Boston High School: Fitchburg

Recap: Leominster 23, Fitchburg 8

November, 29, 2014
11/29/14
6:17
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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
11/15/14
3:33
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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.

Video: Breaking down Fitchburg-Leominster

November, 15, 2014
11/15/14
2:27
AM ET
LEOMINSTER, Mass. -- Fitchburg continued its Cinderella run through the MIAA football playoffs with a 7-0 shutout of archrival Leominster on its own turf at Doyle Field, to capture the Division 2 Central title.

Correspondent Joe Parello gives you all the highlights from tonight's physical battle, and breaks down the action with ESPN Boston High Schools editor Brendan C. Hall

(Video by Joe Parello)

Fitchburg Shocks Leominster for D2 Central Title from ESPN Boston on Vimeo.

Telestrator: Key matchups for sectional finals weekend

November, 13, 2014
11/13/14
5:09
PM ET
In this week's edition of the Telestrator, ESPN Boston correspondent Mike Uva and High Schools editor Brendan C. Hall cut up some key matchups in this weekend's sectional finals.

The pair delve into the driving force behind Fitchburg's running game as well as Everett's screen game with Lukas Denis:

(Video by Greg Story)

Recap: No. 10 St. John's (S) 63, Fitchburg 51

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
1:01
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FITCHBURG, Mass. –- St. John’s coach Bob Foley has no problem admitting it. The inside toughness was lacking in the Pioneers’ loss to Leominster last week, especially with Co-captain Charlie Murray out of the lineup.

But the opposite was true on Monday night’s showdown with rival Fitchburg. Behind a spirited post attack led by Alex Fisher (16 points, 9 rebounds), Drew Vittum (8 points, 12 rebounds), and Murray (8 points, 8 rebounds), the Pioneers (2-1) knocked off the Red Raiders (3-1) on their home floor at Doug Grutchfield Fieldhouse, 63-51.

"I was just so happy with this game, Fitchburg’s got a heck of a club and [Fitchburg coach] Jack Scott’s doing a great job with them," Foley said. "They’ve got a very, very good team. To come out of the gates, get our lead...in their gym you kind of wait for them to make their run, and every time they started to make a run our kids responded."

With two practices in the days following the Leominster loss, St. John’s made a concerted effort in those two practices to get the ball into the paint more often offensively, as well as ease the transition from football to basketball for point guard Davon Jones (8 points, 5 steals) and forward T.J. Kelley (12 points) -- both of whom were integral members of the Pioneers’ MIAA Division 2 State Finalist football squad.

“They seemed like they were ready to go tonight. They let us make runs to get it to nine, 11, and then they’d make a couple plays to stretch it out to 12 or 14 -- and that’s the sign of a good team,” Scott said. "They’re playing like we want to be playing in February, they’re playing like that right now -- at least they did tonight."

Fitchburg was led in scoring by junior guard Anthony Salome, who nailed four 3-pointers on his way to 16 points. The Red Raiders’ usual go-to scorer, Mick Snowden, was contained to just three points -- an outside jumper that came midway through the first quarter.

Murray, Jones the backbone for Pioneers: Jones and Murray may not have led the Pioneers in scoring against Fitchburg, but Foley came away most impressed by the play of the duo whom he considers to be the Pioneers’ leaders. Playing with a wrist that was heavily taped up didn’t stop Murray from making hustle plays -- whether that was pulling down offensive rebounds, or nearly tackling the players on the Pioneers’ bench in pursuit of a loose ball.

"He’s our co-captain, he’s a pretty tough kid under there -- a real competitor. He’s a leader, he’s encouraging all the other players. We still don’t play that many seniors, he’s always encouraging the other kids, he mixes it up under the boards, he’s always on the floor rolling around," Foley said. "The big thing there is that the other kids on our team see that…it makes them raise their level of toughness a little bit."

Jones has built a reputation for making plays all over the football field the last two years, but it was his playmaking ability on the hardwood that gave Scott and the Red Raiders headaches all night.

Scott called a timeout in the third quarter for the sole reason of strategizing how to keep Jones out of the paint, as the point guard was penetrating the Red Raiders’ defense at will, giving the Pioneers’ bigs plenty of open looks inside. Jones proceeded to, again, get into the paint on Fitchburg and set up three of the Pioneers’ next five baskets following the timeout.

"We were consciously trying to prevent that, and yet he still managed to weave his way into the lane," Scott said.

Foley had major praise for his point guard.

"Davon is ultimate quickness," Foley said. "It’s not very often you have a kid with that speed, but he’s not only fast, he’s a strong kid out there. He’s our leader out on the court, and Charlie is our emotional leader overall."

SJ owns the glass
The major difference in the game was the rebounding margin, which St. John’s won 37-18. Boasting the aforementioned front line, Foley came away satisfied with the Pioneers’ effort on the glass—particularly on the defensive end.

"I thought the defensive glass in the second half was the key to the game," Foley said. "On the offensive game we got a lot of shots, unfortunately we should have put more of them in, but pounding away out there in that last six or seven minutes they got one offensive rebound."

Scott agreed, mentioning that the box out will certainly need to be a point of emphasis in practice for Fitchburg for the foreseeable future.

“It was just a dominant performance on the offensive glass," he said. "We didn’t do a good job of rotating on the swings around the perimeter and get in good position to get a weak side rebound here and there. It was a combination of us failing to do what we wanted to do on the defensive end and them capitalizing on it."

MIAA Boys Hoop Countdown: Nos. 25-21

December, 2, 2013
12/02/13
3:41
PM ET
To kick off the start of the MIAA basketball season, ESPNBoston.com will spend the next five days counting down the teams in our Preseason MIAA Top 25 Poll, starting with Nos. 25 through 21 today and concluding with the state’s top five teams on Friday.

Today’s previews include Hockomock members Taunton and Sharon, a Bishop Feehan squad who is moving up to Division 2 with a solid core coming back, and Central Mass. foes South and Wachusett, along with our “Last 10 out”.

For a refresher on how the final 2012-13 poll ended up, CLICK HERE.

Be sure to check back each day this week for the latest in the boys basketball top 25 countdown.

Last 10 out: Braintree (13-10), Doherty (14-7), East Boston (11-7), Fitchburg (13-9), Franklin (16-8), Lynn Classical (15-9), Milton (15-9), North Quincy (18-6), Quincy (14-7), Watertown (13-8)

25. WACHUSETT
Coach: Tom Gibbons
2012-13 results: 19-5, reached Division 1 Central Semifinals
Key players: Tyler Dion, Justin Bowker, Kevin Durkin, Brian Quinn
Analysis: The Mountaineers lost a lot of leadership off of last year’s team, including graduated seniors Zack Berman, Jesse Maresca, Trevor MacNeil, Zach Knapp, and Alex Cooper, but Coach Tom Gibbons returns what may be the biggest frontcourt in Central Mass. in juniors Kevin Durkin and Justin Bowker. At 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-5, respectively, the Mountaineers’ twin towers will man the post, while sophomore point guard Tyler Dion, who picked up plenty of big-game experience last year, will be expected to fill Berman’s shoes at point guard.

24. BISHOP FEEHAN
Coach: Matt Freeman
2012-13 results: 18-4, Division 3 South quarterfinals
Key players: Mike Nelson, Frank Oftring, Austin Burlone
Analysis: Feehan has to be one of the favorites in Division 2 following their run in last year’s playoffs. The Shamrocks return senior Austin Burlone, junior Frank Oftring, and sophomore star Mike Nelson in hopes of building off an 18-win season last year. With games in the opening few weeks against Archbishop Williams, Westford Academy, and Martha’s Vineyard, we’ll find out soon enough just how far this Feehan squad can be expected to go this year.

23. WORCESTER SOUTH
Coach: Pat Williams
2012-13 results: 14-7, lost in Division 1 Central First Round
Key players: Kasheen Cunningham, Nate Mensah, Khalil Bryan-Robinson, Aaron Maday
Analysis: The Colonels will be living life without last year’s star Rod Milton, but the cupboard is far from bare for South coach Pat Williams. South returns three of their top four scorers from last year, including point guard Kasheen Cunningham, combo guard Nate Mensah, and forwards Khalil Bryan-Robinson and Aaron Maday. As has been the case for the last three years, the top dog in the Inter-High will likely come down to South or Doherty, a fierce rivalry that has been a must-see matchup every time the two meet.

22. SHARON
Coach: Bruce Jackman
2012-13 results: 15-8, Division 2 South semifinals
Key players: Brian Mukasa, Jimmy Firtzson, Erik Kushner, Ade Bright
Analysis: There aren't many backcourts in the area that are going to be stronger than the pair of seniors Brian Mukasa and Jimmy Fritzson. Both finished in the top 10 in scoring in the Hockomock last year and both have the chance to eclipse the 1,000-point mark this season. The biggest question will be down low, were the Eagles graduated Kevin Bartas and Ian Beach, but they will rely heavily on Erik Kushner and players from last year's JV squad, who only had one loss last season.

21. TAUNTON
Coach: Charlie Dacey
2012-13 results: 16-7, reached Division 1 South semifinals
Key players: Gerald Cortijo, Shaq Davis, Corey Green.
Analysis: Taunton had a strong first campaign in the Hockomock League last season, and will look to try and upset Mansfield as the top team in the Kelley-Rex this year. Shaq Davis, who has been making plays for Taunton for some time now, will be back with another year of experience under his belt as. Sharpshooter Gerald Cortijo and Corey Green, who is just a junior, will also be big playmakers for the Tigers.

Player of the Week: St. John's (S) Mike McGillicuddy

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
1:03
AM ET
In one of the more dramatic, or miraculous endings to a MIAA football game in recent memory, St. John's of Shrewsbury's Mike McGillicuddy delivered his team from a potential upset at the hands of Fitchburg on Saturday.

After a last-minute touchdown gave the Red Raiders a 15-14 at Pioneer Field, McGillicuddy fielded Fitchburg's squib kick and promptly raced 65 yards for the touchdown with no time remaining on the clock in a 20-15 victory.

For his heroics, McGillicuddy was named our ESPN Boston Player of the Week for Week 4.

Editor Brendan Hall caught up with McGillicuddy during Monday's workout:



Along with McGillicuddy, here are our top performers for Week 4, all game-winners:
  • Mike McGillicuddy, St. John's (Shrewsbury): Ran for "walk-off" win with 65-yard kickoff return for touchdown with no time remaining vs. Fitchburg.
  • Dereck Pacheco, Barnstable: Connected on a 32-yard field goal to lift the Red Raiders to a 15-14 upset win over then No. 1 Xaverian.
  • Sal LoBrutto, Wakefield: Kept the Warriors unbeaten with a 22-yard field goal in an overtime victory over Melrose.

Leftover quick-hit thoughts from the weekend

September, 30, 2013
9/30/13
12:38
PM ET
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, (www.mansfieldfootball.org) 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.

Roundtable: Bigger things to come for Xaverian?

September, 26, 2013
9/26/13
1:59
PM ET
1. SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYED A MAJOR FACTOR IN XAVERIAN'S 49-13 DRUBBING OF BRIDGEWATER-RAYNHAM, RETURNING TWO BLOCKED PUNTS FOR TOUCHDOWNSW, BUT A.J. KING (2 TDs) DIDN'T HAVE A BAD DAY EITHER. IS THIS XAVERIAN SQUAD CAPABLE OF ROUTINELY PUTTING UP BIG NUMBERS?

Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: If this were 2012, or any other recent year for that matter, I would lean towards labeling that game an anomaly. Xaverian squads typically aren't known for blowing up the scoreboard, instead moving the chains rather steadily behind a conservative multiple offense and relying on change-of-pace backs to grind out the tough yardage. I've been in this for 10 years, and this year's Xaverian team feels like one of the more unpredictable squads that I can recall. And when I say that, I mean you just don't know that they're going to throw at you. Certainly, Jake Farrell brings about an escapeability intangible they typically haven't had with quarterbacks, and there is some promising sophomore talent.

By the way, whoever the special teams coach is at Xaverian, give that man a raise. If you think the B-R game was an aberration, ask the BB&N coaches how their scrimmage with the Hawks went.

Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools editor: I know we all thought the Hawks’ defense would be ahead of the offense entering the season, but this looks like a much-improved group thus far. I like the one-two punch Shayne Kaminski and Noah Sorrento provide in the backfield. They have some legit targets in the passing game with King and D.J. Sperzel and Jake Farrell has looked great at quarterback. If the offensive line keeps creating holes and pass protecting the way they have in the first two weeks, I don’t foresee a slowdown.

John McGuirk, ESPN Boston correspondent: With the talent Xaverian has they should continue to put up decent numbers. They have four 'big' games left on the schedule in Barnstable, Brockton, BC High and St. John's Prep. All four of those programs are outstanding but all have issues on defense as well which should work in the Hawks' favor.

2. NASHOBA OWNS THE STATE'S LONGEST ACTIVE WIN STREAK (28 GAMES), BUT TWO TOUGH OPPONENTS LAY AHEAD IN WACHUSETT AND ST. JOHN'S OF SHREWSBURY. DO YOU SEE THE CHIEFTAINS MAKING IT TO 30 STRAIGHT?

Hall: Wachusett matches up evenly on paper with Nashoba, but watch out for St. John's. Andrew Smiley is heating up (380 passing yards the last six quarters), and the running game seems to be hitting a groove with St. Louis transplant Shane Combs taking over the feature role. The "blur" offense is a whirlwind to handle when all is going right, and you always have to watch where Davon Jones lines up. I see the Pioneers stopping Nashoba's streak at 29.

Barboza: I think it’ll end at No. 29. The Chieftains will get by Wachusett, but I think the Pioneers’ athletes, particularly on the perimeter, will prove too much to handle.

McGuirk: I see Nashoba reaching 30 straight wins. Wachusett is going through a down year, having already lost to St. Peter-Marian and Fitchburg. And what has been noted many times, St. John's biggest weakness the last couple of seasons has been its porous defense and inability to make tackles consistently. If you look past those next two games, the Chieftains will face a pair of unbeatens (Marlborough and Leominster). That is where the streak could possibly come to a close.

3. BETWEEN THE SUPERB STARTS FROM BROCKTON, TAUNTON, TEWKSBURY AND WESTFIELD, THE TRIPLE OPTION IS MAKING A COMEBACK. WHICH TEAM RUNS IT BEST?

Hall: It's tough to argue against Westfield's ridiculous numbers -- there are running backs that will go a whole season not putting up as many rushing yards as the Bombers have their first two games of the season. But it's hard to argue against Brockton's talent. Aaron LeClair and Jamal Williams get to the perimeter quick, and the Boxers can steamroll you inside with counters and dives. All four of these teams have a dynamic playmaker in the backfield -- LeClair, Tewksbury's Eddie Matovu, Westfield's Ben Geschwind and Taunton's Domingo Jenkins -- but I will give Brockton the edge here because of what they have in the trenches. Aaron Monteiro, the Boxers' prized prospect at 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds, is a road grader at left guard with a pretty high ceiling.

Barboza: As of right now, I don’t see how you can argue with Westfield. The Bombers are running roughshod over opponents behind senior fullback Ben Geschwind. After running for 348 yards and six touchdowns as a team during last week's 49-20 win over West Springfield, Westfield has scored 109 points in two games, with Geschwind averaging more than 150 yards per game.

Josh Perry, HockomockSports.com: I can’t say whether or not Taunton runs it better than other teams in the state, but I can say that the Tigers do make it look fun. With Gerald Cortijo and Steven Harrison giving star back Domingo Jenkins some help in the backfield, the Tigers have speedy and shifty runners. It’s almost enough to make you forget just how good the ground game would have been without Jamal Williams’ move to Brockton. Taunton’s ability to run the triple option will of course get a much tougher test this week against King Philip and its strong defense, but the Tigers are unique among the other Hockomock teams and it can be fun to watch.

McGuirk: The way Westfield is dominating the competition (109 points in two games), I would say the the triple option is working best for them. They have the right personnel to execute it and coach Bill Moore is very good at putting the right players in place to keep it rolling effectively, especially his tandem of Ben Geschwind and Jake Toomey, who are both averaging over 10 yards-per-carry.

4. TWO OF THE MERRIMACK VALLEY CONFERENCE'S BEST SQUADS, CENTRAL CATHOLIC AND LOWELL, SURRENDERED A COMBINED 73 POINTS AGAINST NON-LEAGUE TOP 10 OPPONENTS LAST WEEKEND. ARE WE HEADED FOR ANOTHER SEASON OF HIGH SCORES IN THE MVC?

Hall: Tough to tell, because Tewksbury has more than pulled its weight in the defensive end so far. If there's one team that can avoid track meets, it's the Redmen. Everyone else, good luck. We anointed the MVC "Death By 1,000 Shallow Crosses" a year ago, and with the amount of spread offense and no-huddle tempo deployed in this league, we could very well be in for another season of Wild West scores.

Barboza: I'd take my chances with the defensive units of Andover, Central Catholic, Lowell and Tewksbury against just about any offense in the state, but what comes into play in the MVC is the teams' offensive style of play. With so many teams in its ranks adopting the spread offense, the big numbers put up seemingly on a weekly basis are more a function of the pace of the game, with shortened drives as opposed to rushing-oriented, ball-control styles of play. But as long as MVC teams continue to live and die by the sword (or the spread), I think we'll continue to see some lopsided numbers.

Mike Abelson, ESPN Boston correspondent: Yes and no. Central and Lowell, when the blur is working as advertised, can drop basketball scores on lesser teams because of the athletic talent. That being said, through three weeks there are only two MVC teams averaging 30 or more points. Central is one, and the other, North Andover, hasn't won a game. The only two remaining undefeated teams, Tewksbury and Methuen, are averaging 27 and 18 points a game, respectively, and winning games without all the flash and dash of putting up buckets of points. Yes, the MVC will have it's share of high-scoring contests (I'll put the over/under for Central-Chelmsford at 90.5), but it won't consistently translate to W's.

5. AFTER A ROUGH FIRST WEEK, HAS BARNSTABLE FIGURED IT OUT? CAN THEY KNOCK OFF NO. 1 XAVERIAN?

Hall: I feel like this is a sneaky good matchup. Let's not forget Barnstable was our preseason No. 12 before getting shell-shocked by Dennis-Yarmouth in the opening weekend. There is talent, between versatile athlete Hayden Murphy, shutdown corner Derek Estes and elusive scatback Justus Chafee.

Defensively, Barnstable typically likes to stretch vertically and keep everything in front of them, which can be a bad matchup against spread teams like Dennis-Yarmouth. Last week against BC High, they looked like they cleaned up a lot of their mistakes. Xaverian's offense, while a bit more creative, has some similarities to BC High's. Going the other way, the Red Raiders use some funky misdirection in the run game to prevent linebackers from filling gaps. On their first touchdown against BC, for instance, a receiver backpedaled off the line of scrimmage, feigning a bubble screen, putting several defenders on their heels as Chafee came up the gut on a zone read.

That kind of stuff can keep even the best defenses on their toes. Expect some fireworks, and some dynamic playcalling, in this one.

Barboza: This is a yes-and-no proposition to me. I think the Raiders righted ship after an embarrassing loss to Cape rival Dennis-Yarmouth in Week 1, going on the road to beat another Catholic Conference foe in BC High. But I think Barnstable would need to play a near perfect game, while forcing the Hawks into some turnovers in order to make it four straight defeats of an ESPN Boston No. 1 squad. I'm not saying it will not be a close game, I just like Xaverian a little bit more.

Perry: In a preseason roundtable, I said that Barnstable was a team that was getting overlooked because of the players that it lost from last year. I’ll stick by that and say that the Raiders give Xaverian a run for their money. The No. 1 ranking has been more of an albatross than an honor this year, so I’ll say that Barnstable has a good chance of causing the Hawks problems.

McGuirk: Barnstable is good but Xaverian is playing with a lot of confidence, especially following the huge win over B-R last week. The Hawks should take care of the Red Raiders who gave up 37 points to D-Y in Week One but did bounce back nicely last week against BC High.

Abelson: In Hayden Murphy I trust. In the ESPN Boston poll curse I believe. Barnstable, 27-21.

6. THE HOCKOMOCK LEAGUE'S KELLY-REX DIVISION MIGHT BE THE STATE'S MOST UNPREDICTABLE RACE THIS FALL. AS LEAGUE PLAY OPENS UP THIS WEEK, PROJECT YOUR CHAMPION AND DARK HORSE.

Hall: Mansfield was the prohibitive favorite in most minds heading into the season, and so far they've done little to suggest otherwise. Consider that nearly three weeks out from their shocking upset of Dunbar (Md.), the Hornets are still without five starters. They're already a dynamic offense, between quarterback Kyle Wisnieski, 6-foot-5 flex tight end Brendan Hill, and space-carving tailback Miguel Villar-Perez. Hard to go against that.

For dark horses, I like Attleboro. I think it's understated how big their line is, particularly at defensive tackle, and there are plenty of weapons on offense between quarterback Tim Walsh, tight end Luke Morrison and receiver Brendan Massey. This program has long been a sleeping giant, and new coach Mike Strachan has re-awakened those sentiments.

Barboza: All along, I've penciled in Mansfield as the team to beat in the Kelley-Rex. I believe they had the most complete group of talent on either side of the ball, and also had the most upside. The scary part is that, due to injury, the Hornets might not have yet hit their apogee and will continue to strengthen as the season progresses.

Now, for the sleeper, I know we've talked up Attleboro up a lot in the early going -- to the point that I really think they're a threat in Division 1 South. Seeing that the Blue Bombardiers are for real in the first two weeks of the season, I'm going to go with Taunton. I don't think Chris Greding has gotten enough credit for the job he's done turning around the Tigers program in short order. Of course, an infusion of talent led by Domingo Jenkins helps, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if Taunton knocks off one of the Hock's "Big Three" -- King Philip, Mansfield, North Attleborough -- at some point this season.

Perry: The favorite heading into the Hockomock League season is defending champions Mansfield and its new spread attack that takes advantage of its great weapons like senior quarterback Kyle Wisnieski and junior tight end Brendan Hill. Attleboro has gotten a lot of hype from media, me included, in the preseason as a sleeper in the Hock. A new coaching staff, a new field, and new schemes on both sides of the ball have made the Bombardiers a much more confident crew and better utilize the weapons that it has. The Bombardiers were only a few mental mistakes from beating Mansfield last season and Tim Walsh is on fire running the spread formation – watch out for Attleboro. Of course, watch out for KP, Franklin, and North Attleborough, too. It really is up for grabs

McGuirk: The Kelly-Rex Division is solid with four teams still unbeaten (Mansfield, Attleboro, North Attleboro and Taunton). When it is all said and done. I believe it will come down to Mansfield and North Attleborough for the title because of their high-octane offenses. Attleboro has to be considered the darkhorse here because of its stingy defense which could carry them through. It will be interesting to watch all four of these team beat up one another during the season and see who survives.

Westford, Algonquin debut in boys hoop poll

January, 15, 2013
1/15/13
12:36
AM ET
We updated our statewide MIAA Top 25 boys basketball poll this afternoon. To find the complete poll, CLICK HERE.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Poll does not reflect Monday's results)

Some notes and observations about this week's poll:

Debuts for Westford, Algonquin: Two teams make their debuts this week, in Westford Academy (24) and Algonquin (25). For the former it's the Grey Ghosts' first appearance of the 2012-13 season. For Algonquin, it's an historic first, the Tomahawks' first foray into the Top 25 in our poll's three-year history. Stigmatized by a perceived weak schedule, the 8-0 Tomahawks had a dominant showing on Friday against a quality Fitchburg squad, winning by 20 points. They're also speared by a breakout campaign by 6-foot-6 sophomore post player A.J. Brodeur, who is one of Central Mass.'s leading scorers with 17 points per game.

City loses another squad: Hard to believe just a month ago, there were six Boston City League teams in the poll, following Dorchester's surprise upset of Madison Park. Both those teams quickly fell out in the ensuing weeks, and now Charlestown joins them on the list of teams dropping out. It was a less than inspiring week for the Townies, who barely skirted by Latin Academy, then finished the week out with losses to West Roxbury (56-50) and St. Peter-Marian (74-66).

New Mission (2), Brighton (12) and East Boston (15) are the three Boston City League teams representing this week.

Historic week for St. Peter-Marian: In a week that few saw coming, St. Peter-Marian knocked off Catholic Memorial, St. John's of Shrewsbury and Charlestown in a span of six days. For that effort, the Guardians shot up the poll, from No. 25 to No. 14, this week. How long that lasts, however, remains to be seen. The Guardians took one on the chin tonight from unranked Whitinsville Christian, 64-49. The Crusaders themselves sit on the outside looking in, getting notice in the "Last 10 out" section this week.

MVC dominance: For the first time this season, all four of the Merrimack Valley Conference teams in the poll sit in the Top 10. Central Catholic remains No. 1 for the third straight week, followed by Andover (7), North Andover (9) and Lowell (10), the latter of which dropped eight spots following an upset by North Andover on Friday.

Here's how the poll breaks down this week by league affiliation:

Merrimack Valley - 4
Boston City League - 3
Catholic Conference - 3
Central Mass. Conference - 2
Hockomock - 2
Mid-Wach A - 2
Valley Wheel - 2
Bay State - 1
Big Three - 1
Dual County - 1
Middlesex - 1
Northeastern - 1
South Coast - 1
South Shore - 1

Roundtable: Big surprises in first month of football

September, 26, 2012
9/26/12
4:31
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1. THROUGH THREE WEEKS, WHICH TEAM HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST SURPRISE?

Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: I don’t know if it’s so much of a surprise, but I think we can say that Nauset football is for real and might be the front-runner for the Atlantic Coast League crown this season. While Mashpee has fallen below some preseason expectations, the Warriors 20-point win over the defending Division 4 Super Bowl champions last week was impressive. I’d absolutely put head coach Keith Kenyon on my shortlist for Coach of the Year in the early season, having completely turned that program around in his third year on the job. They’ll have another challenge this week with a trip to Cardinal Spellman, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Warriors undefeated after Week 4.

Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: I know in the preseason I predicted Nauset would win out in an Atlantic Coast League that was expected to be a toss-up this year, and through the first three weeks of the season the Warriors have looked strongest. But if you told me in the preseason the Warriors would not only break through a stout veteran Wayland defense, but also roll over Mashpee with ease, I’d have chuckled.

But that’s exactly what we’ve got here. The Warriors have been off to a dominant start to the 2012 season, outscoring the opposition 95-32, including a 34-15 thump of Mashpee last weekend. But more than the impressive statistics on defense, and more than the shroud of scouting mystery provided by its remote location (ever been to Eastham after Labor Day?), it’s the offensive gameplan that makes the Warriors such a tough –- and unpredictable –- squad.

Keith Kenyon has turned around a once-dormant program (4-46 from 2005-09) into a formidable foe, in part due to the fact Nauset is one of the few teams in New England running exclusively out of a true Single-Wing offense. We’re talking one-inch splits, unbalanced formations and even fullbacks calling the cadence.

Last year, captain and fullback Brendan Battles-Santos (also an ESPN Boston All-Stater and UConn freshman) said of Kenyon’s offense, “when he brought in the Single Wing, I thought it was the best thing in high school football. I was like, ‘This is sick’, I’m not even getting the ball and this is fun, you know?”

Heck, even Wikipedia applauds Kenyon’s application of the Single Wing at Nauset.

Last year, you had to pick your poison between the aforementioned blocking back Battles-Santos and brothers Nathan and Dylan Holmes, who shared quarterback duties. This season, Jimmy Sullivan has taken the reigns at QB, and he had his breakout last weekend against Mashpee, carrying 22 times for 205 yards. Look for him to be a continued threat as the Warriors look for their first playoff berth ever in school history.

Adam Kurkjian, ESPN Boston correspondent: Have to go with Chelmsford. It speaks to the depth of the Lions' program that they can lose as much talent and experience from a year ago and beat teams like Westford Academy and Acton-Boxboro that decisively. It remains to be seen whether or not Chelmsford will keep up this pace with the iron of the Merrimack Valley Conference Large Division, but it's a good start.

Bruce Lerch, ESPN Boston correspondent: How about Bishop Fenwick? The program hasn't had a winning season since 2007 and is off to a 3-0 start with three different types of wins. First came a solid 22-14 victory over an always tough Northeast team, then the Crusaders showed they could do the shootout thing by putting up 39 points against Pope John, and last week they showed they can do it with defense in a 14-7 triumph of Lynnfield. Rufus Rushins is finding the end zone on the ground while quarterback Nick Bona and wideout Charlie Maistrellis have a strong connection through the air. The Catholic Central Large has been the domain of Cardinal Spellman, St. Mary's and Austin Prep over the years but Fenwick looks like it may be ready to get back to challenging those teams this season.

John Botelho, Editor-in-Chief, South Shore Sports Journal: Whitman-Hanson is off to a 3-0 start with wins over Plymouth North, Marshfield and should keep getting better. The Patriot League Keenan Division is still a race for who finishes second to Duxbury until someone knocks them off. Still though, the Panthers have closed the gap, at least a little bit, and this league has to be among the best on the South Shore now with undefeated Hingham in it as well. Tom Sapienza has transitioned seamlessly from wide out to quarterback this year, and has already found a top target in Dondre James, who has caught four of his eight TD passes.

Noth Attleborough has also been a pleasant surprise so far this year. Yes, they were a team many people thought could win the Hockomock Kelley-Rex crown, but they already hold wins over Rhode Island's top team in LaSalle and they beat the defending EMass. Div. 1 Super Bowl champ in BC High. If you had North at 2-0 after those two games before the season started, you were in the minority. And they didn't just squeak by, they beat both teams by at least 20 points. Sure, they won a close call against Bishop Feehan, but that was a trap game for them coming off those two huge wins. This team has already raised the ceiling for the expectations significantly in 2012.

Talking surprises, we might as well bring up both Middleboro and Norwell here too. Both programs have struggled to be competitive in recent years, but both are currently 2-1 this year (and both are following 2-9 campaigns in 2011). Neither team has gotten to the meat of their schedule yet, but it's always nice to see teams trending upward.

The Sachems have cruised past Coyle & Cassidy and Falmouth the last two weeks. Unfortunately for them, Duxbury comes to town this Friday. Still though, a clear message would be sent if they can put on a competitive show. As of right now, they'd probably be the favorites against Silver Lake, North Quincy and Carver, and winning those three would mean finishing at at least .500 for the season.

Norwell beat Randolph and South Shore Vo-Tech the last two weeks, surrendering 12 total points along the way. They host winless Rockland on Saturday, and the Bulldogs are having trouble finding the end zone. The Clippers could find themselves 3-1 before they run into Abington and Mashpee in the next few weeks.

2. WHICH PLAYERS HAVE SEPARATED THEMSELVES SO FAR FOR ESPNBOSTON.COM'S "MR. FOOTBALL" AWARD?

Barboza: Averaging nearly 17-yards-per-carry heading into Week 4 action, it’s hard to argue that any other single player in the state has contributed more to his team than Holy Name senior running back Quron Wright.

Beyond Wright, I don’t know if there’s another singular talent that has entirely joined that conversation, but there’s a couple others worth watching. Darien Fernandez is tearing up the record books for the Vikings, setting a school-record with six touchdowns in a 51-14 win over Falmouth and leading Wareham to a 3-0 record. This might be a little more outside of the box, but I defy you to find a lineman who’s been more valuable to his team in the early going than Reading tackle Matt Comerford, who’s absolutely eaten up all comers in the early season, including Brockton’s defensive line, which is no slouch in its own right. If you want to look at the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Zach Hume is poised to lead Nashoba to great heights.

Hall: At running back, Burlington’s Marcus Odiah and Quron Wright have separated themselves for contention with some impressive yardage in the early-going. Wright has amassed over 650 yards rushing on just 39 carries, while Odiah is averaging over 230 yards rushing per game. Both demonstrate exceptional top-end speed, albeit in different manners –- Odiah the long and slender build at 6-foot-1, Wright the short and compact frame that makes him difficult to spot behind the huge Holy Name linemen in the double wing.

And I mean, honestly, how can you not dig #QuronMania?

At quarterback, the competition is furious right now, with a number of players putting up impressive stats so far. St. John’s of Shrewsbury’s Andrew Smiley, Natick’s Troy Flutie, Reading’s Drew Belcher and Springfield Central’s Cody Williams, all juniors, have put up good numbers and showed resilient poise in the crunch. However, Barnstable’s Nick Peabody seems to be a cut above the quarterbacking competition right now. In just three games, he has already racked up 13 touchdown passes and over 1,000 yards of offense.

Defensively, it’s hard to ignore the impact Jon Baker has had in the middle of the field for Millis/Hopedale, and while Xaverian has struggled to a 1-2 record Maurice Hurst Jr. has had a big impact on the interior as a defensive tackle. Also look out for Nashoba linebacker Zach Hume and Reading lineman Matt Comerford, two leaders on two of the state’s stingiest defenses.

Kurkjian: It's still very early, but it's hard to go against Holy Name's Quron Wright. Through three games, according to the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, he is averaging almost 17 yards per carry and has scored 10 touchdowns. Those are incredible numbers, regardless of the opponent, and expect them to continue.

Bruce Lerch: Burlington's Marcus Odiah has a staggering 705 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in just three games for an average of 235 per. Already the program's career rushing leader with 3,551 yards, Odiah could surpass the 4,000-yard milestone within the next couple of games.

Josh Perry, ESPN Boston correspondent: There are a host of quarterbacks that are putting up incredible numbers early in the season, including Troy Flutie of Natick, Drew Belcher of Reading, and my favorite -- Nick Peabody of Barnstable. Peabody fits in perfectly with the Red Raiders attack and has that offense rolling. He leads the state with 13 touchdown passes and has been incredibly accurate, while throwing more than just about anyone else in Massachusetts. Of course, I always have a special place in my heart for teams that love to throw and score points so Barnstable is intriguing.

Alex Jette of North Attleboro is another player that I think could get more attention at a state level, if he can stay on the field for four quarters. He has all the skills - breakaway speed, quick cuts, and great hands in the passing game, but a combination of cramping and some cheap shots at the bottom of piles has taken him out of games in the second half. A good example was Week 1 against LaSalle (R.I.) where he put on a show in the first half with nearly 300 yards of offense, but then was on the field for only a couple of snaps in the second half. Hockomock League play tends to slow down offensive attacks anyway so Jette is missing chances to rack up statistics before having to face Mansfield and KP’s defenses.

Botelho: Quron Wright has put up some ridiculous stats the first three, rushing for over 600 yards already. But don't sleep on Duxbury's Jon Hurvitz either. The Dragons have pushed their state-best win streak to 29 games despite running a changed offense. With Matt O'Keefe under center and a seemingly endless repertoire of weapons at his disposal, Duxbury blew past teams with a pass-happy offense. O'Keefe is gone, but the high scoring offense remains because of what Hurvitz has done out of the backfield. The senior tailback has already rushed for 10 touchdowns and shows no signs of slowing down.

Barnstable's Nick Peabody has torched opposing defenses, leading the Red Raiders to just north of 40 points per game, and his 13 touchdown passes lead the state. We find out just how good Barnstable is this weekend when they play No. 1 Everett. If Peabody can deliver there like he has the first few weeks, Mr. Football is probably his award to lose.

3. WHICH BROCKTON TEAM ARE WE LIKELY TO SEE THE REST OF THE WAY -- THE ONE THAT STRUGGLED AGAINST READING, OR THE ONE WITH TWO WINS OVER TOP-5 CATHOLIC CONFERENCE POWERS?

Barboza: Once again, I’ll happily eat my slice of humble pie for picking the Boxers to open up the season 1-3. They’ve certainly acquitted themselves as a better team than that in their two early wins. Whether Brockton can run their Catholic Conference win streak to three games against the Prep on Friday is another question. I’m sticking by my preseason pick that the Eagles will escape Marciano with a victory in tow. However, I think the destiny of this Boxers team is more in line with the pluses than the minuses, provided they can move the ball. The Rockets utterly shut down the triple option in Week 2, creating concern of Brockton’s ability to consistently move the ball. As long as there’s no repeat performance, and Prep’s stout defense provides an ample challenge this week, Brockton will be just fine in the long run.

Hall: Either there is just something about Catholic Conference schools that bring out the best in Brockton, or the Boxers are just better than any of us have given them credit for. Based on the early returns, my inclination is the latter, and you have to like the Boxers’ chances going forward. This St. John’s Prep squad is good, but not invincible, and even perhaps a little too conservative at times if the Everett loss is any indicator.

If the Boxers win out here, their next three opponents are Fitchburg, Pinkerton (N.H.) and Durfee. Of those three, I only expect the Pinkerton game to be a toss-up -– but then again, a year ago supposedly the worst Brockton team in a decade knocked off the unstoppable juggernaut that was supposed to be the 2011 Astros.

It’s very possible we could see Brockton at 6-1 headed into Week 8’s showdown with Leominster, and let the record show I predicted a 1-3 record for the Boxers coming into September.

Kurkjian: Your guess is as good as mine. There is one thing that is for sure, however. This Brockton team is light years better than last year's version. Maybe that's not saying much because last year's team struggled so mightily, but this team is just so much better up front and there's an overall uptick in focus and leadership that recent Brockton teams have lacked.

Lerch: You have to like the strength the Boxers have shown against the Catholic Conference with both of its wins coming against BC High and Xaverian. I think this is the week where we'll be able to better answer this question, as they'll take on a St. John's Prep squad that battled Everett tooth and nail. If Brockton can continue the momentum they picked up last week, I like their chances for a strong finish.

Botelho: Well, the one thing we know about the Boxers for sure is their defense is premier. They shut out BC High, then held Reading's powerhouse offense to just 12 points before allowing 14 in the win against Xaverian last week. The bad news for Brockton is that if they can't get their offense rolling early, they have a hard time finding the end zone at all. Since the beginning of the 2011 season, Brockton has been shutout in five of their seven losses. The only time they've reached double digits and lost since last year was their game 22-15 defeat against St. John's Prep last season.

That said, even with the shutout against Reading already on their tab this season, this year's version of the offense looks more complete than last season's. I'd be shocked if this team is shutout again this year, and wouldn't be at all surprised if they don't lose another game, because they don't need many points to with the defense they've got. My guess is as the season continues to carry on, and they hammer down their Georgia Tech-style offense more, they'll become a tough team to slow down.

4. WHICH RUNNING BACK HAS BEEN THE BIGGEST SURPRISE THUS FAR?

Barboza: This name might not be among the better known in the state in year in which, for all intents and purposes, is fairly deep at running back, but Somerset-Berkley’s Garrett Carlos has been a revelation. The senior is averaging a shade over 10 yards per carry while running for 411 yards and eight touchdowns in three weeks. After a bit of a rebuilding year last year, the Blue Raiders’ cupboard is full this year with 20 returning seniors, meaning that Nick Freitas’ team should again be in the poll position for an Eastern Athletic Conference title. And Carlos is no small part of that.

Hall: The one that sticks out in my mind is Wareham’s Darien Fernandez running roughshod over Falmouth in Week 1, running for 246 yards and six touchdowns (five in the first half). He has cooled down since then, but the kid is flat out an athlete. At 5-foot-6 and blessed with great leg strength, he is as durable as he is tough to get a good angle on. He’s already well-known on the basketball court, making our All-State Team last winter in leading the Vikings to the Division 3 Eastern Mass Final at TD Garden. But some have mused he may be a better football player, with some feelers from a few Division 1 FCS programs.

Kurkjian: Going to go with Needham's Mike Panepinto here. So far, he's been outstanding for an undefeated Needham team already owns a win over Mansfield. A tough runner, he simply doesn't go down on first contact and he's a perfect complement to a passing game that continues to get better with junior quarterback Ryan Charter.

Lerch: Needham's Mikey Panepinto is a heck of an athlete who is putting up tremendous numbers in what his probably his second-best sport, given that he's already committed to platy lacrosse at UMass. It's not so much the numbers that have surprised me with Panepinto though as much as it is the manner in which he's gotten them. He was able to get off for some big gains in two of the Rockets games but against Mansfield, he really impressed me by proving that he could also grind out the tough yardage and punch in a series of short TD runs.

Perry: Attleboro running back Malique Clark is not an unknown quantity after several explosive cameo appearances last season. He has breakout speed and the strength to carry the ball 20 times per game. The surprise is that the Attleboro offensive line has been able to create openings for him against tough defenses like Bishop Feehan and Dartmouth. Teams will be packing the box and daring junior QB Tim Walsh to beat them with his arm, but to this point it hasn’t slowed Clark down at all. The Hockomock is loaded with running backs this season, but Clark’s ability to turn a nothing play into a big gain has kept the Attleboro offense rolling and has the Bombardiers at a surprising 3-0. Hopefully, Clark’s rib injury that made him miss this weekend’s game won’t be a long-term problem.

Botelho: Darien Fernandez at Wareham, Kiivone Howard at Foxboro and Hurvitz have all exceeded expectations, but Jalen Felix has kept Everett rolling. He did it again last week against St. John's Prep, scoring a TD and rushing for 96 yards on 12 carries.

5. WHICH LINEMAN IS MAKING THE BIGGEST PUSH FOR ALL-STATE INCLUSION CURRENTLY?

Barboza: Aside from a lot of the familiar names you’ve seen in our preseason lists, here’s a couple who have stood out to me in the first quarter season. Both Brendan and I were taken back by the performance of Barnstable center Tom Grimmer during the Red Raiders’ man-handling of Dennis-Yarmouth. He spent most of that evening riding the Dolphins’ nose guard five yards back. I’m also looking at North Attleborough’s big bookend tackles –- Sean Peters and Eric Beckwith. We talked a little bit earlier in the season about how the Red Rocketeers have historically had good speed/zone blockers, but have often lacked size. Both Peters (6-4, 240) and Beckwith (6-2, 270) bring exactly that. Although North sees plenty of pressure from the outside against traditionally strong defensive sides in King Philip and Mansfield in its Hockomock League schedule, they might be better prepared this year to deal with the outside rush than at any time in recent memory behind their pillars on the end.

Hall: I’m making a case for Holy Name’s Basit Dennis to be included in this discussion. Off the field he’s a great story, with his Liberian roots, and a great kid. On the field, at 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds, the senior has been a dominant two-way force in the interior. As talented as Quron Wright is on his own merit, a big reason for his ridiculous rushing average is the Naps’ punishing offensive line, led by Dennis at right tackle.

Brockton’s Joe Previte has been a leader at center for a revitalized Boxer offense. And don’t forget about Everett’s bookend defensive ends, Jeff Soulouque and Omar Graciano, who have taken turns applying pressure on quarterbacks and causing confusion.

Kurkjian: Reading's Matt Comerford was pretty impressive in the game against Brockton Week 2. He's strong, mobile, tough and plays with good technique. And it doesn't hurt that he's about 6-4 or 6-5 and 285 pounds.

Lerch: Regardless of who is taking the snaps in Everett or what trickery John DiBiaso uses to get the ball into the hands of those tremendous athletes, the one constant is John Montelus. The Michigan-bound senior has really solidified his standing as the state's top prospect, regardless of position, and has done it againts one of the state's toughest, early-season schedules.

Two guys to keep an eye on are Millis/Hopedale's Jon Baker and Burlington's Mike Woods. Baker is a 290-pound beast who dominated both sides of the line of scrimmage in the Mohawks rout of Norton last week and has drawn plenty of notice from big-time college programs. Woods is the left tackle and leader of the Red Devils line that has paved the way for Marcus Odiah to run for 705 yards and 10 scores and is another player catching looks from several Division 1 FBS and FCS level schools in the Northeast.

6. IT'S A MEGA-WEEKEND OF MUST-SEE FOOTBALL ACTION. WHICH GAME ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO?

Barboza: Well, since it’s part of our Massachusetts Army National Guard Game of the Week program, I’m going to go with St. John’s Prep at Brockton. As we went over in Question 3, the onus is on Brockton to show that they are in fact the team that’s notched two, tough Catholic Conference wins in the early going. But this one will also be a litmus test for the Eagles, who played a very competitive game against No. 1 Everett. It’ll be interesting to see how Prep responds – whether they use last week as a rallying point into their later schedule or if this one presents a letdown after taking on No. 1. This certainly isn’t a game to be taken lightly and I’d expect neither team will. This will be an ole fashioned slobber-knocker on the ground.

Hall: You ask anyone in Everett, and they’ll tell you Barnstable was the hardest-hitting team they faced all season. The Red Raiders come at you with a certain level of abandon replicated by few programs, and nobody embodies this more than middle linebacker Andrew Ellis. But it’s a much different level of football in Everett than the Raiders have seen so far (Durfee, Dennis-Yarmouth, Sandwich), so this should be a great litmus test under the lights at Everett Memorial Stadium.

Kurkjian: Barnstable at Everett. Any time you have the clear-cut No. 1 team in the state going up against a quality opponent it's pretty compelling. You have to wonder just how healthy the Crimson Tide are coming off such a physical battle with St. John's Prep last week. Barnstable has been throwing the ball all over teams so far but they haven't faced a defense anywhere near the level of Everett's. Everett definitely comes in more battle-tested. Not sure how much Durfee, a rebuilding Dennis-Yarmouth and Sandwich prepare you for the best team in the state, but we will find out Friday night.

Lerch: You really can't go wrong with a loaded schedule this weekend, particularly on Friday, but it's hard to look past another Game of the Week taking place in Everett. Last week the Crimson Tide hosted No. 2 St. John's Prep, and this week, it's No. 3 Barnstable coming to town. Everett hasn't yet seen an offense capable of putting up the kind of numbers that the Raiders have been achieving (145 points through three games) but the reverse of that is true as well in that Barnstable has yet to match up against a team that has as much athleticism as the Tide.

Perry: The easy choice would be Everett versus Barnstable, but I am a sucker for history.

In Hockomock country, old rivals North Attleborough and Foxborough will meet at Ahern Middle School. For decades, the Hockomock League title came down to North, Foxboro, and Mansfield, but recently the Warriors have been hit by changing demographics within the town. Each year the Foxboro program has shrunk a little bit and now KP has replaced it at the top of the league while Oliver Ames, Stoughton, and Canton have threatened to pass them by in the small school division.

This is a Warriors team that has promise and a desire to put North in its place (this is a trend among most teams in the Hockomock). Running back Kiivone Howard has been a star with 9 touchdowns in the opening three weeks and Foxboro wants nothing more than to reestablish itself in the Hockomock pecking order. Although the game lacks playoff implications, the rivalry between the teams makes this a must win for both.

The Rocketeers certainly saw last week what an angry rival is capable of, when they struggled to put away Feehan, and I expect a reaction from them, but still can’t count out Foxboro.

Botelho: This is the easily the most exciting weekend of the season so far, and you can look all over the state and find exciting games. Out west you've Minnechaug-Longmeadow, which is always one of the game's of the year. In the central region, Holy Name and Nashboa are colliding in a Super Bowl rematch. And in Eastern Mass, it's nearly impossible to pick just one. No. 1 Everett vs No. 3 Barnstable should be a blast. No. 18 Needham plays at No. 20 Weymouth in what is essentially a league title game in September. Brockton hosts St. John's. Bob Bancroft's Pembroke team host Whitman-Hanson, the team he became a legend with (and Panthers coach Mike Driscoll captained one of Bancroft's unbeaten Super Bowl champions). East Bridgewater and Mashpee has evolved into a huge tilt in the SSL the last couple years, and the Falcons have ended the Vikings' postseason chances each of the last two years. Mansfield might have the best passing attack in either Hockomock League, and Stoughton seems to have the best pass defense, and this week we'll find out which strength is greater.

A great weekend indeed if you're a high school football fan.
This season, we're trotting a new feature for football season that we started back in the spring. Each Wednesday, we'll pool the minds of our ESPN Boston staff and contributors to debate several hot button topics across the state in our Roundtable.

Without further ado, let's kick off the new season with these takes:

1. BC HIGH RECEIVED SOME BAD NEWS LAST WEEK WHEN RETURNING ESPN BOSTON ALL-STATE LINEBACKER LUKE CATARIUS SUFFERED A HAIRLINE FRACTURE ON HIS ANKLE. HOW WILL THE EAGLES COPE?

Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: Over the last decade, BC High has proven to be a program with enough sufficient depth to compensate when star players miss a significant time with injury. However, it’s different when you lose the quarterback of your defense, especially when it’s a player as special a talent as the Eagles’ Luke Catarius.

In the scrimmage against Mansfield, after Catarius went out with the ankle injury, the Hornets went to the underneath game and exploited the flats for big gains. There was also one big miscommunication in the secondary that allowed Kevin Maki to wheel right through the middle of the deep field for a 45-yard completion. Not that this won’t be shored up before Friday’s big tilt with Brockton, but it is worth pointing out.

The good news, obviously, is that the Eagles’ Catholic Conference season doesn’t start until late October – but with Xaverian and St. John’s Prep looking sharp, it will be obvious if this team isn’t in proper shape. With that in mind, I expect Brandon Owens’ role at outside linebacker to have an even bigger significance than before. The pressure will also be on the front four, led by Jaleel Johnson, to buy the back seven time.

Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools editor: In terms of talent, I think the Eagles can get along. My greatest concern for BC High’s defense without Catarius relates to communication. The linebacker has been the leader of the defensive huddle, with messages from the sideline passed along to the inside linebacker. On field, Catarius was the quarterback of the defense as well, not only knowing his own responsibilities, but that of his teammates. That comes from knowledge of the system and cannot be replicated; it only comes through game-condition experience. The Eagles have a bevy of returning starters on the defensive line and secondary to shoulder the load but this one hurts. Will they rely on Brandon Owens to not only be the feature back, but take on more Catarius’ two-way role? We saw what happened last year when Preston Cooper went down at running back and how Deontae Ramey-Doe filled those shoes. So perhaps this will be more of the same for a deep Eagles’ squad. But a player of Catarius’ ilk cannot simply be replaced.

Adam Kurkjian, ESPN Boston correspondent: Without question, losing one of the top two-way players in the state will have a negative impact on BC High. The Eagles will not be able to replace his production easily and there may be an extra loss or two that comes down their way early on because of it. That said, if he is back by the time Catholic Conference play rolls around, BC High will still be one of the favorites to make it back to the playoffs. But still his loss cannot be understated.

Bruce Lerch, ESPN Boston correspondent: Believe it or not, I think the Eagles will be fine defensively. Obviously, Catarius is a one-of-a-kind talent with the ability to singlehandedly change opposing offensive gameplans. BC High will simply lean more on the unit as a whole rather than an individual to bail them out, as Catarius often did with his read and react style of play. Linebackers Danny Collins and Brandon Owens are leaders, defensive linemen like Billy Breen and Jaleel Johnson will take up blockers and make a few plays on their own, and the secondary will have to be more active in supporting.

Oddly enough, I think it's on offense where the Eagles may miss Catarius the most. A bruising fullback, Catarius helped pave the way for Preston Cooper and Deontay Ramey-Doe to pile up yardage last season. New backs Owens and Skyler Evans, along with a mostly inexperienced line, would have benefitted greatly from having Catarius leading the charge.

John Botelho, Editor-in-Chief, South Shore Sports Journal: I'm not even sure this Luke Catarius injury will have any real impact on BC. And I don't mean that as a slight to Catarius - in fact, I think he's the best linebacker in the state. My point of view though is this is a non-issue for the Eagles for two reasons.

First of all, replacing Catarius obviously wouldn't be easy, but aren't teams in the Catholic Conference best suited to replace someone they lose to an injury? Those teams are so loaded and so deep that it seems they have significant depth at every position. Or at least it seemed that way when Preston Cooper - who was arguably the best running back in the state in the first half of last year - went down with a broken ankle. All BC did was go on to win the Super Bowl as Deontae Ramey-Doe stepped in and the Eagles never missed a beat.

Secondly, and most important, is that BC doesn't open up league play until October 26 when they host Malden Catholic. I think even without Catarius, it'd be considered an upset if the Eagles lost that match-up. If it really comes to it, they don't need Catarius back until November 4th, week eight of the season, when they travel to Xaverian. It's reasonable to think that a hairline fracture would be healed up and they'd have him back by then.

2. WHICH REGION OF THE STATE HAS THE BEST UP-AND-COMING TALENT?

Hall: The emergence of Springfield-area talent over the last few years is one of the best stories developing this fall. But in terms of pure talent, for me it’s got to be the Cape & Islands region.

Every year, there seems to be a Cape player that seemingly washes ashore to earn a Division 1 scholarship. Two years ago, it was Randall Jette from Martha’s Vineyard going to UMass. Last year, Nauset’s Brendan Battles-Santos surprising everyone at UConn’s prospect camp to earn a scholarship practically on the spot. This past summer, UMass dug back into the region to pluck 6-foot-7 tight end Terrel Correia out of Nantucket, with intentions of making him an offensive tackle.

We’ll obviously be watching Correia closely this fall, but he isn’t even the best player from the region. Barnstable quarterback Nick Peabody is among the state’s best, with Ivy League interest. Mashpee has three athletes with Division 1 potential in tackle Nate Chrzanowski, running back Jared Taylor (he of the 300-yard epic last year at Gillette Stadium) and his new backfield mate Malik Lee, a Cape Cod Tech transfer with plenty of upside at 6-foot-2 and 235 pounds.

Also keep an eye on Dennis-Yarmouth’s Joe Tyo, who still has to fill out but is projectable with a long 6-foot-5 frame and some active footwork. Falmouth sophomore Craig Green will be an intriguing prospect to monitor, after running a 10.6-second 100-meter dash last spring at the New England Track and Field Championships. And as good as Darien Fernandez was on the basketball court for Wareham last winter, some believe he’s an even better running back.

Barboza: I’m looking no further than our statewide preseason Top 25 poll to find two Springfield squads (Central at No. 14 and Putnum at No. 23) and another (Springfield Commerce) knocking on the door. Central is retooled for another run at Longmeadow in Div. 1 West with some key returnees from last year’s squad that made it to Gillette Stadium. Quarterback Cody Williams could be a breakout performer this year and Shawn Lockett is a legitimate force to deal with on the lines. Melquawn Pinkney might be gone, but the cupboard’s not bare for Putnam with Wayne Lowery, shouldering more of the running load while playing lock-down corner. Sha’ki Holines (UConn) and Hassan Graham (not to be confused with the Patriots receiver of yesteryear) grade out at their positions against anybody across the state.

Kurkjian: This is a tough question because the season has not started yet, so it is hard to assess which region has the top players. As it stands now, though, the North Shore looks to have an overflow of top players if you consider Everett part of that region. Also, don't forget BC High's Brandon Owens hails from Salem.

Botelho: Last fall made it hard to argue with any region being more up-and-coming than the Cape. Four of the nine Eastern Mass. Super Bowl champs were from the Cape and Islands (Dennis-Yarmouth Div. 2A, Bourne Div. 3A, Mashpee Div. 4 and Nantucket Div. 5). Not only did those teams each win Super Bowls last season, but the Cape teams outscored opponents 120-29 in those games. Only Bourne had a competitive game, beating defending Super Bowl champ Hamilton-Wenham, 16-14.

3. WHICH RUNNING BACK WILL HAVE THE BIGGEST BREAKOUT?

Hall: There’s a lot of directions you can go with this one. The addition of Malik Lee, and his soft hands, to Mashpee’s already-dangerous backfield has to feel like a high school offensive coordinator’s dream. Out west, Springfield folks are excited about two potential breakout candidates in Putnam’s Wayne Lowery and Central’s Aaron Owens. St. John's of Shrewsbury's Shadrach Abrokwah is bound for a breakout in John Andreoli's new Oregon-style "blur" offense.

However, I’m going with BC High’s Brandon Owens. That he is already committed to a Division 1 FCS school (Bryant) despite only seeing part-time duty one way last season speaks to his upside. As a runner, there is no wangle to his makeup – he’s a north-south, one-cut guy with a powerful frame that accelerates quickly to hit the hole at full speed.

Losing fullback Luke Catarius for the first six weeks of the season means the Eagles may have to get more creative with their offensive sets. But after seeing him take the corner on toss plays out of “Ace” formations, in the Mansfield scrimmage, I think he’s up for any task the coaching staff throws at him.

Barboza: I think we’re all hedging that Malik Lee of Mashpee will have a monster season in his first year with the Falcons, but I’m going to buck the trend here and go with another runner inside the South Shore League. Abington’s Babila Fonkem tallied seven touchdowns (five of those came in one game against backyard rival Archbishop Williams) and ran for over 1,000 yards last season. I think the 5-foot-10, 180-pounder has the potential to more than double last year’s tally as a feature back during Jim Kelleher’s swan song as head coach.

Kurkjian: From the looks of it, Brandon Owens has had a spectacular preseason and he will be the feature back in what expects to be another punishing ground attack for BC High. It appears as if the Eagles have just reloaded there.

Lerch: Everett's Kenny Calaj is already something of a household name, having been an impact weapon in Everett's offense the past two seasons. The majority of that. however, came as a pass catcher. With a pair of untested quarterbacks still battling to replace record-setting Jonathan DiBiaso, not to mention a mammoth group of offensive linemen, it would only make sense for the Tide to return to the ground game and Calaj should benefit as the main ball-carrier. I'm not sure what the record for all-purpose yardage in Massachusetts history, but Calaj is in a position to do some historic things as a senior.

Botelho: Arcel Armstead is primed to have an elite year at running back for Bridgewater-Raynham this season. It's no secret that Dan Buron-coached teams run the ball as well as anyone, and with both Nick Schlatz and Brandon Morin gone, Armstead will be the featured back for the Trojans. His athleticism alone would be enough for him to have a big year in that system, but B-R returns their entire offensive line from a season ago, led by 6-foot-4, 260-pound Joey MacInnis, meaning the sky is the limit for Armstead.

Don't sleep on guys like Jon Hurvitz at Duxbury, who is the best athlete returning to the Dragons who will need to remake their identity a bit without Matt O'Keefe under center. Hurvitz runs hard and has a chance to be the first running back Duxbury has built their offense around in recent memory.

Also, the South Shore League seems littered with potential breakout candidates. Jared Taylor is probably the best well-known running back who was a back-up last season. He flashed his electric running ability in the Super Bowl to the tune of more than 300 yards. But he won't be the only guy terrorizing defense in the league.

Babila Fonkem returns to Abington for a senior year with added size from his 1,000-yard campaign a year ago. Brian Kilmain, a junior for the Green Wave, could give them the most dangerous two-headed backfield in the league.

Andrew Benson, who looks like he'll officially be a quarterback, is ready to break out at East Bridgewater. He could end up running for more yards than ESPN All-Stater Casey DeAndrade a year ago, for more than one reason. Last year, DeAndrade split carries with Tim O'Brien. While Benson will share the backfield duties with Kevin Lynch, he'll see a higher percentage of touches than DeAndrade last year. Also, E-B's offense was so explosive last year that DeAndrade (and O'Brien) had their numbers cut down because the Vikings had big enough leads that the starters weren't on the field a lot in the fourth quarter. Only when they played Abington and Mashpee did starters stay in the entire game. This year's team will rank among the best in the SSL, but I don't think they'll put teams away so quickly this time around.

4. TAKE A LOOK AT THE FIRST MONTH OF BROCKTON’S SCHEDULE, AND PREDICT A RECORD.

Hall: This is going to upset some of our readers in the City of Champions, but there’s a realistic possibility of the Boxers coming out of the gate 0-4. Of those first four opponents – BC High, Reading, St. John’s Prep, Xaverian – nobody’s gotten worse from 2011, while I feel Brockton is still sitting in second gear after last year’s disappointing end.

That said, it sounds like Bryant-bound running back/defensive back Micah Morel will be ready for Friday’s opener against BC High after injuring his shoulder in the preseason, so that’s a positive sign. As for record, I think the Boxers will steal a game, either against Prep or Reading, to start off 1-3.

Barboza: Well, let’s go the tape … And hold me to this. I’m going:

Week 1, vs. BC High – Loss

Week 2, at Reading – Win

Week 3, vs. Xaverian – Loss

Week 4, vs. St. John’s Prep – Loss

That would make the Boxers 1-3 rolling into October. Then I think they rebound with three straight wins and finish out the season at 6-5 and represent the Big Three in the Division 1 playoffs as a very dangerous team after enduring a trying first month.

Kurkjian: With so many question marks surrounding this offense, it is hard to project exactly how the Boxers will fare. That said, this is a brutal start to the season. The feeling here is that Brockton manages to steal one and get off to a 1-3 start.

Lerch: It's a very real possibility that Brockton goes 0-4, and I think best case scenario is that they salvage a 2-2 mark. Any better than that and I wonder if the Catholic Conference would have an issue with adding a "league game" between Brockton and Everett to play for its championship.

Botelho: Brockton has the best program in state history. Literally. Their 751 all-time wins ranks first in the state by a wide margin (no one else even has 600 wins). They've also captured 11 Super Bowl titles in 40 years. That said, the last few years haven't been what Boxer fans are used to. They missed the playoffs two years in a row, and last season slumped to a disappointing 5-6.

All those struggles did was ignite something in the Boxers, who look primed to return to the postseason this season. I'm going to say Brockton gets through that portion of the schedule (one Peter Colombo said might rank as the toughest in New England) with a winning record. I'm a believer in Brockton this year, and they'll knock off at least one Catholic Conference opponent, as well as take care of business with Reading and Fitchburg. My guess is the Boxers end up 3-2 in this stretch (including a loss to BC High week one, which they'll avenge in the Super Bowl in December).

5. WHAT GAME WILL BE THE MOST THRILLING OF WEEK 1?

Hall: On a state-wide level, Everett’s trip to Leominster is certainly garnering the most interest, and deservedly so. The atmosphere there is going to be electric, with projections of anywhere up to 7-8,000 for expected attendance at Doyle Field. But, at the risk of being the wet blanket here, find me a pundit that doesn’t expect Everett to win.

Putnam-Central will be an intriguing battle out west, but I’m going with an underrated Saturday afternoon showdown in Shrewsbury, where St. John’s will host Holy Name in their customary season-opener. For all of Holy Name’s success under Mike Pucko, the Naps have never beaten St. John’s under John Andreoli. Last year’s contest, a 22-21 St. John’s thriller, was just epic on all fronts. And if there’s any year for Holy Name to get that elusive win over the Pioneers, it’s this one.

Barboza: This might not be the most high profile game on the docket, but I’m looking at the good ole fashioned brawl in the backyard between Dighton-Rehoboth and Somerset. The Falcons, coached by Somerset alum Dave Driscoll, are looking to rebound a bit in the South Coast Conference this season behind physical tackle Chuddy Nwachukwu and the Raiders could bounce back from a rebuilding year last year to finish atop the Eastern Athletic Conference this year. This has always been an underrated rivalry game in Southeastern Mass. and it's a great way to kick off the season for both squads.

Kurkjian: When in doubt, go with the No. 1 team opening up on the road against a program and community brimming with optimism over a Super Bowl win. No matter what happens, the atmosphere for Friday night's Everett at Leominster game will be electric.

Lerch: With apologies to several other high profile (BC High/Brockton) and not-so-high-profile (East Boston/Blue Hills will be a barnburner) matchups certainly deserving attention, the game at the top of my marquee is Duxbury at Bridgewater-Raynham (Saturday, 4 p.m.). Two programs very similar in the foundations programmed by a pair of tremendous head coaches, and both with an eye on getting a jump start on the "reload" process should be ready to go toe-to-toe for 44 minutes (or more).

Botelho: My favorite week one match-up is always Bridgewater-Raynham and Duxbury (especially this year, where these two teams grabbed the top two spots in our pre-season poll over at SportsJournal.co). Both perennial Super Bowl contenders, if either team doesn't bring their 'A' game from the get-go, they start the season with a loss. Dave Maimaron and Dan Buron always have their kids supremely prepared, so this one has a playoff atmosphere in September.

Combine notes from the month of May

May, 29, 2012
5/29/12
12:14
PM ET
In between baseball and girls lacrosse games, I had the chance to check out a few football combines this past month. Emptying out the notepad, here are some leftover nuggets:


Massachusetts High School Football Coaches Association Combine
Gillette Stadium
Foxborough, Mass.
May 6


Earlier this month, we checked in with several of the state's top prospects who were at the combine, including Xaverian's Maurice Hurst Jr., Mills/Hopedale's Jon Baker, and Dighton-Rehoboth's Chuddy Nwachukwu. Today, with new information, I'm bringing to light some new information about some players with hidden potential.

Athletic Standard CEO Thomas Newman passed along some information regarding the tests his company ran during the combine, pasted below. I've added each player's school in parentheses:



The following Athletes all tested in the 95th percentile in the nation for vertical jump (Horsepower and the first indicator of genetic potential):

Sean Antonuccio (Masconomet)
Junior Oyaronbi (St. Clement)
Frank Ansah (Worcester South)
Terrance Gibson (Taunton)
Berny Platel (Fitchburg)
Shaun Callahan (Norwood)
Nick Patten (Medford)
Sean Eldridge (Bristol-Plymouth)
Isaiah Douglas (Bishop Feehan)
Dominque Leite (Brockton)
Alex Jette (North Attleborough)
Babila Fonkem (Abington)
Elias Camacho (Canton)
Jamal Williams (Taunton)
Justin Mount (Westford)
Shadrach Abrokwah (St. John's of Shrewsbury)
Quron Wright (Holy Name)
Kevin Makie (Mansfield)
Kaylan Philbert-Richardson (Archbishop Williams)
Thomas Johnson (Pembroke)
Daniel Kegbeh (Holy Name)


Lateral Speed (huge component for separation or locking down on defense)

Jhalen Bien-Aime (Boston Latin)
4.218 - Laser pro agility
4.01 - Stop Watch Conversion time


Additionally, it should be noted this kid was so raw any speed coach will bring this down to a sub 4.0 pro or a 3.8 stopwatch time. Great kid by the way, real gentleman

Watch List (these kids have one standout feature):

Andrew Benson (East Bridgewater)
6-foot-1, 175 lbs.
Vertical - 27.75
Pro Agility - 4.421

It doesn't appear that he will grow much more but depending on his football skills this would be a solid pick.

Ricardo Calixte (Brockton)
5-foot-10-3/4, 198 lbs.
6-foot-4 wingspan nearly (this kid will grow over the summer)

Vertical - 28 inches - Normalized Index 406
Pro-Agility - 4.43 - Normalized Index 330

I would keep a close eye on him because if he gets any taller or heavier he will easily tip into the strong D1 prospect.




Calixte's story is an interesting one. He has the athletic frame and raw tools to be an impact on defense (he also ran a 4.75 second 40-yard dash), but has played sparingly to this point -- allegedly, he didn't suit up for Friday night games last season due to religious obligations. The only points to his name in last year's box scores is a two-point conversion run. Micah Morel is probably the Brockton prospect with the highest ceiling right now, but keep an eye on Calixte.

Impact Performance Football Combine
Massachusetts Maritime Academy
Buzzards Bay, Mass.
May 26


Impact Performance Training owner Ross Jatkola put on his first combine on the turf at Mass. Maritime's Clean Harbors Stadium, attended primarily by athletes from the Cape Cod area.

Pound for pound, Dennis-Yarmouth was arguably the toughest team in the state last fall. The Dolphins' run to the Division 2A Super Bowl title this year, blowing out many of their opponents despite being routinely undersized (sometimes comically so), and everyone playing both ways, is testament to this. A lot of credit goes to Paul Funk and the remarkable building job he's done over the last decade to a program that won just six games in the 1990's. But credit also has to go to Jatkola, a D-Y grad and former University of Albany tight end who also works as the Dolphins' strength coach.

Cape Cod football is on the rise in Massachusetts -- a record five Cape teams made playoffs last year, with four of them winning Super Bowls -- and this was a good chance to see some of the rising stars in action. About three dozen competed, with Barnstable's Bryan Hardy winning the pro agility and Bourne's Josh Curry winning the 40-yard dash.

For the complete results CLICK HERE.

A few observations:

Peabody pleases
If I'm picking four quarterbacks for our preseason All-State team, Barnstable's Nick Peabody is probably on the list -- I would have said this in January. He has ideal quarterback size (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) puts a lot of zip on the ball, and has big-game experience (leading the Red Raiders to their first playoff appearance in 10 years). I know we have to take these things for what they're worth, but the way he threw the ball around in 7-on-7 drills reaffirmed my disposition. Saturday morning, he was putting the ball in tight spots all over the field, hitting teammates on 15-yard out patterns seemingly on a dime.

Linemen to watch
Two Class of 2013 linemen to keep an eye on are Barnstable's Tom Grimmer and D-Y's Joe Tyo. Grimmer is built low to the ground, going about 5-foot-11 and 250 pounds, but has good balance and posture. He won the bench press event, doing 26 repetitions at 185 pounds.

Tyo could be a late-bloomer. He's a raw prospect at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, didn't start on the interior defensive line until Week 3 of the 2011 season, and needs to build more upper-body strength. His frame has yet to fill out. But he also ran a 4.9 second 40-yard dash, and demonstrated terrific footwork in pass-blocking drills.

Next In Line?
It's too early to predict the next Matt Montalto, D-Y's 2011 ESPN Boston All-Stater at quarterback who will be suiting up for Bentley University this fall. But when the time comes, his cousin, Michael Dunn, could fit the bill. The freshman won the vertical jump at 9 feet 3 inches, and I'm told he'll be used in an "athlete" slasher role going forward for the Dolphins.

MIAA football tourney plan clears another hurdle

May, 10, 2012
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FRANKLIN, Mass. -- The possibility of a statewide football championship in Massachusetts took another leap forward this morning.

In what was the second consecutive day of meetings for the MIAA Football Committee and the MIAA Tournament Management Committee on a proposed statewide tournament, voters once again favored the proposition with a 10-4 vote at the MIIA headquarters in Franklin. Combined with a 15-2 sanction by the football committee yesterday, the plan -- which cuts 19 regional winners down to six divisional state champs -- will move to the the board of directors for review in June.

“Every kid or coach who puts the work in wants the chance to get in and you have that opportunity by having a successful pre-qualification period,” said Swampscott football coach Steve Dembowski. “Obviously today's approval plus the endorsing of the finance committee are a big plus. (The board of directors) can decide that they don't like it or they can decide they do like it and want to implement it.”

Concerns were aired about the proposal during the meeting, but no official changes were made . Tantasqua principal Michael Lucas, Dracut athletic director Tim Woods, Malden principal Dana Brown, and Belmont athletic director James Davis all voted against the plan.

Opposition noted problems with the value of the Thanksgiving rivalry, the system assigning divisions and schedules, revenue sharing, the shortening of in-conference games, and the philosophical change of playing regular season matchups during the postseason.

“[Leagues] do not like that they will not know their last three opponents of the year and are sketchy about traveling to East Oshkosh to play teams they have never played before,” said Woods. “Had the football committee spent more time with individual athletic directors they may have overcome some of those fears. If you are going to have a league championship you are going to do it without playing all the teams in your league.”

The intended method would maintain Thanksgiving rivalries, while allowing leagues to schedule their first seven games. A scheduling committee would fill the remaining games for non-qualifying teams based of competitiveness.

Each squad nets revenue from five-and-a-half games, an equal average to the current 11 game regular season. Playoffs run from weeks eight to 13, excluding 11 and 12, with the top two teams in each division facing off at Gillette Stadium in the final week.

The same number of teams will play in the arena as did the previous season.

“If a team knows they are going to be playing in Gillette Stadium the week after, then why are they going to risk their varsity players on the field,” Woods said. “It becomes scrimmage.”

“We have been in the [playoffs] ten times and, even when we played the Super Bowl, it was not the same as the Thanksgiving game against Leominster.” argued Ray Cosenza, Fitchburg athletic director and former football coach.

Similar to other state tournaments, regions will be split into North, South, Central and West, with the later two not competing in Divisions 1 or 3. Leagues larger than five teams will be granted an additional playoff spot, along with available wild cards for all schools based off a regional power ranking system.

“By dissolving Division Three you are going to have schools half the size of other schools playing each other in the playoffs,” Brown said. “They split the third division by moving teams up or down a division and bumped down schools in the first division. Now, you have Division Three teams playing top division schools.”

The four-year plan, which would initiate next season, can be reviewed in two years with the availability of change.

“Two things we are going to keep an eye on are the scheduling committee to make sure they are serving their division and the power rating,” said retiring MIAA deputy director Bill Gaine. “We have already had it tested in the west for a dozen years, but not in the east. We think it is going to work, but we have to make sure it does.”

Fitchburg's Walker: 'It's an honor to take over'

January, 28, 2012
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ESPN Boston caught up with newly-anointed Fitchburg High head football coach Dan Walker tonight, to discuss his thoughts on the Red Raiders' program going forward. Walker, 29, was officially named yesterday afternoon as the successor to outgoing coach Ray Cosenza, who steps down after 23 years, 165 wins, 10 Super Bowl appearances and producing numerous scholarship players at both the Division 1 FBS and FCS levels.

Walker was a two-sport star at Worcester State before joining Cosenza's staff in 2006. He has been the Raiders' defensive coordinator the last five seasons.

On his reaction to being named head coach: "It's very exciting. Obviously, Fitchburg has a great tradition, Ray has built a great program, and it's an honor to take over from him. It's such a great program with great tradition and pride."

What it means to replace a coach like Cosenza: "He's been great. Working under him for six years, he allowed me to coach a lot and grow as a coach. I thank him for all he's done for me. He's been a great mentor along with several other coaches. I was fortunate enough to play for and coach with Tom DiGeronimo. At Worcester State, I had the pleasure of playing for two great coaches there in Brien Cullen and Dirk Baker, in football and baseball respectively."

What he's learned from Ray that he'll apply: "Ray always had lot of pride in Fitchburg. He's a real hard worker, he really showed me what it takes to get the job done year-round...It takes staying on top of the kids -- academics, behavior, offseason training, and other stuff like clinics, camps, fundraising, everything has built the program to the point it's at."

How he'd describe his own coaching style: "I love teaching. The kids know what to expect, I'm pretty straightforward with them. I expect them to be committed, disciplined, show good work ethic, and really build their character, to have success."

His defensive philosophy: "Defensively, we’ve really tried to focus on fundamentals over the last five years. It's been mostly a four-man front, from 4-3 or a 4-4, and we really want to get good at fundamentals and execute. We've played physical, and we've been pretty good defensively over the last five years. We've made our mistakes, but we've learned lot over the last five years about what works and what doesn’t.

"Defensively, I think we're gonna keep preaching fundamentals and get after it. I think that fits the type of kids we have best. We'll run five-man fronts when we have to, we'll go based on what the team is best at, as long as we're teaching fundamentals."

How he plans to approach the offense going forward: "I think we have to do what best fits our personnel. We have a good quarterback coming back and some receivers, and a handful of running backs. We need to build an offensive line. We have some good, young kids that bring some good size. I think we can keep the same system, but maybe integrate some of the 'I' stuff to it, to be able to be multiple, depending on the other team what we think we're able to do."

On the players coming up: "I think we have good skill kids coming back. In the last month or so, the younger kids have shown great work ethic in the weight room. The upcoming kids have some good size I think coming in, but more importantly good kids with good character and work ethic. They work hard, and they've already shown that in the weight room.

"Our quarterback last year, Connor Lemieux, hes gonna be coming back. A couple running backs, Dmitri Brasilli, Anthony DiPrima. We lose mostly linebackers, some of our tailbacks are only going to be juniors next year. We've got a couple kids up front, couple receivers there that show some good skill. We're fortunate at Fitchburg that we usually have some pretty good skill. We'll see how we can do going forward."

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