterally to make the tackle," Pignone said. "He's got that athleticism."
(And why just one captain? It's a matter of reaching a certain level of standards set by Pignone. "There could be years where I won’t have a captain at all if I don’t feel like anyone fits that," he admitted.)
Mooney, who's entering his fourth year on the varsity, considers his development to be learning on the go. "I jumped right into it, and found out pretty quickly what works and not, kinda going off of that," he says. Whatever the case is, he's clearly got the respect from the rest of the league.
Asked what he likes most about Mooney, long-time Lexington head coach Bill Tighe goes all Herman Boone: "Mobile, agile, hostile," Tighe remarks. "He's a good-looking prospect, but he's trying to do the best he can under some tough circumstances. But I'd like him on my team, he can play for me any day."
Perhaps the level-headedness comes from humble beginnings. After all, the Spartans have never won more than two games in a season in Mooney's time, posting a 3-29 record since going 7-4 in 2006. So with that said, the motivation's practically written on the wall.
"It's tough to look back and say this is what we've done," Mooney said. "But at the same time, you look at it in a positive way, 'OK, we've toughed it out this long, made it through these years, let's prove to ourselves and everybody that it's not all going to waste."
Pignone, too, knows he has his hands full. But, he says, that's the fun of it. "This is what I live for," he says with a grin.
But how about some nights of little sleep along the way?
"Oh yeah, many," he laughs. "They’ve already started."
STONEHAM AT A GLANCE
2009 record: 0-11 (0-9 Middlesex)
Coach: Dave Pignone (first year, 0-0)
Players to watch: OT/DT Chris Mooney, Sr., 6-2, 296 lbs; Marc Davis, Sr., DB/RB, 5-11, 185 lbs.; Zach Young, Jr., WR/DB, 5-10, 185 lbs.; Tommy Bergin, Jr., WR/DB, 6-2, 180; Taylor Goulding, Jr., LB/RB; 5-11, 185 lbs; Anthony Aidainidis, Jr.,QB/DB, 5-8, 195 lbs; Brandon Yancey, Jr., QB/DB, 5-10, 170 lbs; Shawn Halpern, Sr., C/DL, 5-10, 190 lbs.; Paul Delorfano, Jr., DB/RB, 5-8, 170 lbs.
Strengths: Speed, fundamentals.
Weaknesses: Size, experience.
Outlook: The Spartans’ success will hinge on the play of Mooney, their dominant man in the middle. Davis and Halpern are expected to relieve some pressure off of the Middlesex first team all-star and two-year captain. Meanwhile, with only “four or five” returning starters on each side of the ball, Pignone expects a lot of good position battles, especially in the secondary and at quarterback. Offensively, the Spartans will take a run-first approach with a split-back veer philosophy, looking to create holes behind you-know-who. Defensively, a staunch interior defensive line is expected to contribute immediately in the Spartans’ 4-3 scheme, which features a youth movement at linebacker.