READING, Mass. -- Two years ago, it was Stan Andre, a 230-pound running back who happened to throw the ball, pounding his way between the hash marks en route to the 2009 Division 2 Super Bowl title. Last year, it was Brian Bourque, a converted wideout and lacrosse star, able to throw a deep ball but unafraid to take off and zip down the sidelines at the sign of a breakdown.
In the last three seasons, Reading has gone 36-2 with three Middlesex League titles and a Super Bowl championship, thanks in no small part to the fearless, aggressive tempo dictated its quarterbacks. But with so much senior graduation leading to large turnover these past two years, the Rockets will turn to a gang of fresh faces and late bloomers in their quest for a fourth straight league championship.
"Part of reloading every year is that our coaching staff gets us unbelievably prepared," senior linebacker and co-captain Kyle McCarthy said. "Last year, the two's got plenty of reps, in games and practice. It gets everyone ready for the next season."
On that note, let's start with the signal-calling. Traditionally a position held by an upperclassman, all signs in training camp so far point to the Rockets turning to a sophomore, Drew Belcher, to lead the charges. Mostly called in for mop-up duty with the varsity last season as a freshman, it shouldn't be forgotten that he did win a game. In the second quarter of a tight contest with Lexington, Bourque went down with a knee to the head; Belcher stepped in and calmly led the Rockets on several scoring drives, and only a late Minutemen score dashed what was a 32-0 shutout.
At 6-foot-3 and close to 200 pounds ("And he might be 6-4 by the end of practice," head coach John Fiore cracked), Belcher garnered some attention during 7-on-7 tournaments this summer with arm strength, accuracy and footwork. And while nobody's ready to put the kid in the school's Hall of Fame yet, players and coaches praised his maturity.
"He's only a sophomore but he knows that as a quarterback he also has to be a leader," McCarthy said. "He's really stepped up into the role well."
Said senior tight end and co-captain Billy Carnes of the summer, "I was impressed."
The defense that allowed less than nine points per game and had four shutouts, the Rockets will put out an aggressive four-man front again, anchored by McCarthy and Carnes at linebacker, and supported by free safety Greg Connery -- the junior had six interceptions in seven games last season.
Further cementing things is a line that should be beefed up once again. Gone is All-State lineman Jeff Covitz, but in his place is a group that will come out of camp averaging anywhere from 230 to 250 pounds across, led by senior Tom Beuchler.
"Those guys came ready to work, and play equally as hard as the group before," Fiore said of his new blood.
As for the old...
Last year's Division 2 Super Bowl loss to Mansfield, in which they coughed up a 19-point halftime lead, is still fresh on some players' minds, and was a huge motivator in the weight room. The Rockets aren't afraid to take shots, but on third down deep in their own territory, they saw their aggression backfire when a deep ball was thrown over the middle into double-coverage, picked off, and ran back to the Rockets 2-yard line to set up the winning score with less than a minute left in the game.
"The theme of this year is relentless, because we don't want to let up," Carnes said. "We want to finish every rep, finish every game, every play, just to make sure we always come out on top."
"The past two years, all we've talked about is finishing, finishing everything," McCarthy said. "The biggest thing we learned after that game was, it comes down to the little things. You've got to finish everything to the best of your ability, because it's that easy to come up short."
For Fiore, it's time to move on, and the slate is clean.
"Decisions were made, responsibility's been taken. We play to win," he said. "There's various ways to approach that, and different situations. That time, we approached it probably a little too aggressively given the situation. But we've approached it that way before. We're aggressive, in every situation we're trying to win. That's the way it was then, it's the way it is now.
"It's over, and it's up to us to get ready for Lawrence. I don't know what else to say about it other than that. It is what it is."
READING AT A GLANCE
Coach: John Fiore (seventh season, 55-24)
Last year: 12-1, lost in Division 2 Super Bowl
Key Returnees: Kyle McCarthy, Sr. OLB, 5-9, 190 lbs; Tom Beuchler, Sr. NG, 5-9, 215 lbs; Andrew Ferraro, Sr. C, 6-2, 244 lbs; Anthony DeSimone, Sr. TB, 6-1, 180 lbs; Billy Carnes, LB/TE, 6-0, 185 lbs; Zach Whelan, Sr. TE/DE, 6-1, 210 lbs; Mark Sheehan, Sr. TE, 5-9, 175 lbs; Greg Connery, Jr. FS, 6-1, 175 lbs; Matt Comerford, Jr. OT, 6-4, 270 lbs; Alex Valente, Jr. WR/CB.
Strengths: Size, skill positions.
Weaknesses: Varsity inexperience.
Outlook: For the second straight season, the Rockets have a slew of turnover in talent, with just eight returning starters combined on both sides of the ball. And for the second straight season, the talent coming up figures to be good enough to pencil them in as a favorite to win their fourth straight Middlesex League title. Start in the trenches, where they graduate All-State lineman Jeff Covitz, but by the end of training camp will boast a starting line that should average anywhere between 230 and 250 pounds across. Defensively, the Rockets remain an aggressive four-man front, but the player to watch might be Greg Connery at free safety. The junior had six interceptions in seven games, in a season shortened by mononucleosis. It's a week in, but sophomore Drew Belcher has already made himself the frontrunner to take over as starting quarterback. The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder came in and won a game against Lexington last season after quarterback Brian Bourque went down with a knee injury in the second quarter; Belcher has also shown plenty of poise this summer in 7-on-7 tournaments.