Boston High School: Michael Balsamo
Mike Balsamo makes it official and commits to UNH! Congratulations to Mike and his family. @UNHWildcats— CCHS Raiders (@CCHSsport) October 29, 2014
Danny Ventura of the Boston Herald was the first to report the news of Balsamo's commitment.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Balsamo, a preseason ESPN Boston All-State selection, also held offers from Wofford and Bryant at the time of his commitment.
"I'm very excited about the opportunity that the coaching staff at UNH has given me. I'm really looking forward to playing for a nationally-ranked program located in my home state," Balsamo, an Atkinson, N.H. resident, told ESPNBoston.com. "All three schools were great opportunities to fulfill my dream of playing college football and getting a great education, but UNH was the best fit."
Balsamo is the second Raider in as many years to pledge to the Wildcats. Running back/safety D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie, a 2013 ESPN Boston All-State selection who helped lead the Raiders to their first state title in 15 years, was ranked the No. 7 prospect in Massachusetts by ESPNU when he committed last fall. He joined a stellar class of locals for UNH that included two state Gatorade Players of the Year, Leominster safety Neil O'Connor and Nashua South (N.H.) quarterback Trevor Knight.
"I've known and played alongside [Drummond-Mayrie] since my freshman year at Central," Balsamo said. "Having one of my closest friends on the team is a bonus."
The Raiders begin their MIAA Division 1 State Championship defense this Friday, when archrival Andover visits Lawrence Memorial Stadium for a Division 1 North Quarterfinal matchup.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown.
Yet, for all the pressures real or perceived that Central’s players might feel this season, nothing will compare to the feeling of loss in the pit of their stomachs they’ll feel. They’re missing a brother.
Rising senior defensive back Will Wheeler was looking forward to another season with his teammates when he died suddenly in his sleep the Saturday before Massachusetts high school football teams started their preseason practice sessions. The 17-year-old resident of Atkinson, N.H. and three-sport athlete at Central had no apparent health problems at the time of his death.
The Raiders began practicing the Monday following Wheeler’s death.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” Central head coach Chuck Adamopoulos said.
The day of Wheeler’s funeral coincided with the first day that two-a-day practice sessions were allowed by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. It began with a 6:30 a.m. practice, followed by a bus ride to New Hampshire for the services. On the ride back to Lawrence, Adamopoulos gave his team two options: either they could call it a day or get back on the field for another practice.
There was no dissent among the ranks in their reply.
“It’s an escape for all us, to keep our heads out of that tragic, tragic situation,” senior captain and ESPN Boston preseason All-State selection Michael Balsamo said. “We just rallied together and went to work.”
The second session – as Adamopoulos termed it – wasn’t their best. But he learned a lot from the trying circumstances his team faced that day.
“We were cooked at the end of that day, and that goes for the kids and me and the coaching staff,” Adamopoulos said. “But we were there for each other.”
A backup at safety primarily and a special teams contributor last season for Cental, Wheeler would likely have enjoyed a greater role on the defense this season. His younger brother, Shawn, is a sophomore at Central who’s also on the football team.
Greater than that, Wheeler’s personality is what his friend and teammate Jorge Elias misses about his presence at practice.
“There were times when he’d mess up coverage on a play, and he’d just laugh,” the senior captain said. “He just had that personality that made everybody relax.”
He added, “We’re here, as a team, for his family. We want to make sure that they know that we’re here for them. We’re doing this for them. They’re always in our minds, always in our hearts; we’ll never forget about them and we’ll never forget about Will.”
Central returns 11 of its 22 starters from last year’s championship team. The Raiders also have the advantage of returning starters at several key positions, including quarterback Michael Milano and inside linebacker Markus Edmunds, as well as Balsmo (running back/safety) and Elias (guard/defensive tackle).
“We know what we can do,” Balsamo said of the expectations place on this year’s squad. “We’ve got great coaches that work us really, really hard during practice and we have the talent to make those plays on the field. The standard is really, really high.”
That’s the challenge the Raiders face: keep winning despite grieving. It’s something Elias and his fellow seniors have taken to heart.
“During the summer we worked so hard because we know what it took from last season – the hard work and the leadership and everybody that stood up last year was incredible,” Elias said. “Now, we just have to get our boys together and step up and fill in the spots where we lost our key players.”
It’s found in the character of their actions. They’re a family, gathered around the sport of football. It’s something they’ll never forget, just as they’ll never forget their teammate.
“We just needed to get away from those emotions for a while and let them drain out,” Elias said of the decision to practice on the day of Wheeler’s funeral. “I think we were all unstable, but then you have to let it go. To get back to football, you’re on the gridiron, you have to focus on your teammates and what’s at hand.
“Life goes on, unfortunately, you’ve just got to work because the season’s coming up and that’s what Will would have wanted from us.”
Central opens its title defense tonight (7 p.m.) against cross-city rival Lawrence.
The teams partook in their annual preseason meeting on Tuesday, but unlike the last meeting at Gillette, Xaverian held the upper hand, looking a step quicker and crisper than the defending champions.
Here are a couple of takeaways from today’s two-hour long work session at the Hawl Bowl:
Tinkering continues: As in their prior scrimmage Saturday against Bridgewater-Raynham, Xaverian continued to sprinkle in some different faces into their spread formations. Reigning ESPN Boston Defensive Player of the Year Joe Gaziano was again seen split out wide in a four-receiver set which also featured starting inside linebacker D’Aundre Holmes seeing snaps in the slot.
The Hawks already have a deep corps of receivers, including returning contributors like Princewell Iwejuo, Ernest Simon, Peter Thorbahn, Coby Tippett and Damion Wood. But the big bodies out wide give Xaverian a different look while presenting matchup problems for undersized defensive backs.
On Tuesday, the Hawks again had to be impressed by senior quarterback Jake Farrell, who has turned in efficient performances in both of the team’s scrimmages.
“I was happy with the way our skills players matched up with them today,” Hawks head coach Charlie Stevenson said.
Xaverian had success moving the ball through the air throughout against a Central Catholic secondary that is still rounding into form. After losing a couple of All-Staters from the group in Cody Demers and D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie, Raiders head coach Chuck Adamopoulos is using the preseason period to test out a host of competitors in a couple of positions.
“Reading didn’t really throw the ball downfield in our last scrimmage,” Adamopoulos said. “And we’re really young in the secondary, so we need to figure out who’s going to play there. Today, with Xaverian, they threw the ball downfield, they threw the ball in the flat with quick hits, so we got a chance to look at our secondary kids.”
Round 2 adjustments: Both squads came in with agendas different from their Saturday debuts.
For one, Xaverian incorporated the running game – after having a pass only scrimmage with B-R. While the Hawks still do not have their full complement of backs, as John Dean continues to be held out with an injury, they look more themselves with Noah Sorrento and sophomore Devon Piccinin pounding Central’s front seven.
“I think when we’re able to throw him into our offensive mix, we’re a lot better team,” Stevenson said of Sorrento.
Meanwhile, the Raiders countered with some different blitz packages and defensive looks, with inside linebacker Markus Edmunds making a strong showing.
“It’s an opportunity to see some different things,” Stevenson said. “With their 3-on-2 blitz packages, any time they did that they caught us off guard. There’s stuff in there that we haven’t practiced.”
Here and there: While the intensity was nowhere near that of last December, the pace of Tuesday’s scrimmage was brisk and the competition was spirited. “There was a lot of bad blood out there still from the championship game, so it was good for us to grind it out,” Central senior running back/ safety Michael Balsamo said. “We saw them last year this time in the preseason and we all told them if they made it we’d see them in the playoffs.” … Injuries curtailed a couple of key players from participating or staying in the scrimmage. Xaverian right tackle and UMass commit Joe Parsons was held out and is listed as day-to-day. Also, Central lineman Jorge Elias missed the last half of the proceedings after having a Hawks player fall on his ankle. … How do you improve on a Super Bowl season? For Central four-year returning starting quarterback Michael Milano, that means an increased leadership role. “He always was a leader, but he’s taken that to a new level this year,” Adamopoulos said. “It’s really impressive. He did it all for us last season.” … Reflecting on his team’s progress through the first week-plus of the preseason, Adamopoulos had this to offer about the top-ranked Hawks: “They deserve to be ranked where they are; we don’t.” The No. 2 Raiders have another tuneup scheduled Friday at Mansfield. “Last year, at this time, we weren’t what we were at the end of last year,” Adamopoulos said. “There’s a long way to go.”
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
The Terriers are the second FCS program this week to offer the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Balsamo, one of the Bay State's top defensive back prospects for the 2015 class. Balsamo was an All-Merrimack Valley Conference selection at defensive back, as the Raiders won the inaugural MIAA Division 1 State Championship, the program's first bowl victory since 1998.
Balsamo visited the Spartanburg, S.C. campus yesterday.
"They loved his film, and indicated it would be worth it to go down there for one day," Adamopoulous said.
After taking a 31-7 loss to rival St. John's Prep in Week 2 of the 2012 season, Central Catholic railed off eight straight wins, earning a share of the Merrimack Valley Conference's Large division title before falling to Andover on Thanksgiving morning to miss out on an MIAA Division 1 Playoff berth. The Raiders return a handful of key cogs, including the multi-talented D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie, but must replace all five starters from an offensive line that was among the bigger units in Eastern Mass. last fall. With a slew of fresh faces entering the fold, can the Raiders replicate last season's success and make a deep run in the newly-aligned Division 1 North? We checked in with Central last night in preparation for our Sept. 2 photo gallery unveiling.
CENTRAL CATHOLIC AT A GLANCE
Coach: Chuck Adamopoulos (17th season, 112-61 overall)
Last Season: 9-2
Final ESPN Boston Rank: 23
Returning Starters: Eight (three offense, five defense)
Key Losses: OL/DL Ryan Barry, LB Ryan Doherty, OL/DL Sean Kirchner, RB/DB Santino Brancato
Key Returnees: Sr. DT Joe Brown, Sr. WR Cody Demers, Sr. OLB Cam Manning, Sr. RB/DB D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie, Jr. S Michael Balsamo, Jr. ILB Markus Edmunds, Jr. QB Michael Milano.
Overview: The Raiders return one of the state's top talents in Drummond-Mayrie, who currently holds scholarship offers from a half-dozen Division 1 FCS schools and may end up deciding during the season. He'll be the feature back this season, after splitting carries with Brancato last fall but still putting up respectable numbers (87 carries, 621 yards, 10 TD, 7.1 yards per carry). Defensively, he'll be making the switch from cornerback to safety this season, where he'll be paired with the promising Balsamo to create what should be one of the Merrimack Valley's most feared secondaries. On the perimeter, the efforts of the undersized Demers (38 catches) is a bit understated -- good at the underneath routes, but also a deep-ball threat with his straight-line speed. The biggest questions will lay in the trenches, where they must replace all five starters from a unit last season that averaged roughly 250 pounds across. This year's line will be a smaller, more athletic front, which makes one wonder if the Raiders will deviate from last year's spread-based rushing attack and put the ball on the flanks more often. Overall, the Raiders have always been defensively sound, and should be fine once again with Drummond, Balsamo, Edmunds (112 tackles) and Brown (31 tackles, 10 for loss) back in the fold. Look for the Raiders to contend in a loaded Division 1 North.
Checked in with Central Catholic tonight. Look for Raiders in our Sept 2 gallery of top teams pic.twitter.com/V2StLHWGfp— Brendan Hall (@BHallESPN) August 16, 2013
One last shot from tonight's Central Catholic shoot. Behold "The Pit" pic.twitter.com/Ku411Aq7nH— Brendan Hall (@BHallESPN) August 16, 2013