Boston High School: Lukas Denis
In his fourth year with the Tide's varsity, the 5-foot-11, 180-pound Denis turned in one of the most explosive seasons by an Everett play in recent memory, finishing the season with 52 tackles, two forced fumbles and eight interceptions -- three of them getting returned for touchdowns -- from the cornerback position. Counting his touches on offense as both a receiver and running back, Denis accounted for a total of 17 touchdowns through the air, ground and on defense.
Last month, Denis was named one of five finalists for ESPN Boston's fifth annual "Mr. Football" award, which was won yesterday by Gaziano. He earned ESPN Boston All-State honors last season after registering 32 tackles and an interception.
Denis will continue his career next year at Boston College, where he will become the fourth Tide defensive back to make the Eagles' roster in the last eight seasons.
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Officially, it was billed as the MIAA Division 1 Super Bowl.
Unofficially, it was the “Noah Sorrento Show.”
Sorrento, Xaverian’s senior running back, delivered a career performance Saturday as the Hawks beat Everett, 38-29, for the Hawks’ 11th Super Bowl championship since 1997. “All” Sorrento did was gain 187 yards and score four touchdowns on 25 carries as Xaverian completed an undefeated season.
“I don’t know that (Sorrento) has had a better game than that,” said Xaverian coach Charlie Stevenson. “He certainly made big plays at big times as he’s has all year. But in this situation, for a guy to play like that and make those plays when he had to was pretty huge.
“It was one of the best tailback efforts we’ve had in a Super Bowl. I can tell you that.”
Sorrento, for his part, had a rather modest explanation for his performance.
“I just kept getting the ball and the line was doing an unbelievable job,” he said. “I was looking for the holes and I was making sure I stayed in bounds to run out the clock.
“I tried to play my last game as hard as I could for my team because these are my brothers.”
Perhaps the one play that exemplified why Sorrento was so successful came late in the second quarter with the score tied 14-14.
Xaverian had a first down on Everett’s 24 when Sorrento broke to his left, made a sharp cut to his right and dashed 24 yards for a score that gave Xaverian a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
All the moves: “Everett has a lot of big guys out there,” said Sorrento. “Sometimes I tried to mix in a little power. But Everett’s a big team so today I tried to be a little shifty because I knew I wasn’t going to run over guys.
“It just worked out for us.”
Sorrento again displayed his ability “to be a little shifty” after Coby Tippett returned a punt 36 yards to Everett’s 26.
On the next play, Sorrento broke through the middle, cut to his right and sprinted 26 yards for a score that gave Xaverian a 28-14 lead.
After Everett went three-and-out, Xaverian closed out the half when Joe Gaziano kicked a 30-yard field goal.
Everett did mount a rally after Granhdi Denis recovered a Sorrento fumble (his lone hiccup of the game) which set up a 21-yard touchdown pass from Jordan McAfee to Lukas Denis.
Next it was Everett’s turn to hold Xaverian to three and out which set the stage for a four-yard touchdown run by Nick Orekoya who also ran for a two-point conversion that pulled the Crimson Tide within 31-29. But Sorrento, in a surprising display of power running, broke three tackles en route to a 22-yard touchdown run with 11 seconds left in the third quarter.
“We clearly wanted to go back and do what got us there in there in the first half which was run the football,” said Stevenson. “Noah made some great runs. Our line picked it up a little bit. And we had a great drive to end the third quarter to go up 38-29.
“We gave them a big kick return and then Colby made a big pick on the two-yard line. We had two or three really big first downs to take four or five minutes off the clock. And then ‘Gaz’ had a great punt. That was really all she wrote.”
Last gasp: The sequence Stevenson referred to commenced on the last play of the third when Orekoya returned a kickoff 69 yards to Xaverian's 23 – with Mattison Cronin making a touchdown-saving tackle.
Tippett then snared a McAfee pass at the 2 and Xavier took precious minutes off the clock on a first-down run by Sorrento and a six-yard pass from Farrell to Tippett.
Gaziano’s 39-yard punt pinned Everett on its 28 and the Crimson Tide stalled before they could reach midfield.
Everett stunned Xaverian on the game’s first possession when McAfee tossed a short pass to Orekoya who turned it into a 60-yard touchdown pass.
The Hawks tied it after the ensuing punt when Farrell threw a 36-yard scoring pass to Kenny Kern.
The Crimson Tide then took what proved to be their last lead of the game when Lukas Denis intercepted a Farrell pass and returned it 29 yards for a score.
After the final buzzer sounded, Stevenson had a 4-0 Super Bowl record against his Everett counterpart, John DiBiaso as well as his second victory this season over the Crimson Tide.
“It’s just a great rivalry,” Stevenson said while trying to explain Xaverian’s success against Everett. “They’re a great team. John’s a great coach. Both of our teams get really fired up to play each other.
“I think we’re 8-8 right now in the series (i.e. Everett leads the overall series, 8-7). I think that says a lot about our program. Back in the ‘90s we would measure ourselves against Brockton. We thought we got there. Now, we have to measure ourselves against Everett and, hopefully, this is a step toward being where they are.”
XA (12-0) 7-24-7-0 - 38
EV (10-2) 14-0-15-0 - 29
EV – Nick Orekoya 60 pass from Jordan McAfee (Omar Herrera kick)
XA – Ken Kern 36 pass from Jake Farrell (Joe Gaziano kick)
EV – Lukas Denis 29 interception return (Herrera kick)
XA – Noah Sorrento 13 run (Gaziano kick)
XA – Sorrento 24 run (Gaziano kick)
XA – Sorrento 26 run (Gaziano kick)
XA – Gaziano 30 field goal)
EV – Denis 21 pass from McAfee (Herrera kick)
EV – Orekoya 4 run (Orekoya run)
XA – Sorrento 22 run (Gaziano kick)
Stories about the dazzling playmaking skills of Ferri -- who has bounced around the CFL for most of the last decade after cups of coffee in the NFL and even a stint on the MMA circuit (he was most recently signed by the Saskatchewan Roughriders on Oct. 9) -- are legion, still resonating loudly through the proud, football-mad city of Everett.
In an era of three yards and a cloud of dust, Ferri was a sports car among pickup trucks. In many eyes, he was the total package -- tackling, catching, blocking, speed, agility, hitting -- and it showed with every turn on a dime from his nimble feet. Never had such deliberate, one-cut downhill running looked so graceful on those Saturday afternoons at Everett Memorial Stadium.
Everett head coach John DiBiaso calls Ferri "the most complete player we’ve ever had." BC defensive back Manny Asprilla, an ESPN Boston Mr. Football finalist at Everett in 2010, fondly recalls hearing those stories of Ferri even before he first moved to Everett as an eighth-grader, then rummaging through old YouTubes to see if he was as good as the mythology suggested.
Oh, he sure was.
"He flew," Asprilla said. "I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be able to go untouched through holes. I just wanted to be like that."
Prized and Proud
In the city of Everett, a working-class suburb just across the Mystic River from the Boston neighborhood of Charlestown, football has forever been king. Its rich history is a century old, producing national champions at the turn of the 20th century and sending a handful of players to the NFL, including legendary former Cincinnati Bengals tight end Dan Ross. After some lean years, the Crimson Tide program has experienced a volcanic resurgence over the last two decades under DiBiaso, winning 20 straight Greater Boston League titles and 10 MIAA Super Bowl titles since 1997.
That late-90’s run with Ferri has kicked off a decade-long run in Everett in which the Tide are now annually sending defensive backs off to Division 1 FBS schools.
Outside of the Everett sphere, Ferri is generally known best for being the only player in Big East history to win both Offensive and Defensive Player of the Week in the same week, after a memorable 2004 victory over Boston College in which he recorded a pick-six at safety then scored two rushing touchdowns in taking over for the injured Damien Rhodes.
"Tough program, there’s toughness there. There’s a skill level, and then there’s toughness, and Diamond was one of those guys," Addazio said. "He was a tough guy and he always had a smile on his face. He had a good look about him, that look in his eyes, that you could tell that he loved football."
Fifteen years after his run at Everett, winning two Division 1 Super Bowls, Ferri’s eyes now looked across the field as the Tide warmed up for a preseason scrimmage in Lynn, volunteering his time as an assistant coach for players who first heard his story years ago.
"When you look at Everett, and Everett football in particular, there’s major history," Ferri said. "Everett has changed multiculturally in the last 10 to 20 years. Before it was all Irish and Italian, and now it’s all Haitian, Puerto Rico and Brazil, just a lot of kids from other countries. And I think they just see all the kids go and they follow."
True, a lot has changed in Everett over the last 20 years -- a 2010 U.S. Census estimated one-third of the city’s residents are now foreign-born, nearly a 200-percent increase from 1990 -- but the football culture has remained the lifeblood. And the kids, they certainly follow.
Before Asprilla was running wild in BC’s secondary, he was watching former Eagle Isaac Johnson lead the Tide to back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 2006-07.
Before Nerlens Noel was an NBA lottery pick, he was a scrawny 6-foot-9 freshman idling on the Tide sidelines, watching his brothers Jim (BC) and Rodman (NC State) hover the secondary before moving on to ACC schools.
From the first wave of Everett stars under DiBiaso -- from Omar Easy to Ferri and Frank Nuzzo -- to the present day, where the Tide now turn to Boston College-bound cornerback Lukas Denis, athleticism has never been lacking. But over the last decade or so, more and more colleges have begun flocking to Everett to check out their defensive backs -- and more often than not, they have liked their returns.
One month before National Letter of Intent Signing Day in 2013, a chance encounter at a Walter Camp Award dinner in Connecticut led Wisconsin defensive backs coach Bill Busch to lightly-recruited Everett athlete Jakarrie Washington, who had no scholarship offers but clocked sub-4.5 speed.
"I know this, I sure as heck would love to come back -- I'm sure impressed," Busch told ESPNBoston.com in February 2013, after signing Washington to the Badgers’ recruiting class. "There are kids in the city that are tough as heck."
True to his word, he came back, signing safety Lubern Figaro to the Badgers’ 2014 class last February. And just like Washington, Figaro got on the field as a true freshman. He made his first start in the Badgers’ first game of the season; headed into this weekend’s Big Ten Championship, Figaro has made five starts, recording 19 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception.
When Denis arrives in Chestnut Hill next fall, he’ll be Boston College’s fourth defensive back recruit from Everett since 2008. But what was once primarily a pipeline for northeastern colleges now fields inquiries from FBS schools all over, from Gainesville, Fla. down to Lubbock, Texas, all the way up to Pullman, Wash.
"Some of us defensive backs weren’t the biggest but we were all fast," Asprilla said. "But just being in the right place at the right time and flying around on the field is what distinguishes us from other defensive backs.
"I feel like we’re not the best backs in the world -- I’m not trying to take it away from anybody if they’re good -- but the fact that we can go from one side of the field to the other without thinking about ‘oh I’m tired’ or ‘I don’t feel like running because it’s not my play to be made’ is what I think distinguishes us from everybody else."
A Full Court Press
The defensive backs in Everett over the years have come in all shapes and sizes. Some are long, some are compact, others are just flat-out burners.
But here’s another common thread between all of the defensive backs over the years: Most, if not all, suited up for DiBiaso’s varsity basketball squads during the winter time.
In most years, DiBiaso will typically run variations of a diamond-and-one full court press, with lots of trapping and pinning the opposition along the sidelines. In a sport where power forwards are routinely making transitions from the hardwood to the Pro Bowl, DiBiaso’s unique approach to high school hoops seems to pay off on the gridiron.
"The agility you get from playing basketball by the work of having to cover people, you would never get on your own without doing covering drills as a football player," DiBiaso said. "I wish more kids would [play both sports] because it’s really helped with our younger guys coming up.
"Jakarrie was a great defender, and so was Manny and Isaac. Jimmy [Noel] would cover the high scorer. They were all good defenders, and I think they learned that mentality from basketball. They were all pretty good defenders in basketball, and they carried it over to football. I wish I could say there’s a secret formula in the water, but there’s not. I think a lot of your great basketball players in this state don’t play football, but I think a lot more would get scholarships if they did."
At Everett, basketball defense isn’t as simple as just a 2-3 zone or a man-to-man. DiBiaso likes his defenses triangular, and will often stick his best defensive back on an opponent’s best scorer, harassing the player up and down the floor.
"You have to be able to see the pick from your peripheral and be able to go over it or under it, judging on how the pick is coming on you," Asprilla said. "I didn’t really start playing defensive back in high school until senior year, until I got the [BC] offer. And now that I think about it, [basketball] helped. When you have a receiver that runs a drive route under the linebackers you have to sort your way through it. When I do it on the field, I have no fear going through that. So that helped, when I would see a pick coming to be set on me to help get their best man open, and I’d have to work around it."
Asprilla was part of one of Everett’s more high-profile teams in recent years, the 2008-09 squad that reached the Division 1 North semfinals and featured a 14-year-old Nerlens Noel. As one of the Tide’s premier defensive backs, Asprilla often played a trapper role in DiBiaso’s press.
"When you’re playing the trap, you can’t be lazy," Asprilla said. "When I say lazy, I mean being slow with your feet. When you’re out on the field, and say you’re breaking on a slant, you have to be able to keep your feet hot and be able to break on a straight line from here to there and meet him where he’s going, not where he is at the moment."
Denis, who lives about a four-minute walk from Everett Memorial Stadium, is one of the few to break canon. He doesn’t play a winter sport, saying bluntly, "Basketball is a wild sport, and it’s not like I was good at it, so why waste time?"
Each morning this offseason, he says, Denis would get up at four o’clock and find a crease in the fence surrounding the stadium, which is compacted tightly into a residential neighborhood off of Revere Beach Parkway. There, he would run stadium steps and sometimes work on 1-on-1 coverage drills when friends joined.
Literally, Denis was asked by a reporter, you’re going through someone’s backyard to hop a fence and run stadium steps at four in the morning?
"It’s worth it," Denis smiled.
One Big Brotherhood
The sense of fraternity is strong in Everett. Just as Ferri has come back to the sidelines, or how Easy left a gig with his alma mater Penn State two years ago to become a Vice Principal at Everett, few are ever truly far away.
"Competition is what we passed on. You wanted to be better than the man that was ahead of you," Asprilla said. "You didn’t want to be known as, ‘This guy was the best and you were close enough.’ You wanted to be the next guy that they would say, ‘Man, we need one of him’."
Denis still hears from graduated former teammates of his, who watch Everett games on Hudl and give him pointers. When he has Friday nights off next year at BC, Denis says he plans on making his way to see the Tide in action, watching the next generation come through.
Saturday afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the Tide will face off with rival Xaverian Brothers High for the MIAA Division 1 State Championship, gunning for a fourth MIAA title in five seasons and the 11th of DiBiaso’s tenure. They have come roaring back this fall after a disappointing end to 2013, when they fell to Central Catholic on their own home turf in the Division 1 North final.
Lots went wrong on that day, but the sight of Central receiver Cody Demers slicing in front of Figaro for the winning touchdown in the waning minutes is not soon forgotten. Even from all the way in Madison, Wisc., getting ready to play for a Big Ten Championship this weekend, Figaro has still found time to remind Denis how it ended.
"Oh God, he’ll never forget that moment," Denis said of Figaro. "He talks about it all the time. He says, ‘Don’t let that be you’."
Denis has turned in a dominant campaign this fall as the undisputed leader of the Tide on both sides of the ball, sometimes owning the game in all three phases for stretches. Last month, Denis was named a finalist for ESPN Boston’s prestigious "Mr. Football" award, given to the best overall player in Massachusetts. Another five-tool performance at Gillette could give him the edge when the award is announced next week.
Out on the turf at Gillette on Tuesday morning, greeting the media as part of the annual MIAA State Championship Breakfast activities, Denis stood out loudly from the crowd, donning a bright yellow cardigan in a sea of letterman jackets.
"When you can’t do it, you still have to do it," Denis said as he talked about his mindset going into Saturday. "There’s no other option. After the game, you’ll thank yourself."
Listening closely, you get the feeling there’s more than hardware on the line this weekend.
For Xaverian (11-0) and Everett (10-1), it’s provided a dramatic background to determine the true “ruler of the state.”
These powerhouse programs have clashed 14 times since 1996, and have met in the state title game three times. However, this year marks the first time that these teams have navigated a bracket full of elite Division 1 programs to face off at Gillette Stadium in the Super Bowl.
Everett has a slight overall edge in the ongoing rivalry (8-6), but Xaverian has emerged victorious in four of six playoff meetings with the Crimson Tide.
The Hawks also handed Everett its only loss of the season back in September. But since then, both teams have gotten on a roll, as they’re currently ranked first and second in nearly every statewide poll.
Now the rivals will headline a Saturday full of six exciting matchups, and the players seem to understand the stakes.
“It would unbelievable,” Xaverian senior captain Noah Sorrento said about potentially capping an undefeated season with a state title, “Especially over one of the best teams in the state in Everett.”
Sorrento continued, “It’s great that we get to go at each other on the biggest stage. Talking to coaches and alumni, I get the sense that you’ll remember high school football for the rest of your life, so going out at Gillette Stadium with a ring would be incredible.”
The best in each other: The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Sorrento was immense in Xaverian’s season opening win over Everett, and has been a huge part of the Hawks success all year, but the true strength of the state’s consensus number one lies on the defensive side of the ball.
Led by ESPN Boston Mr. Football finalist Joe Gaziano, Xaverian has held opponents to a shade over eight points per game this season. Everett is one of four teams to score two touchdowns in a game against that vaunted unit, and Crimson Tide head coach John DiBiaso knows he’ll need close to a perfect game from his players this time around.
“When we met in the Super Bowl in 1998 they were clear-cut the best team in the state. Same thing in 2009, and this year, they’re clear-cut the best team in the state. They’re head and shoulders above everybody, and it’s going to take a herculean effort on our part to play mistake free football and win this final game,” said DiBiaso.
DiBiaso’s helped Everett maintain one of the 25 best records (757-365-79) of any high school football program in the nation.
In his 24 years on Everett’s sidelines, he’s led the Crimson Tide to 20 consecutive first place finishes in the Greater Boston League, and 10 Super Bowl championships. Still, he remains 0-3 against Charlie Stevenson’s Xaverian teams in state title games.
Both legendary coaches claim to have a friendly relationship with each other that’s based on mutual respect, and both seem to deflect credit for the success of their programs towards their players and assistants.
“I have great assistant coaches that provide continuity,” Stevenson said. “I believe John [DiBiaso] has as well, and the most important thing is that we seem to get good players year after year.”
“[Stevenson]’s as good a coach as we have in high school football and I think his record shows that,” DiBiaso said of his contemporary. “It’s always a battle when we play them. Whether it’s on homecoming, at their stadium or ours, it’s a charged up atmosphere.”
'It's not all about talent here': These teams play such difficult schedules that the players say they don’t have much time to worry about when they will face their rivals.
However, for Everett’s Boston College-bound superstar Lukas Denis, the biggest games stick out in his memory.
“I was in the stands back in 2009 when my brother was playing in the Super Bowl, and it was probably one of the coldest days and worst snowstorms I’ve ever been in,” Denis recalled, “It was intense.”
“We go a little bit harder,” Denis said when asked about practices leading up to a clash with Xaverian. “If we played them under normal circumstances it would still be a big game, but beating them in the Super Bowl would mean everything.”
Another ESPN Boston Mr. Football finalist, Denis has done a little bit of everything for the Crimson Tide this season. He’s an outstanding wide receiver, a lock-down cornerback, and even runs Everett’s offense as the usual quarterback in “heavy” packages.
According to Xaverian’s coach, players of his caliber are what make this rivalry special.
“We’ve had some great games over the last twenty years or so,” mused Stevenson. “When you have so many major college players competing against each other on game day, its something that’s different from what you usually see in Massachusetts.”
Those star players have plenty to play for in 2014. Denis said he’s excited to get out on the field at Gillette Stadium after missing the 2012 Super Bowl due to injury, and Noah Sorrento said he was one of several Hawks at less than one hundred percent when Xaverian fell to Central Catholic in the 2013 D1 championship.
Stevenson has led the Hawks to six Super Bowl titles since 1986, but his players are eager to atone for last season’s disappointing result.
“It was tough,” Sorrento admitted, “but we’re healthy now, and we’re ready to roll.”
For the Crimson Tide, it’s easy to stay hungry when you feel like an underdog despite playing for an incredibly successful program.
“It’s not all about talent here,” Denis said from Everett Memorial Stadium earlier this week. “We’re not as big and strong as we were in previous years. So we really have to go out and execute to win this game. I think we take it a lot more seriously now.”
Both teams are peaking at the right time, and it should be thrilling to watch which program notches a proverbial feather in its cap by winning the 2014 D1 Super Bowl.
Natick's Troy Flutie took home last year's award, joining St. John's Prep's Alex Moore and Everett's Jonathan DiBiaso and Matt Costello among past recipients for the prestigious honor.
The winner will be presented the award at Gillette Stadium prior to the New England Patriots' home contest with the Miami Dolphins on Dec. 14.
ESPN Boston Mr. Football Finalist #1: Lukas Denis, Sr. DB, Everett High School pic.twitter.com/ANvVowOvzB— Brendan C. Hall (@BHallESPN) November 24, 2014
Senior Defensive Back
Everett High School
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound Denis is the fifth Everett player in as many years to be named a finalist, more than any other school, joining the ranks of Jonathan DiBiaso, Matt Costello, Manny Asprilla and John Montelus. Denis has dominated all three phases of the game all season long for the Crimson Tide, who are making a record fifth appearance at Gillette Stadium for an MIAA Super Bowl championship on Dec. 6 when they face rival Xaverian for the Division 1 State Championship. At cornerback, Denis has recorded 45 tackles and two forced fumbles, to go along with a team-high seven interceptions -- two of which have been returned for scores. Offensively, he has totaled 14 touchdowns combined through the air and ground. Denis is currently committed to Boston College.
ESPN Boston Mr. Football Finalist #2: Brian Dunlap, Sr. WR, Natick High School pic.twitter.com/rIHmSe2LQR— Brendan C. Hall (@BHallESPN) November 24, 2014
Senior Wide Receiver
Natick High School
After a foot injury wiped out his entire junior season, the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder rebounded with a record-setting senior season, setting state all-time marks for receiving touchdowns and receiving yards. Headed into the Redhawks' Thanksgiving contest with Framingham, Dunlap has 53 catches for 1,170 yards and 20 touchdowns, his third campaign with at least 1,100 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns. For his career, he has 55 receiving touchdowns and needs 88 yards on Turkey Day to surpass 4,000 receiving yards for his career. Dunlap is currently committed to Harvard University.
ESPN Boston Mr. Football Finalist #3: Joe Gaziano, Sr. DE, Xaverian Brothers High School pic.twitter.com/6e92itOlsp— Brendan C. Hall (@BHallESPN) November 24, 2014
Senior Defensive End
Xaverian Brothers High School
Gaziano earned ESPN Boston's Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013 after racking up a dozen sacks to go with 53 tackles, three blocked punts and an interception. The 6-foot-4, 245-pound anchor faced double-teams nearly all season long for the Hawks, who have maintained the No. 1 spot in ESPN Boston's statewide Top 25 poll all season long and will face Everett for the Division 1 state championship on Dec. 6. Going into the Hawks' Thanskgiving contest with archrival St. John's Prep, Gaziano has recorded 42 tackles (19 for loss) and 12 sacks. Gaziano is currently committed to Northwestern University.
ESPN Boston Mr. Football Finalist #4: Chris Lindstrom, Sr. G/DE, Shepherd Hill Regional High School pic.twitter.com/OI1A3uIXru— Brendan C. Hall (@BHallESPN) November 24, 2014
Senior Guard/Defensive End
Shepherd Hill Regional High School
The 6-foot-5, 240-pounder is the second offensive lineman ever to be named a finalist for the Mr. Football Award, joining current Notre Dame redshirt-freshman John Montelus, who was a finalist in 2012 at Everett High. Behind Lindstrom, the Rams were one of the state's most dominant rushing attacks this season, totaling over 3,500 yards and 46 touchdowns as a team through 11 games, averaging 325 yards per game and 7.2 yards per carry. On defense, Lindstrom was just as explosive at the end spot, recording 57 tackles (12 for loss) and a team-high seven sacks. Lindstrom is currently committed to Boston College.
ESPN Boston Mr. Football Finalist #5: Mike Maggipinto, Jr. RB, East Longmeadow High School pic.twitter.com/24QrrU15p9— Brendan C. Hall (@BHallESPN) November 24, 2014
Junior Running Back
East Longmeadow High School
Who says size matters? The 5-foot-5 waterbug has taken Western Mass. by storm this fall with wild numbers in the Spartans' unique rushing attack. Going into Thursday's matchup with Thanksgiving rival Longmeadow, Maggipinto needs just 11 yards to surpass the 2,000 mark for the second year, and just 33 to top last year's total (2,022). On the season, he has 222 carries for 1,989 yards -- including a season-high 346 yards in the Spartans' D2 West semifinal win over Springfield Central -- averaging 8.9 yards per carry to go along with 25 touchdowns. Earlier this season, Maggipinto eclipsed the 4,000-yard career mark; with another season like this, he could place himself among the rare handful of Massachusetts schoolboy greats to achieve 6,000 yards for their career.
That is when a younger boy -— a second-grader —- who was playing football with Jonathan and his friends caught the coach’s eye.
“Here was this little kid playing with the fifth graders and he was running around, tackling them, and dodging them,” he recalls. “My son said, ‘You’ve got to get that kid to play football,’ and we did. We signed him up for Pop Warner and the rest is history. He’s been around the team ever since.”
Ten years after DiBiaso spotted that young kid, Lukas Denis is still up to the old same tricks.
Denis has continued to run, tackle, and dodge opponents throughout his final season at Everett. His three touchdown performance in last week’s 55-41 over Peabody advanced the top-seeded Crimson Tide to tonight’s Division 1 North final matchup against No. 2 St. John’s Prep at Everett Memorial Stadium.
A year ago, No. 1 Everett suffered a 20-15 loss to second-seeded Central Catholic in the final, which led Denis and his teammates to experience a feeling they hope doesn’t surface after tonight.
“As soon as that game ended, all of us underclassmen knew what we wanted,” Denis said. “We knew how we felt at that moment and we never want to feel like that again. If we want to win and get to where we want to go, we have to execute and we can’t take plays off.”
The senior hasn’t taken many plays off during his final season, scoring touchdowns on each offense, defense, and special teams to help the Crimson Tide enter tonight with an 8-1 record. Seven of Denis’ 14 scores have come on the ground, including a 47-yard touchdown run which gave his team a 7-0 lead 55 seconds into its 36-15 season-opening win over Central High School.
On Oct. 24, he rushed for two touchdowns and returned an interception 67 yards to help Everett earn a 42-27 win over Malden. The next week, he went back to the ground, rushing for 98 yards and two scores while picking off another pass in the Crimson Tide’s 42-21 victory against the same Malden team in the quarterfinals of the Division 1 North sectionals.
Denis, who in March committed to play for nearby Boston College next fall, had his best rushing performance in Everett’s 34-23 regular season win over St. John’s Prep on Sept. 27. When sophomore quarterback Jordan McAfee left the game due to injury, Denis stepped in to lead a 13-play, 98-yard scoring drive in which the senior finished with a one-yard plunge into the end-zone.
On the fourth-quarter drive, Denis rushed nine times for 81 yards. And while his play helped secure a Crimson Tide victory, it also proved to his teammates the two-way player can make a difference when adversity hits.
“The kids lean on him for certain things,” said DiBiaso of Denis’ leadership. “We have a lot of young kids that look to him in key moments. When Jordan went down in the first game (against Prep), he led us in the fourth quarter, so the kids look at him to make those big plays. He knows that, he’s been around here for a long time, and he’s waited for his opportunity to be the guy and now he is.”
For a while, it appeared as though Denis was in line to replace the younger DiBiaso, who won ESPN Boston's Mr. Football award in 2011 after setting the state's all-time passing touchdown mark, as the Crimson Tide’s quarterback. As a freshman, he was the team’s backup signal-caller. That changed prior to the start of his sophomore season, however, when Denis suffered the first of two devastating injuries.
“My sophomore year was a rough year for me,” he recalls. “I was projected to be the starting quarterback, but before the season started I tore my UCL and was out for the season. So I had to start all over. That same year, I came back but broke my right arm and was out for the season, again, but it just helped me prepare for the next year.”
His junior season, Denis focused on becoming the school’s next star defensive back, after watching guys like Isaac Johnson, Jim Noel, Rodman Noel, Manny Asprilla, Jakarrie Washington and Lubern Figaro each earn college scholarships after shining in the Crimson Tide’s secondary.
The 5-foot-11, 180-pound cornerback made 32 tackles and an interception a year ago. In his final season, he’s picked off five passes and returned two for scores. Denis credits not only Everett’s past members of the secondary, but his coaches too, for helping him become the player he is today.
“All of those guys that went on and did their thing, they all previously worked with me one-on-one and taught me so many things,” he said. “The coaching staff here gets you ready for all those things—there’s not one thing they teach you here that you won’t hear somewhere else. Their schemes and the way they prepare get you ready for anything.”
Denis hopes to be ready for the Eagles’ stealthy offensive attack which waits for him and the rest of the Crimson Tide’s defense tonight. But after watching him contribute for the Tide ever since seeing mop-up duty during blowout victories early in his career, Everett’s coach counts on the grownup second-grader to continue making plays.
“Lukas is the only four-year guy on the team,” DiBiaso said. “I think that experience his freshman year has proven valuable, because now he’s a senior and he’s seen it all—he’s been in big games, he’s been in the playoffs, he’s gone to Gillette and won Super Bowls. And he’s the only guy who’s done all of that, he’s so valuable to us. He’s indispensable.”
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)
ESPN Boston High Schools editor Brendan C. Hall recaps the game's highlights, and offers a few final thoughts:
(Video by Bruce Lerch)
WESTWOOD, Mass. –- There was just about two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and No. 1 Xaverian was nursing a one-touchdown lead in the Hawks’ Saturday opener against No. 3 Everett. They were confronted with a third and 12 at their own 29-yard line.
Hawks head coach Charlie Stevenson took a timeout to think the play over, but there was little doubt as to whom would take the ball.
“He doesn’t have to ask me; I want to give it to him,” Stevenson said of senior running back Noah Sorrento. “He keeps saying, ‘Me, me, me,’ but it’s not like I’m not going to give the ball to him. Who the heck do you think I’m going to give it to?”
Instead of dropping back to pass on the third-and-long, the call was for a weak side toss to Sorrento. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound bulldog of a back took care of the rest, streaking past the second tier of the Crimson Tide defense and rumbling 20 yards downfield.
With the first down (and then some) and Everett’s ability to stop the clock dwindling, the Hawks were able to hold on for the 21-14 win.
From an outsider’s perspective, it might have been a bit of a gamble on Stevenson’s part – putting so much on a running back in a long-yardage situation. But his belief in Sorrento’s ability and – perhaps more importantly – his competitiveness is unfaltering.
“He’s a very competitive kid,” Stevenson said. “He wants to take the three-pointer with no time left on the clock. And you know what? I want him taking it, too.”
Chompin’ at the bit: While Everett (1-1) opened with a Top 25 victory last week at Springfield Central, the Hawks were crisper in the first half of their season opener.
The Crimson Tide offense sputtered in the first 22 minutes, mustering just 15 yards offensive yards from scrimmage while being hampered with a string of penalties.
“We made some stupid illegal procedure penalties that put us in a bad position,” Everett head coach John DiBiaso said. “We let a punt (71 yards by Joe Gaziano) get behind us when we were supposed to catch it and we went back to the 5-yard line. We shot ourselves in the foot.”
Xaverian couldn’t capitalize either, as the teams played to a scoreless first quarter. However, the Hawks built their first sustained drive at the tail end of the quarter and, on the first play of the second, Sorrento punched in a 1-yard run for a 7-0 lead.
Xaverian extended its lead to two scores at 8:26 of the second when Coby Tippett made an adjustment to come back on a ball and win a 50-50 ball in the end zone on a 31-yard throw from Jake Farrell. A botched snap on a late field goal attempt kept the Hawks from extending their lead before the half was out.
The Crimson Tide showed a more dynamic offensive attack in the second half, led by sophomore quarterback Jordan McAfee, who was making his second varsity start. McAfee took advantage of a short field gifted to him after a Duval Paul fumble recovery ended the Hawks’ opening possession of the half. Five plays later, McAfee hit preseason All-State selection Lukas Denis on a wheel route for a 25-yard score with 6:42 remaining in the third.
After Sorrento’s second 1-yard touchdown plunge restored the Hawks’ two-score advantage, McAfee responded, engineering a 15-play, 85-yard scoring drive. He placed a perfect throw to the pylon on the back-side shoulder of wide receiver Gary Clark for a 5-yard touchdown with 4:03 to play.
A drive to nowhere (but victory): Starting at their 20-yard line, Xaverian embarked on its game-clinching drive. But it wasn’t without moments of trepidation for the Hawks’ sideline. A holding penalty and a subsequent false start had Xaverian backed up with a second-and-20 play. After an 8-yard gain by Sorrento, he helped put the game out of reach with his 20-yard gain on third and 12.
The Crimson Tide never had the ball again.
“We were in a situation where we need to run clock and we were able to get that done with our lineman, Jake [Farrell], and Kenny [Kern] and Noah [Sorrento] making the carries for us,” Stevenson said.
He added, “Kenny made a couple nice runs at the end, too, to pick up some tough yards for us. I thought they all performed nicely at the end of the game to bring it to an end.”
Sorrento was able to find a greater amount of green pasture ahead of him in the second half, thanks to a play-calling adjustment, making a departure from the Hawks’ power-based assault in the first half.
“They were really crashing their ends and their linebackers were really onto our power, so that’s why we started breaking it outside,” Sorrento said. “We had some big plays there on the toss.”
A mixed bag: The Crimson Tide could look at Saturday’s loss as a glass-half-full scenario. Everett was missing five starters lost to injury during their Week 1 win over Top 25 foe Springfield Cathedral. The losses hurt primarily on the defensive side of the ball, which didn’t help against a big, physical Xaverian offensive line.
“There were a lot of guys making their first start, a lot of guys out of position,” DiBiaso said. “I’m not making excuses, it’s just that we weren’t ready for this type of game.”
He continued, “It creates stress when you’ve got two 150-pound linebackers and a 140-pound nose guard against the No. 1 team in the state. I was stressed all week … Today I wasn’t that stressed. I was proud of the way they played.”
DiBiaso was also pleased with the play of McAfee in his first start – in spite of a couple of misleading interceptions.
“I thought he played well. When he was under duress, he took off and had a nice first down and get out of bounds near the stakes. He made some nice throws. It was unfortunate that the two throws that got picked were tipped out of the hands.”
Hawks opportunistic: Senior Coastal Carolina commit Damion Wood pocketed a pair of interceptions for the Hawks – both of which could have come with a gift basket.
Wood’s first pick was a bit of a hot potato, in fact.
“[The Everett receiver] tipped it, then Ernest [Simon] tipped it, then Noah [Sorrento] tipped it and it ended up in my hands,” Wood chuckled.
For Wood’s second act, he snatched a ball out of the hands of Boston College commit Lukas Denis during the third quarter. While Denis was able to impact the game – what with his 25-yard touchdown reception and another acrobatic catch down the sideline for a 33-yard gain later in the third – the Hawks were intent to not let him take it over.
“He’s an athletic kid, so we had to put more people on his side so he couldn’t get to the ball as easy,” Wood said of the matchup with Denis. “He’s a big kid, he’s about six feet, so it’s tough to stop him and shut him down.”
Xaverian didn’t put either of its corners – Mehki Henderson and Ernest Simon – into exclusive coverage on Denis, but they regularly received safety help over the top from Wood.
“I know that we were trying to put pressure on the quarterback, but when you do that, that kind of leaves guys on an island,” Stevenson said of the Hawks’ defensive game plan. “And we didn’t pressure them and we had guys on an island, so maybe we should’ve made another decision.”
Sophomore sensation: At 6-foot-4, sophomore quarterback Jordan McAfee not only has the size, but also the tools to become one of the best quarterbacks in the state. His mechanics are smooth, has a solid arm and demonstrates a knack for finding the open receiver. One of his best throws came on a tremendous 37-yard hookup with Boston College commit Lukas Denis. But McAfee’s play of the night came during 7-on-7 drills, when he threw a miraculous 33-yard bullet to Denis, this time squeezing the pass in-between three Lynn English defenders.
Everett did a tremendous job of optimizing the space on the field, mainly as a result of their splits, running several wheel routes with slots and running backs and motioning receivers to create rub routes heading back towards the outside.
"[McAfee] gives us a few more options than we’ve had the past few years," said Everett head coach John DiBiaso. "If he can continue to progress, and stays on track, which we hope he does, and stays healthy, he gives us that added dimension of throwing the ball, which makes the running game that much more effective."
Based on the talent at quarterback and a speedy group of receivers, Everett’s offense should look more like they did in 2011, when record-setting quarterback Jonathan DiBiaso was under center, in comparison to more recent years when their offense seemed to change on a weekly basis.
Solid line play: The Crimson Tide controlled the line offensively behind linemen Eric Trickett, D.J. McDonald and Jefferson Palencia. The holes helped running back Jackinson Joacine stand out on several plays, as the shifty back has a knack for changing direction on a dime with excellent ball carrier vision, that allowed Everett’s run game to be effective. There were several times they came out in pistol and incorporated jet sweep, getting Denis in the mix on the ground. Overall, Everett’s offensive line may be one of the bigger ones in the state and played extremely physical.
Taking control: Despite three of Lynn English’s starting wide receivers not playing, third-year starting quarterback Lucas Harris showed great composer in the pocket and allowed his experience to bring the offense together. What was most impressive with Harris was his ability to make decisions quickly as his rapid release on throws gave his receivers opportunities to make plays.
Most of the Bulldogs’ biggest plays on offense came on completions that were caught for four to seven yards, and then turned into bigger gains. Receiver Miguel Martinez made a plethora of those catches, including a snag on a post route to the back of the end zone during 7-on-7.
Although there were several dropped passes, what’s more important to take away, since this was a scrimmage, is the fact that the Bulldogs can depend on Harris’ leadership when the team needs him most. It’s tough to ask a teenage to take control and lead a team, but Harris certainly is capable of answering the call.
Aggressive approach: Heading into tonight’s scrimmage, the Lynn English coaching staff stressed they had to be more physical. The message must’ve got through, as both the offensive and defensive lines had their moments led by the play of junior offensive/defensive linemen Jeremy Garcia and Victor Morales.
On offense, the blocking allowed senior running back Stevie Collins -- an All-State basketball guard who returns after missing all of last season with a lower body injury -- to turn several runs into big gains, showing off his speed once he got to the outside. Defensively, the Bulldogs were out-sized up front versus a much larger Everett offensive line, but played physical and swarmed to the ball.
“We were much better tonight than were versus Everett Friday night,” said Lynn English coach Peter Holey. “The running game was clicking a little big tonight with Stevie [Collins] and I liked how Lucas [Harris] looked. The offensive line is a work in progress and we missed some assignments but I was pleased with how we came out and played physical.”
For Everett, coach DiBiaso didn’t think his team tackled well but noted that it’s not necessarily his players’ fault.
“It’s hard to blame the kids when you’re only in pads for four days,” DiBiaso said. “We don’t have double-sessions because school started early so it’s tough, but we’ll have to improve on it.”
In case you missed our earlier installments: 25-21 | 20-16 | 15-11 | 10-6
NO. 5 ST. JOHN'S (SHREWSBURY)
Coach: John Andreoli (11th year, 92-31)
Last season: Division 2 state finalists, lost 28-14 to Mansfield
Returning starters: 11 (4 offense, 7 defense)
Key returners: Davon Jones, Sr., RB/DB, 5-10, 185 lbs; Sam Norton, Sr., DT, 5-9, 210 lbs, Nick Calvano, Sr., WR/DB, 5-7, 175 lbs; Shane Combs, Sr., QB/RB/DB, 6-1, 210 lbs.
Strengths: Defense, physical strength
Outlook: Another year, another deep and talented starting lineup boasted by the Pioneers, last year’s Central Mass. Division 2 champion. The Pioneers lost some major contributors off of last year’s team, including all-state quarterback Andrew Smiley, but coach John Andreoli is confident especially in the ability Combs, Jones, and Calvano to make big plays on the offensive side of the ball. Currently, Combs is splitting equal reps at quarterback with Tim Cassidy. “The jury is still out,” Andreoli said on the quarterback decision, “Both he and Tim Cassidy are taking equal snaps. They both have very different skillsets...it’s a different look when each one of them is in there.” Jones, a hard-hitting Boston College-committed safety, has proven to be one of the state’s top players over the past couple of years, but it’s his on the field leadership that is standing out so far this fall. Jones is the only four-year starter in the history of the program. “The thing that impresses me most about him is that he's really assumed a leadership position, with the way he conducts himself on the field, and the way he takes control of the defense,” Andreoli said, “And offensively the level of maturity that he has brought takes him to the next level.” Several players have found a way to make a name for themselves early on in camp, partly too because of the work they put in over the offseason. Andreoli said that this year’s team has the most physical strength collectively of any squad that he’s coached at St. John’s: “The amount of guys that we had were able to bench 185 for multiple reps was the most we ever had here. That's kind of been the foundation as the first thing. On the defensive side of the ball, our secondary has really shown a tremendous amount of speed, athleticism, and physicality in our first week.” Keep a close eye on Marc-Eddy Paul, Michael Corinna, Mitch Earley, and Sam Kloczkowski – all of whom have made a big early impact early on in practice.
NO. 4 MANSFIELD
Coach: Michael Redding (27th, 217-66-4)
2013 Record: 13-0, Division 2 State Champions
Returning Starters: 11 (5 offensive, 6 defensive)
Key Players: Brendan Hill, Sr. TE/SE 6-5, 228 lbs; Mike Carpino, Sr. OL/DL 5-9, 210 lbs; Tyler Smith, Sr. OL 6-1, 205 lbs; Andrew Horstmann, Sr. OL 6-2, 225 lbs; Curtis Boisvert, Sr. RB/DB 5-8, 180 lbs; Joe Moreshead, Sr. LB 5-10, 180 lbs; Q'ra Guichard, Sr. LB 5-8, 195 lbs; Connor Finerty, Jr. LB 5-11, 195 lbs; Nick Borsari, Sr. DL 6-2, 270 lbs; C.J. Daniel, Sr. LB 5-11, 170 lbs.
Strengths: Offensive line, linebackers, defensive line, running backs/receivers
Weaknesses: Inexperience in the secondary, adapting offense to personnel
Outlook: The Hornets completed their own version of a revenge tour last year, turning a loss in the 2012 D2 EMass Finals into an undefeated 2013 season and winning the first ever Division 2 State Championship. The biggest concern for the Hornets will come on offense and finding the pieces to replace quarterback Kyle Wisnieski, receivers Michael Hershman and Kyle Hurley and the elusive Miguel Villar-Perez. But to counter that, Mansfield possesses one of the most talented tight ends in the entire state in Brendan Hill, a member of the ESPNBoston Preseason All-State Team. Hill, who has received interest from multiple D1 programs, will likely garner the majority of attention from defenses so Mansfield will need to develop other options. Matt Carafa will likely step in and be QB1 for the Hornets while Curtis Boisvert will see a good amount of carries out of the backfield. Last year, Michael Redding talked about having some inexperience on the offensive line but this year they return three starters – Carpino, Smith, and Horstmann – and will rely on their line to help carry the offense. Defensively, the front seven is very strong led by linebackers Q'Ra Guichard and Joe Moreshead, arguably two of the more underrated players in the Hockomock League. They also return linebackers Connor Finerty and CJ Daniel as well as Brendan Hill and Nick Borsari, who will both be on the defensive line. The question on defense will be about replacing the strong defensive backs they had a season ago, led by Mike Barresi and Aurien Dawkins. Boisvert will likely be called on to be the anchor of that group. It won't be an easy start either for Mansfield as they begin the season on the road in New York against powerhouse Archbishop Stepinac.
NO. 3 EVERETT
Head Coach: John DiBiaso (23rd season at Everett, 271-66-1 overall)
2013: 8-2, lost Division 1 North final to Central Catholic
Returning starters: 13 (6 offense, 7 defense)
Key Players: Lukas Denis, Sr. Ath./DB, 6-0, 175 lbs.; Nick Orekoya, Sr. RB, 5-10, 200 lbs.; J.J. Colimon, Jr. TE/DL, 6-4, 250 lbs.; Erick Browne, Sr. OT/DT, 6-3, 270 lbs.; Mark Cardwell, Sr. 6-0, 225 lbs.; Jordan McAfee, Soph. QB.
Strengths: Athleticism in offensive and defensive backfield; size and physicality on offensive line.
Weaknesses: Lack of game experience at key positions.
Outlook: Perhaps more than any Everett team in recent memory, this year’s edition of the Tide is full of X-factors. The hype is abundant, but there are lingering questions. The athletic potential is apparent, but there’s a lack of on-field experience together. The one surefire thing the Crimson Tide do have returning is Lukas Denis, who joined the long lineage of Everett defensive backs to give their commitment to Boston College. Denis, who’s on-ball coverage skills are unparalleled in the region, will again be relied upon heavily as a hybrid back/wide receiver. Of course, that too depends on which form Everett’s offense will take. There are big things predicted for sophomore signal-caller Jordan McAfee whose yet to make a start. Meanwhile, Billerica transfer Nick Orekoya provides a stout presence at running back – one that can both break tackles and out-run hits. On defense, the Crimson Tide are short on game experience at linebacker, but should be able to generate on the pass rush with senior Mark Cardwell.
NO. 2 CENTRAL CATHOLIC
Head Coach: Chuck Adamopoulos (18th season, 123-62)
2013: 11-1, won Division 1 State championship
Returning starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Key Players: Michael Milano, Sr. QB, 6-1, 170 lbs.; Michael Balsamo, Sr. RB/S, 6-1, 202 lbs.; Markus Edmunds, Sr. RB/ILB, 5-11, 210 lbs.; Jorge Elias, Sr. G/DT, 6-0, 215 lbs.; Pat Dziedzic, Sr. OT/DT, 6-1, 220 lbs.; Dan MacDonald, Sr. OT/DT, 6-3, 260 lbs.; Justin Landry, Sr. C/ NG, 5-11, 270 lbs.
Strengths: Experience at quarterback, inside linebacker and safety; defensive front seven; big game experience.
Weaknesses: Lack of game experience at wide receiver and outside linebacker; kicking game.
Outlook:The Raiders rolled through Everett and Xaverian on the Road to Gillette and snuck up on some observers – we’re included – en route to the state’s first true state championship in Division 1. This year, they’ll be the targeted team, with a good mix of returning key contributors from last year’s title team. The added good news for Central is that many of its returning starters are back at its most important positions. That includes senior four-year starting quarterback Michael Milano, who was among the statistical statewide leaders in just about every category during last year’s playoffs. “He led our team in rushing last year and, I think for the people that followed us every week, that while [Cody] Demers made a lot of the big plays, Michael [Milano] did a lot of the things that made us successful, making such a big jump from his sophomore to his junior season.” The Raiders also return a few key members of its vaunted 3-4 defense, including free safety Michael Balsamo and inside linebacker Markus Edmunds. Edmunds, who led the team in tackles last year while eclipsing the century mark, will be working beside a new-look linebacking corps, but “I don’t know if he’s going to have a better year statistically this year because he was so good last year, but he’s going to have a lot more on his shoulders. We had two seniors at outside linebacker last year, who were both pretty smart kids as football players and they helped him make calls. So he’s got a little bit more on him in a leadership role.”
NO. 1 XAVERIAN
Coach: Charlie Stevenson (21st season, 172-62-1)
2013: 10-2, lost in Division 1 State Championship
Returning Starters: 15 (6 offense, 9 defense)
Key Returnees: Joe Gaziano, Sr. TE/DE, 6-4, 242 lbs.; Damion Wood, Sr. WR/FS, 5-11, 200 lbs.; Joe Parsons, Sr. OT/DT, 6-5, 285 lbs.; Jake Farrell, Sr. QB, 6-3, 185 lbs.; Noah Sorrento, Sr. RB/OLB, 5-9, 185 lbs.; Kenny Kern, Sr. FB/MLB, 6-0, 227 lbs.; Elijah Pierre, Jr. OL/NG, 6-0, 260 lbs.; Mekhi Henderson, Soph. CB, 5-9, 175 lbs.; D'Aundre Holmes, Jr. RB/FB/OLB, 5-11, 205 lbs.; Coby Tippett, Jr. WR/CB, 5-9, 165 lbs.; Ernest Simon, Sr. WR/CB, 5-9, 180 lbs.; Nick Allsop, Jr. C/DT, 6-3, 248 lbs.
Strengths: Defense, experience at quarterback, skill position depth
Weaknesses: Experience at offensive line.
Outlook: There’s no hiding it, and there’s no way the coaching staff can sandbag it: This defense is going to be pretty good. Led by the Northwestern-bound Gaziano, the reigning ESPN Boston Defensive Player of the Year, the Hawks return virtually everyone defensively, and are solid at just about every position in the front seven. The strength of the defense may lay in the secondary, where the Coastal Carolina-bound Wood has been playing with a violent chip so far this preseason, and the quick-twitched Henderson figures to be the top draw at corner after a promising freshman campaign. "He’s a fierce competitor," Stevenson said of Wood. "He likes to make plays against the opponent, and I think he’s serious about that. He’s playing hard when he’s out there, that’s a good thing to have." Offensively, the Hawks have a few holes to fill, but on the right side they should be fine with the UMass-bound Parsons returning at right tackle. Gaziano was mostly used in-line for run support last season, but the Hawks have so far experimented with him in a "flex" role, lining him up in the slot or splitting him out wide. He made a few dazzling grabs in Saturday’s scrimmage with B-R, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the traditionally conservative Hawks don’t get him more involved in the passing game this fall. "When he gets inside a cornerback, that’s a big body for the cornerback to come through," Stevenson said. "He’s a big guy who can run and catch, and once he catches the ball –- I’m not gonna say he’s quick –- but he brings a pretty good load with him. Clearly, we’re going to get him more involved in our pass attack." Farrell, a baseball star during the spring, is entering his second year under center and demonstrates above-average arm strength. He won’t be depended upon to run the ball, with the entire backfield back, but his improvisational skills are noteworthy.
-BRENDAN C. HALL
Milton Academy kicker Justin Yoon is ranked as the top overall player in Massachusetts, with grades of 78 and three stars. This is the first time a kicker has ever top ESPN's player rankings in Massachusetts. With range up to 60 yards and a hang-time as much as 4.4 seconds, Yoon is considered by most scouting services as one of the nation's top kickers. Scouts Inc. regards Yoon, a Notre Dame commit, as the best at his position in the nation.
Once again, Boston College has cleaned up locally. Of the top 10 recruits in Massachusetts, seven are currently committed to the Eagles. Syracuse, UConn, UMass and Northwestern also have commitments represented in the rankings.
To see the complete rankings, CLICK HERE.
Here is the current Top 10 for Massachusetts:
1. Justin Yoon | Milton Academy | K | 78 | Notre Dame
2. Aaron Monteiro | Brockton | OG | 75 | Boston College
3. Davon Jones | St. John's | S | 74 | Boston College
4. Lukas Denis | Everett | CB | 74 | Boston College
5. Joe Gaziano | Xaverian | DE | 74 | Northwestern
6. Shyheim Cullen | Lowell | OLB | 73 | Syracuse
7. Chris Garrison | Lawrence Academy | TE | 73 | Boston College
8. Chris Lindstrom | Shepherd Hill | OG | 72 | Boston College
9. Jake Burt | St. John's Prep | TE | 71 | Boston College
10. Taj-Amir Torres | Amherst | ATH | 70 | Boston College
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
FIVE PLAYERS ON THE RISE
Drew Jean-Guillaume, Sr. QB/DB, Shepherd Hill
With a powerful frame and impressive speed honed during track and field season, Jean-Guillaume is a throwback-type option quarterback, a converted running back who’s as adept at powering through defenders as he is at evading or blowing by them. The Rams will be heavy favorites in Division 4, and Jean-Guillaume will have plenty of room to work behind a reportedly heavy line led by Boston College commit Chris Lindstrom.
Mekhi Henderson, Soph. DB, Xaverian
In a defense full of household names, Henderson is one of the Hawks’ brightest young stars. Often last season, he was left on an island against an opponent’s top target, and often he held his own. With his coverage skills and raw ability, the coaching staff has a luxury to get creative in the secondary.
Shane Combs, Sr. ATH, St. John’s (Shrewsbury)
It’s assumed that Combs, a Notre Dame baseball commit and ESPN Boston All-State selection during the spring, will take the reins at quarterback from last year’s Mr. Football finalist Drew Smiley. The Missouri transplant was one of the state’s most productive rushers during the playoffs, going over the century mark in all five postseason contests as the Pioneers reached the Division 2 state final.
Mike Maggipinto, Jr. RB, East Longmeadow
Somewhat quietly, the 5-foot-5 scatback eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark last year for the Spartans, running behind a great blocking scheme that continued to find unique ways to get him in space. Between Maggipinto and Plymouth North’s Christian Carr, this could be the year of the pint-sized running back.
Jahkari Carpenter, Sr. RB, Doherty
Among the area’s most elusive, Carpenter was a weekly highlight reel during the Highlanders’ run to the Division 4 state title, with runs like THIS, or THIS, or THIS. Junior Tavian Vassar is expected to have a bigger role in the backfield this year, which could make for an imposing thunder-and-lightning combination.
FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE
The Indians hit a home run this offseason with the hiring of Duane Sigsbury as their new head coach, though they are considered a year or two away. Still, Sigsbury is one of the area’s brightest offensive minds, with a track record of making programs relevant in a hurry (see: Boston Cathedral). Similar to his other stops, there are already some terrific talents coming up the pipe.
The Blue and Blue made history last fall to end Brian Vaughn’s first season at the helm, beating Boston Latin for the first time since 1997. Now, with dynamic dual threat Emmanuel Almonte leading the offense, they’ll look to continue last year’s momentum.
Long considered a powder keg for skill talent, head coach Ryan Saulnier has tapped into it, and found a lot of success running his brand of spread offense in his first season last fall. With Marcus Collins returning under center, and a new home in the Dual County League, the Falcons ought to be one of the most entertaining teams to watch in Division 2 North.
Blue Devils graduated one of their most talented classes ever, but this is a program built to reload, not rebuild, under a great offensive mind in Dave Palazzi. Defensive coordinator Charlie Raff left to take over at Oakmont, but in his place comes former North Middlesex coach John Margarita. It’s too early – not to mention, lofty – to make any Neil O’Connor comparisons yet, but keep an eye on sophomore Noah Gray this fall.
Similar to Leominster, the Golden Eagles have many holes to fill on the heels of its most successful season in school history. But they should have a solid defense again, led by lineman Kaleb Hunter-Sams, and the coaching staff should get a boost from the addition of former Putnam head coach Bill Watson.
Hall's Preseason Top 10:
Little drama here as to who’s the top dog. With a star-studded defense that includes the likes of Northwestern commit Joe Gaziano, ESPN Boston’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2013; linebackers Noah Sorrento, Kenny Kern and D’Aundre Holmes; and defensive backs Damion Wood and Mekhi Henderson; as well as a potent running game behind UMass-bound tackle Joe Parsons, and an innovative playmaker in quarterback Jake Farrell; the Hawks figure to start the year No. 1 in many polls.
Crimson Tide are licking their chops after a disappointing end to 2013 season, and as usual they reload with some of the most gifted skill players in the area. The interesting question is how they’ll fit Boston College-bound cornerback Lukas Denis into the offense; originally slotted as the successor to Jonathan DiBiaso at quarterback before injuries derailed his sophomore season in 2012, Denis showed flashes of brilliance in a multitude of positions last year.
3. Central Catholic
The Raiders’ featured one of the state’s best defenses a year ago in their D1 state title run, and they’ll be held in high regard again thanks to linebacker Markus Edmunds and safety Mike Balsamo, who is fielding multiple Division 1 FCS offers at the moment. Also keep an eye on Matt Milano, who was statistically one of the state’s most productive quarterbacks in the playoffs last year.
The Hornets dramatically altered their offense on the fly late in the season following a season-ending injury to wideout Brendan Hill, and it worked out as they took the D2 state title. A fully healthy Hill and another year of running back Miguel Villar-Perez, one of last fall’s most pleasant revelations, should make the Hornets the favorite in a tough D2 South.
Trojans always get the benefit of the doubt for their powerful running game and their “anyone, anywhere, anytime” approach to scheduling, and they’ll be a force again with Brandon Gallagher returning at tailback. But the question is whether the Trojans can sustain momentum and avoid last year’s fate, when they reached No. 1 in our statewide poll early, only to sputter in the second half.
6. Shepherd Hill
In short, Boston College-bound offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom Jr. is a force. But the fact that he is the Rams’ most dominant, yet possibly their lightest, should tell you something about what to expect in 2014. They’re arguably Central Mass.’s most talented team this fall, and while there’s a couple other heavy hitters contending in D4 – Holliston, Dennis-Yarmouth and Wahconah, for starters – these guys are my odds-on favorite. Look for them to put up a ton of rushing yards in head coach Chris Lindstrom Sr.’s double wing scheme.
The Red Raiders made one of the biggest statements of the playoffs last fall in blanking St. John’s Prep 41-0 in the first round of the D1 North tournament. Syracuse commit Shyheim Cullen was exceptional at interior gap blitzes, baiting and confusing potential blockers to create chaos up the middle, and he’ll lead a talented defense that includes linebacker Nicolau Coury and defensive back Theo Bryant.
8. St. John’s (Shrewsbury)
Boston College-bound free safety Davon Jones is one of several early candidates for Defensive Player of the Year after recording 125 tackles and eight picks a year ago. Offensive coordinator Chris Moriarty is as creative as they come, and how he utilizes Jones and athlete Shane Combs in the offense will be one of the more interesting storylines of the season’s earlygoings.
We’re still in wait-and-see mode after another season of unrealized expectations in Brockton, but it’s hard to deny the talent the Boxers have coming back. Keep an eye on Boston College-bound lineman Aaron Monteiro, who has some raw potential and a powerful frame at 6-foot-6 and nearly 300 pounds.
Division 1 recruit Michael Dunn lined up at nearly every offensive position last year for the Dolphins in their run to the D4 state final, and he may very well do it again. Defensively, this kid is a treat, regarded as one of the state’s premier shutdown corners. As usual, Paul Funk’s frenetic read option scheme will be a tall task to keep up with.
Others to Watch: Attleboro, Barnstable, BC High, Doherty, Holliston, Marblehead, Oliver Ames, Plymouth North, Pope John Paul II, St. John’s Prep, St. Peter-Marian, Tewksbury, Wahconah, Walpole
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
1. Spread offense has been the growing trend in Massachusetts over the last decade, and we’re now seeing its influence at all levels of the game. But at the other end of the spectrum, we’re seeing more and more teams dip into playbooks from decades and decades ago for some wild success in the running game. We’ve romanticized Nauset’s Single Wing offense for years. At Holy Name, Mike Pucko dug into Dutch Meyer’s World War II-era playbook and installed a fullback-less “Triple Wing” offense for the Naps’ Thanksgiving contest with Milford, a game they won 35-14. Last year’s D5 West Final featured a Pistol Flex Bone (Hoosac Valley) versus a Wishbone (Easthampton). Tewksbury, last year’s D3 state champ, calls running plays out of an encyclopedia of formations from every family of offense. Factor in all of the traditional Double Wing success stories like Shepherd Hill, Holy Name and Somerset-Berkley, too. Running offense continues to diversify in this corner of the country, and if you’re an X’s and O’s junkie like me, you are having a blast watching it.
2. LSU took some negative backlash last fall when they received a verbal commitment from a freshman early in his season after an apparently intense summer of recruitment from a number of SEC schools, but this doesn’t appear to be a trend going away any time soon. Early offers are still fairly uncommon for football prospects in this part of the country, though it’s worth noting St. Sebastian’s incoming sophomore Blake Gallagher received an offer from Nebraska last month. Beyond the concerns about pressure and bloated expectations, the biggest question I have is this: What if the recruit stops growing, or has just peaked earlier than his peers? I’m interested to see if Maryland head coach Randy Edsall’s proposals for recruiting reform gain any traction. Among other things, his plan stipulates schools can’t make a written offer until a player’s senior year, and that the offer must come with permission from the school’s admissions department.
3. I’m on record as saying I hope the true state championship format the MIAA rolled out last year is here to stay, but I’m also in favor of giving it some tweaks. First and foremost, get rid of the second automatic qualifier for leagues. Weak leagues were rewarded at the expense of teams like Medway and Pope John Paul II, teams who finished with winning records in qualification period but were pushed all the way out of the eight-team field in their respective divisions to satisfy undeserved automatic berths. Leagues should be restricted to one automatic qualifier, or two if it is a two-tier league. I also question whether a seven-game regular season is enough of a window to properly gauge a team’s strength. Expanding to an eight-game season and starting it on Labor Day Weekend could satisfy that, and could be a good gate opportunity for many schools as well.
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
FIVE PLAYERS ON THE RISE
Michael Balsalmo, Sr. RB/FS, Central Catholic
A standout on the Raiders’ Division 1 championship season a year ago, the 6-foot-2, 200-pounder holds a couple of offers (Bryant, Wofford) entering the season. Here’s better there will be more to follow.
Christian Carr, Sr. RB, Plymouth North
For what Carr might lack in stature, he makes up for in elusiveness. A consistent 100-yard-per-game rusher in his junior season, he broke out with a 351-yard performance in the Eagles’ playoff win against Dighton-Rehoboth.
Jake Gibb, Jr. QB, Stoughton
In his first season under center, Gibb led the Knights to the Division 3 South final before falling to Plymouth South. Gibb will have them contending for the Davenport division title again.
Kyle Murphy, Jr. OL/DL, Attleboro
The two-way lineman was a driving force behind the Blue Bombardiers’ breakout season last year. It’s only a matter of time before the 6-foot-4, 240-pounder starts getting colleges’ attention.
James Sullivan, Sr. RB/S, Tewksbury
Sullivan announced himself to a statewide audience on the biggest stage last year, racking up 125 yards and three touchdowns in the Redmen’s win over Plymouth South in the Division 3 state title game. With graduations, Sullivan will take on an even bigger role this year.
FIVE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE
The Bay State Carey should again be one of the more interesting races to watch across the state this year, and the Wamps might be primed to take a big step forward after last year’s 4-7 mark. One to watch is inside linebacker Derek Anson, who’s only added to his 6-foot-2, 225-pound frame.
The Highlanders were historically good in 2013, capturing their first state title while beating Dennis-Yarmouth for the Division 4 championship. Although several key contributors have graduated, they can still make a run
It might not be the aerial display we’ve seen in recent years with Troy Flutie at quarterback, but the Redhawks will be one worth watching as Brian Dunlap returns from a season missed due to injury (Lisfranc fracture) last year.
After a 7-4 campaign last season, are the Presidents ready to challenge for the Patriot Keenan title? With promising running back Jhave Handsom-Fields (8 TD as a sophomore) and quarterback James Lam returning, the time could be now.
The Raiders return a big class of juniors, including feature back Chip Wood back in the fold and Jacob Cabana rushing off the edge. Another EAC title could be in the cards.
Barboza's Preseason Top 10:
The Hawks will have some questions to answer on offense, but deserve the top spot on defense alone, with Defensive Player of the Year Joe Gaziano returning along with the state’s best secondary group.
2. Central Catholic
The Raiders peaked at precisely the right time last year, capturing the first true statewide Division 1 title. Some of their biggest playmakers have graduated, but Michael Balsamo’s primed for a breakout year.
The Crimson Tide are undoubtedly still smarting over last year’s home playoff loss to Central Catholic. We all know what that means.
Here’s betting tight end/defensive end Connor Reagan is one of next year’s breakout performers.
5. St. John’s (S)
You never know what you’re getting from the Pioneers’ offense game to game, and it’ll be intriguing to see how the group develops this season. But you have to like any group with athletes of ilk of Shane Combs and Davon Jones.
I’ll take my chances with the linebacking corps the Red Raiders have returning, anchored by Shyheim Cullen and Nicolau Coury.
The Boxers will not be pushed around inside the tackle box, with perhaps the biggest returning offensive line in the state, including Aaron Monteiro (6-6, 300) and Uzziah Hilliard (6-0, 280)
Mike Redding will come up with creative schemes to avoid Brendan Hill being double-teamed on both sides of the ball. Connor Finerty will also look to expand on a promising sophomore season.
The Dolphins fell just shy of the Div. 4 state title in a riveting matchup with Doherty. They might not be denied this year.
The Redmen might not match the size and physicality of last year’s state championship squad, but having James Sullivan in the backfield is still enough to win.
Others to watch: Arlington, Attleboro, Billerica, BC High, Holliston, Leominster, Oliver Ames, Shepherd Hill, Stoughton, Wahconah, Walpole.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT:
1. The football playoff system is here to stay – well, at the very least for two more years. While there are still pockets of dissent, the sentiment across the state is that the first year determining true state champions across six divisions was a success. It even drew over some who’d been opposed to the playoff proposal originally and voted against the measure. The build up and drama of the first seven weeks leading up the start of the tournament brought a different dimension of intrigue to the season. Still, detractors remain and, as Brendan ruminated earlier in this feature, there’s still room for improvement regarding the means of automatic qualifiers and the discrepancies that exist between the respective athletic conferences’ rubrics – including, most importantly, the weight of league games. But with one year in the books, I declare the system to be a success. Now, let’s start tweaking the framework.
2. Which brings me to my next point: get rid of Thanksgiving. This is going to be a highly unpopular opinion in some neck of the woods, but it’s simply a reality of what’s put in front of us. At the end of last season, I talked to many athletic directors who complained about a diminished gate return from their Thanksgiving Day games. That’s a natural feedback of the playoff system – which in some place requires teams to “double up” with their Thankgiving rivals. In change, that has deemphasized the pomp and circumstance surrounding Turkey Day. As a result, that left some Thanksgiving Day matchups to resemble more of an exhibition game in tone – althought don’t tell that to St. John’s Prep and Xaverian, or Foxborough and Mansfield. The result is a hodgepodge of situations that follow teams into what used to be the biggest day of the regular-season football calendar: ie a non-playoff team vs. a team that’s bound for a championship game, or two teams who are playing out the string on a season that’s already ended. I counter those scenario’s are really no different than what existed in the year B.P. (Before Playoffs), but the current arrangement has only emphasized was already apparent – Thanksgiving is an exhibition. Minus the Catholic Conference or Merrimack Valley Conference duels which resulted in playoff berths in previous years, Thanksgiving largely was such. Only now have the detractors used the playoff system to highlight the faults in Thanksgiving Day that already existed. What Thanksgiving Day has always been about is the rivalry. I ventured to North Attleborough last year when the Red Rocketeers (already eliminated from the playoffs) hosted Attleboro (who were just eliminated the previous week in the sectional final). The scene was what you’d become accustomed to – with an overflow crowd at Community Field. They were all there to watch an exhibition game. Why not make that game mean something more again? Why not play the game before the first frost?
Garrison, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound tight end/split end who will be entering his senior year at Lawrence Academy, said he was sold on BC when he learned what kind of offense BC head coach Steve Addazio has planned for the Eagles in the near future.
“BC has been at the top of my favorites since they offered me two years ago,” Garrison, a Goffstown, N.H., resident, said. “Then a new staff came in and my big question was, ‘How are they going to use me?’
“Everyone knows they were a running team last year with a Heisman finalist (running back Andre Williams). Coach Addazio and Coach Day (offensive coordinator Ryan Day) explained to me the new vision for their offense. They’re building something new at BC. It’s more of a spread offense and they brought in a couple of dual-threat quarterbacks.
“Coach Addazio said he doesn’t like to use the example, but I’ll be playing a similar position that Aaron Hernandez did when he recruited him at Florida. They plan to use me more as a big wide receiver, but I’m sure I’ll still be doing some of the dirty work.”
Garrison, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at BC camp last week, also had scholarship offers from Maryland, Duke, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Syracuse and Wake Forest. BC was the second school to offer Garrison, after UMass.
Garrison said he felt a connection with Day, who played high school football at Manchester (N.H.) Central and then at the University of New Hampshire. Goffstown and Manchester neighbor each other.
He became the sixth in-state player from the Class of 2015 to commit to the Eagles, joining Shepherd Hill offensive lineman Chris Lindstrom, Brockton lineman Aaron Monteiro, Everett defensive back Lukas Denis, St. John’s Prep tight end Jake Burt and St. John’s of Shrewsbury defensive back Davon Jones.
“After I talked to the BC coaches I spoke to my dad,” Garrison said. “I wanted to commit before next season, so I said, “Why am I waiting?’ The whole recruiting process was overwhelming at times.”
Garrison said his decision came down to Duke or BC. He was at Duke earlier this month.
“I was comfortable with Duke, but I was more comfortable with BC,” he said. “BC was where I wanted to go.”
"I'm proud to say I'm part of something," Denis said of the pipeline between Everett and BC. "The city of Everett is always gonna be at my games. My family is all behind me. I'm very excited."
When Denis arrives in Chestnut Hill in 2015, he will become the fourth Everett player to suit up in the Eagles' secondary since 2008, joining Isaac Johnson, Jim Noel and Manny Asprilla. Noel, the oldest sibling in a gifted family that includes brothers Rodman (NC State football) and Nerlens (Philadelphia 76ers), signed with the Seattle Seahawks for minicamp last spring as an undrafted free agent.
"I've known every single one of those players," Denis said. "I've gotten to know them over a period of time, I've been there to watch them at practice, see how they operate. Their opinion does matter. Getting all that information from them about their positive experience [at BC], I believe it’s a great place for me to be.... I believe I had the greatest connection with Manny Asprilla. My brother played with him throughout his years, he was a very humble child."
It's worth noting that all three of those past Everett players -- Johnson, Noel and Asprilla -- all contributed in the Eagles' secondary as true freshmen. The common thread, Denis says, has been their work ethic.
"I would say we’re used to working hard, so when we get up there we have an advantage. Most of us are physical, man [to man] type players, which is something they like at BC," Denis said.
As a sophomore in 2012, the 5-foot-11, 170-pound Denis was slated to compete for the starting quarterback job with the graduation of the state's second all-time leader in passing touchdowns, Jonathan DiBiaso. A shoulder injury kept him sidelined for the first half of the season, but he eventually made his impact late in the season as a nickelback.
This past fall, Denis had his breakthrough campaign, earning ESPN Boston All-State honors after helping the Crimson Tide reach the Division 1 North Finals. From the cornerback spot, Denis registered 32 tackles and one interception. As a wide receiver, he had 14 catches for 313 yards and three touchdowns, and returned a punt for another score.
For this season, Denis says he will likely be playing wide receiver again, which means we could see promising youngster Jordan McAfee competing at quarterback.
Denis had a few more quotes for ESPNBoston.com on his commitment to the Eagles:
Factors in his decision: "I realized there was nothing else that I was waiting for that could be bigger than this. This is what I wanted, I felt at home. I have a good relationship with the coaches, they remind me of Everett High. I want to go where I'm comfortable and play for the city that I play for. I guess I would say because I didn't see any other offer that could change my mind, that's just the way I did it."
What he liked about the coaching staff: "The way they operate. The coaches, they know what they want, I like their defense, it fits what I'm capable of -- a lot of man coverage. Their corners are aggressive, they get the chance to go in and make plays instead of waiting for things to happen. At Everett High, when we come across a great receiver-quarterback combination we want to mess up the timing on their route."
What the Eagles like about him: "I believe it’s how I can play man, they have man defensive backs [and] I'm usually quite aggressive with receivers. On defense, my mindset is I don't want any receivers catching any passes on me. I don't want them getting off the line of scrimmage."