Boston High School: Darius Flowers

Recap: Leominster 23, Fitchburg 8

November, 29, 2014
Nov 29
LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Something very important appears to be missing regarding the new MIAA state football playoff system.

Once upon a time Thanksgiving Day rivalries were considered the pinnacle to any team's season. It didn't seem to matter what you did during the previous nine or 10 weeks just as long as you beat your traditional rival on November's final week. There was a time across the state when you had match ups on Thanksgiving so intense that friends from each school refused to talk to one another during the week leading up to the game. People would come back from points unknown just to make the game part of their Thanksgiving holiday.

Thanksgiving high school football is as much a tradition in Massachusetts as the Boston Pops playing their annual Fourth of July concert on the Esplanade. Yet the new playoff format, adopted last year, has taken some of the pageantry away from these events due to the fact that the playoffs are held before turkey day, with the six state Super Bowls games being already set.

Fitchburg versus Leominster is one of the most-storied rivalries in all of high school football. On Saturday, after the game was postponed Thursday due to heavy snow that blanketed the area the night before, the two teams met for the 133rd time. The popularity of the contest has risen through the years, gaining national attention. Two books on the rivalry have also been written.

Playing at Doyle Field, this year's version of "The Game" seemed to lack the energetic atmosphere you would normally associate with this event. Stands were half-full, fans stayed relatively quiet and both teams sort of went through the motions. For the record, the Blue Devils dominated on the scoreboard, winning handily 23-8 and now lead the all-time series 64-59-10.

What also may have lessened the excitement of this game was the fact that both teams had already squared off against one another two weeks ago in the Central Mass. Division 2 title game -- won by Fitchburg, 7-0.

The Red Raiders were knocked out of Super Bowl contention a week ago by Longmeadow in the state semifinal round. So the only thing that mattered in the re-match between these bordering cities was pride.

After losing its first four games of the season, Fitchburg (6-6) came on strong. The Red Raiders won their next six games before bowing out to the Lancers which is a credit to head coach Dan Walker and his staff in making sure this team stayed the course when things looked their darkest.

On the other side was Leominster, a club that began the year 0-2 before rattling off seven straight victories. The Blue Devils (8-3) were huge favorites heading in their first encounter against Fitchburg, but they were also facing a squad who was red-hot at the time and thus went down in defeat.

"We were coming off a tough loss to Fitchburg but in this rivalry you shouldn't need any extra motivation to get up for it," said Blue Devils head coach Dave Palazzi, who was part of this rivalry in the early 1980s as Leominster's starting quarterback and would later go on to star at UMass. "It's Leominster vs. Fitchburg. I know there are a lot of people who wish that Thanksgiving meant something between the two teams but it is what it is. It's still Leominster and Fitchburg and maybe (the playoff committee) will change things around at some point so Thanksgiving games can have playoff implications."

Walker coincided with Palazzi's assessment, realizing the hype of this spectacle has been dampened some with the new format.

"The new playoff system has taken a lot away from this game," he said. "Having played Leominster already and then lose to (Longmeadow) is the state semis was very tough to comeback from."

Saturday's game started out as a punt fest as neither offensive unit could move the ball with regular consistency.

Things didn't change much to open the second quarter. The Blue Devils mounted a drive early in the frame but saw it end after Fitchburg defensive back Darius Flowers stepped in front of a Noah Gray pass for the interception. But the Red Raiders offense, which appeared to be frozen to the turf, continued to go backwards failing to mount any kind of charge. With under four minutes to go before halftime, Leominster caught a break. With Fitchburg lined up to punt deep in its own territory, a bad snap over the head of punter Facundo Isas rolled into the end zone. Instead of picking the ball up and trying to run with it, Isas did the wise thing by slapping it out of the back of the end zone resulting in a safety for Leominster.

"Fitchburg has a great defense and they shut us out for almost six quarters going back to the last game," Palazzi said. "Our guys made the plays today which was the difference. We just needed to keep plugging and I thought our seniors played their hearts out. I'm happy for them and I think Fitchburg should be proud of themselves to be able to do what they did was a phenomenal job. We're just happy to send our seniors off with a victory."

The Blue Devils would get the ball back following the safety and Eddie Rivera returned Isas' punt 39 yards to the Fitchburg 24. Reaching into its bag of tricks, Gray threw a lateral out to wide receiver Shane Crayton who, in turn, fired a pass to D'Andre Addo in the end zone, extending the Blue Devils lead to 9-0 with 2:45 showing before halftime.

"We always have stuff up our sleeves," said Crayton, a senior. "Our receivers know how to get open and our line did a phenomenal job today. We came into this game not wanting to feel that pain again from two weeks ago. I never want to feel that pain again and I know all of my teammates didn't want to feel that pain again either."

The Red Raiders offense finished with negative 22 yards in the first half. Their top running back Alex Marrero, a sophomore, was held in check throughout, netting just 47 yards.

"We didn't run the ball very effectively," Walker said. "We just didn't really have it today. Leominster played well and deserved it. They outplayed us up front so give credit to them."

Beginning the third quarter, Fitchburg started showing some life after moving the ball to the Blue Devil 40 before punting it away. On Leominster's ensuing possession, Gray was picked off again by Nik Myles but Fitchburg did nothing with the possession as the offense remained dormant. Gray, a sophomore, threw for just 31 yards, completing 4 of 13 attempts. He proved to be more-effective running the ball, gaining 93 yards on six attempts.

With the ball back in their hands, the Blue Devils enjoyed their best drive of the morning, marching 86 yards before Crayton, now lined up behind center, threw a 16-yard touchdown strike to Rivera, increasing the lead to 16-0 early in the fourth quarter. Things remained that way until, with a 1:39 remaining, Rivera (9 carries for 62 yards) broke through the defensive line for a 28 yard scoring run.

"We played our hearts out, Rivera said. "We knew we couldn't lose this game. It was a terrible feeling not being able to play on Turkey Day but we knew we had to come out here today and get this win. Fitchburg took something away from us two weeks ago so we needed to come out with some redemption to take it back."

A shutout was the last thing the Red Raiders wanted to be apart of.

Standing at his own 36, Flowers (5 of 13 passes completed for 120 yards) lofted a deep pass to receiver Manny Payton, who beat the secondary for a 64-yard scoring completion with 51 ticks remaining on the clock. Flowers finished off the scoring with a conversion run. Fitchburg finished the day with only 51 yards of offense while the Blue Devils struck for 257.

D2 Central: Fitchburg 7, Leominster 0

November, 15, 2014
Nov 15

LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Somewhere amidst the post-game scrum, muddled within a chalk dust and baby powder-wielding Fitchburg student section having a grand ole time at their hated rivals’ expense on the Doyle Field turf, the Red Raiders’ field general was having trouble putting the feeling into words.

"I’ve never beat Leominster before, and it’s amazing, coming into their house and beating them," said quarterback Darius Flowers, moments after helping deliver a 7-0 shutout to win the MIAA Division 2 Central title and put another log on the fire of this Cinderella run.

But when the conversation turned to redemption, the senior was quick to scoff.

"Monkey’s not off our back," he said. "We want to go to states."

And can you blame them for feeling that way? After starting off the year 0-4, entering the eight-team playoff field as the No. 7 seed, the Red Raiders are playing every bit like a second-to-last-place team should -- that is, loose, with nothing to lose.

"We were pretty pissed," sophomore running back Alex Marrero (26 carries, 141 yards, TD) said of the turnaround from the season’s first month. "We didn’t think we were going to go anywhere, but then we just came back. ... We started believing we could actually win games, that we weren’t worse than anyone out here. We can compete with anyone."

Upsets of No. 2 St. John’s of Shrewsbury then No. 3 Wachusett led the Red Raiders to this stage, and they did it with a ground-and-pound, tried-and-true mix of power and counter plays. Tonight was no different, feeding the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Marrero early and often to keep the chains moving.

Marrero got his biggest break late in the third quarter when he broke away for a 37-yard touchdown scamper, two plays after a Leominster personal foul off of a punt gave Fitchburg starting field position at the Blue Devils’ 41 yard line. Marrero opened his hips to his right then charged up the left side, following a Bruce Johnson lead block through the hole and escaping to paydirt for the 7-0 lead.

From there, the Red Raiders flexed their defensive muscle with series after series of steady play.

First, two plays after Marrero’s score, Johnson jarred the ball loose from Leominster tailback James Gurley after a nice 12-yard gain, giving the Raiders field position at midfield. A three-and-out ensued, though the Raiders got a great break after a shanked punt thanks to a Leominster personal foul that pinned them in their own red zone.

On their next defensive series, Leominster returned to its “Wildcat” package to no avail, with running back Eddie Rivera running into all sorts of trouble up the middle. Their drive stalled after five plays.

But the Raiders saved their best defensive stand for last. On fourth and one from the Raiders’ 28, Leominster quarterback Noah Gray scrambled to the right sideline and had the ball popped out from his grip, rolling a yard backwards out of bounds; amidst a bit of controversy, the Blue Devils were given a new set of downs, with progress marked where Gray was initially stopped.

No matter, the next three plays were a thing of beauty for the Raiders. On back to back plays, Gray went deep downfield to 6-foot-4 junior Derek Franks, the first an overthrow and the second being caught out of bounds at the near pylon. On third down, Gray was brought down for a sack by Johnson. With time running down and the Blue Devils out of timeouts, they were unable to get a fourth-down play off in time.

"The defense played unbelievable," Fitchburg coach Dan Walker said. "Bruce is one of the leaders of our team. When it’s time to make big plays, they make big plays, and that’s the difference. We’re executing, we have confidence, we’re mentally tough, we’re not making mistakes, and the big players are making big plays when we need them."

Manny Fresh: If the Raiders get their tough-as-nails aesthetic from guys like Marrero and Johnson, then they must get their swagger from players like Payton.

On this six-game win streak Payton, who also stars on the Raiders' basketball team, has often been put on an island with the opposition's top receiver, marking him around the field. So far in the playoffs, it's worked out to dramatically good results.

Last week, Payton made one of the most head-turning plays of the night in a 36-7 rout of Wachusett on an interception in the second half. Playing several yards off his receiver, Payton shuffled his feet upfield instead of backpedaling -- and heck, he didn't even glimpse at his receiver, staring down the quarterback as he kept his inside shoulder upfield, out-leaping his receiver for the pick some 25 yards downfield, making it look effortless in the process.

Tonight, he was tasked with marking Franks, and held him in check, yielding just two catches for eight yards. No moment was bigger, though, than the back-to-back attempts to Franks on the final drive. Both plays dialed up a "go" route downfield for Franks, and both times Payton forced Franks to expand his route, using the sideline to pin the talented junior into a very tight window for Gray to try and throw.

"We think our athletes are as good as any athletes," Walker said. "Manny is a big, physical kid. He loves contact. Same as when we played St. John’s, Wachusett -- he’s taking out the best receiver for every team we’ve played."

It's been a chore trying to throw on these Raiders in the playoffs. The most telling stat of tonight might be in the first half, when the Devils completed just two passes for a total of minus-5 yards.

Walker made sure to spread the praise around to Flowers at free safety and senior waterbug Nik Myles at right cornerback.

"We’ve got Darius over the top, who’s a great football player, and Nik Myles. We play Manny in peoples’ faces, because he’s physical and he messes people up," Walker said. "[But] we couldn’t do those things if it wasn’t for Nik [on the] backside covering almost half a field on his own."

Marrero the Mule: Marrero is the horse the Raiders have crash-landed in on, and it's hard to imagine them getting away from their bread-and-butter counters and powers next week when they face Western Mass. champ Longmeadow in a D2 state semifinal. Walker was especially appraising of the young tailback, saying he's the best they've had in quite some time.

"We have a lot of guys that can play, but we haven’t had an I-tailback like Marrero in a long time," Walker said. "I don’t think we’ve had a kid since I’ve been here in the last 10 years that’s as good as him. He’s only going to get better.

"He has a great work ethic. He’s very strong -- squat, bench, clean -- he’s always the first one in, last one out. You don’t have to tell him to do anything, he reps every play as hard as [he can]. ... He’s gonna have a great future."

And when you consider the Raiders' deep, rich history of high-caliber running backs, from Zach McCall to Frank MacDonald and Norman Cole up to present day, those are some weighty words.

Leftover quick-hit thoughts from the weekend

September, 30, 2013
Some leftover quick-hit thoughts from last weekend's action of football:

1a. If St. John's Prep running back Johnathan Thomas -- who left the second half of Saturday's game against Everett with a knee injury -- is out for any extended period of time, the Eagles might be in trouble. Much of the offense funnels through Thomas, and with plays like this it's easy to see why. In my 10 years covering high school football in Massachusetts, I have no problem saying he is the best I've ever seen.

If there's a silver lining, it's that this could open things up for two promising juniors on the perimeter, receiver Owen Rocket and tight end Jake Burt. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Burt has a high ceiling of potential, even drawing comparisons to Prep legend Jon Loyte, and has been a matchup problem in the short to intermediate passing game thus far. Rocket is a smooth route-runner, able to weave in and out of traffic and exploit coverage holes.

You obviously cannot replace a special kid like Thomas, but perhaps this could make the Eagles more unpredictable.

1b. It now bears asking. If Thomas -- who seemed to be running away with the ESPN Boston Mr. Football award at his current clip -- is out for the considerable future, is the race for title of the state's best player wide open again? Lots of names to consider here, most notably Springfield Central quarterback Cody Williams, Natick quarterback Troy Flutie, Leominster quarterback Neil O'Connor, Plymouth South running back Dylan Oxsen, and Millis/Hopedale two-way lineman Jon Baker.

2. An historic year for Mansfield continues to get better, as they ascend to the No. 1 spot in our statewide poll for the first time in our four seasons of coverage. As impressive as the North Attleborough win was, the upset of Baltimore-area powerhouse Dunbar continues to strengthen with the passing weeks. As Dave Redding points out on Mansfield football's website, ( since losing to Mansfield on Sept. 6, the Poets have won three straight outscored their opposition 136-18.

3a. If you missed the thrilling conclusion to the Fitchburg-St. John's of Shrewsbury battle on Saturday afternoon, you missed one of the best endings to a high school football game in years. Fitchburg quarterback Darius Flowers hit Manny Payton for a 16-yard touchdown strike with 13 seconds to go, then tailback Julio Gonzalez ran in the two-point try to give the Red Raiders a 15-14 lead. The ensuing kickoff, a high-hopping squib, was then returned 65 yards to the house by Mike McGillicuddy for walk-off 20-15 Pioneers win.

I'm not sure Fitchburg has endured a special teams heartbreak like that since the 1994 Division 1 Super Bowl, when North Middlesex pulled off a Boise State-esque fake punt for the 50-yard game-winning touchdown run, a play forever known in Central Mass. folklore as simply the "Norman Special".

3b. If there's anything to take away from that game, besides the incredible gumption of McGillicuddy, it's that much like Barnstable in Division 2 South, Fitchburg is not a team you want to draw in the first round of Division 2 Central action. Their defensive front four is impressive, and they controlled the line of scrimmage against St. John's for much of the afternoon.

4. There's a lot of talk early in the ISL season about running backs and linebackers, but keep an eye on Belmont Hill junior quarterback Harry Kraft. He had a field day on Saturday in a 38-11 win over Groton, completing 17 of 27 passes for 250 yards and four touchdowns, and running in a fifth score.

5. A year ago, I mentioned the Cape & Islands area as an area of particular interest for under-the-radar talent, with a number of prospects earning Division 1 roster spots: Nantucket's Terrel Correia (UMass), Nauset's Derrick and Nathan Holmes (Rhode Island) and Dakota Girard (Brown), Mashpee's Jordan Keli'inui and Zak Orcutt (UMass), Dennis-Yarmouth's Joe Tyo (UMass) and Barnstable's Nick Peabody (Princeton), Andrew Ellis (UMass) and D.J. Crook (Penn State).

The Cape appears to be brewing again. Barnstable receiver/cornerback Derek Estes is one of the state's breakout stars of the first half of the season, making back-breaking plays on both sides of the ball in upsets of BC High and Xaverian. Two of his teammates, running back/safety Hayden Murphy and quarterback Kristian Lucashensky, deserve some praise for the way they've improved since the season-opening rout by D-Y.

Further down Route 6, keep an eye on two prospects from the lowest classification of MIAA football, Division 6. Defending D5 Super Bowl champ Upper Cape Tech is looking good with its flex offense, and at the forefront is Jon Dumont, who had 26 carries for 216 yards and four touchdowns in Saturday's win over Nantucket. At Pope John Paul II, they might have one of the most unheralded 2015 prospects in quarterback Ryan Barabe. Through four games the 6-foot-4, 175-pound Yarmouth resident is among the state's most efficient passers, completing 68 percent of his throws for 776 yards and eight touchdowns to just one interception. A good chunk of the Lions' plays involve option routes for their receivers, which to me demonstrates a lot of maturity when you consider Barabe's completion percentage.