LONGMEADOW, Mass. -– It is never more apparent why Longmeadow football has become the powerhouse that it is than right after the high school team wraps up their practice around 5:30 p.m. at Longmeadow’s Williams Middle School. As the big guys walk off the field, on come the future in the form of sixth, seventh and eighth grade teams dressed in all black and running that same Wing-T offense.
Not long ago, the Lancers’ senior class was taking that 6 p.m. shift at Williams and doing things the exact same way. Winning included.
“Eight games, we went 8-0,” said Steve Krushell, one of the team’s five senior captains. “We used to sign a contract saying we wouldn’t score more than 21 points so we wouldn’t run up the score”
Krushell, along with his co-captains Austin Sierra, Mike Sell, Rob McClure and Frankie Elder, is one of 34 seniors on the Lancers roster. This group has lost just six games since that eighth grade season and credits their success to the family culture around the program.
Legendary coach Alex Rotsko stepped down after last season having brought the Lancers to 15 straight Super Bowls, winning 11 of them. Instead of going outside for a hire, Longmeadow kept it in the family by hiring longtime assistant Nick St. George.
“We like to put a big emphasis on family,” said McClure. “We have so much experience and with Coach St. George it’s the same offense, practices are run the same. It’s got the same feel and we’re a very close group this year.”
All of that experience has not only eased the transition for the players, but also for St. George himself. After 25 years as Rotsko’s right-hand man he is pleased with the way the seniors have taken ownership of this team.
“The seniors have done a great job this year,” said St. George. “They set the tone, they teach the younger kids, they want to do this the right way. They want this to be a good team but they want this to be a close group. They genuinely care about each other.”
The Lancers’ Wing-T offense has been the crux of the program’s success and this year will feature two of the most diverse running backs in Western Mass. in Sierra and Elder. Sierra, who’s older brother Niko ran for 1,427 and 23 touchdowns in 2008, will fill the fullback role at 6-foot-4, 200 pounds while Elder will be more of the speed back at just 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds.
Sierra replaces T.J. Norris who last year ran for 1,313 yards and 23 touchdowns but dealt with injury problems that allowed Sierra to get some seasoning last year.
“I feel great [about replacing Norris]. I got some good reps when I started rotating in towards the end of the season,” said Sierra, who ran for 522 yards and 5 touchdowns in 2011, including 171 yards against Northampton. “I feel like I can be just like T.J.”
The biggest part of ensuring success for Sierra, Elder and junior-quarterback John Falcone will be their offensive line. The Lancers starting line is comprised of all seniors with the smallest being ESPNBoston Preseason All-State guard Lou Calabrese at 6-foot-1, 245 pounds, who shed 30 pounds during the offseason.
“I think if you went across the team you would see that we’re in better shape than we were last year,” said St. George. “Having Louie in shape and stronger is going to help us and it is going to make him a much more effective football player.”
McClure (6-3, 260 lbs.) and Calabrese are joined on inside by Zach Calman (6-2, 245) while Mark Gentile (6-2, 275 lbs.) and Krushell (6-3, 275) will handle the outside. The offensive line’s average of 260 pounds makes them one of the biggest -– and fastest –- lines in the state.
This group of seniors, with all of their success -– two super bowls and just the six losses -– still have one fish to fry: St. John’s of Shrewsbury.
“We took that loss last year really personally,” said Krushell of last season’s 26-21 loss to the Pioneers. “They are the one team we haven’t been able to beat in our four years.”
“Nobody like’s losing,” added McClure. “A lot of us were extremely upset after those losses and goal is to eliminate that. We want to win every game and we think that we can.”
The Lancers will take on St. John’s on Sept. 15 at Pioneer Field in Shrewsbury.
These players have not lost sight of what makes Longmeadow football so special, however.
“We’ve been playing together for 10 years, since third grade,” said Elder as his fellow captains all laughed. “Same offense, same everything; nothing’s changed, just the positions,”
As the older guy’s leave the field, the sixth grade team takes the field and gets into their Wing-T formation. Indeed, nothing has changed.
LONGMEADOW AT A GLANCE
2011: 11-2, won Division I West Super Bowl
Coach: Nick St. George (1st year)
Key Returnees: Frankie Elder, Sr. RB/S, 5-9, 170 lbs.; Austin Sierra, Sr. RB/DE, 6-4 200 lbs.; Mike Sell, Sr. TE/MLB, 6-1 215 lbs.; Rob McClure, Sr. OL, 6-3 260 lbs.; Lou Calabrese, Sr. OL, 6-1 245 lbs.; Mark Gentile, Sr. OL, 6-2 275 lbs.; Zach Calman, Sr. 6-2 245 lbs.; Steve Krushell, Sr. OL, 6-3 275 lbs.
Strengths: Experience, Leadership, Offensive Line.
Outlook: To say that quarterback is a weakness for Longmeadow is actually a bit nit-picky considering their vaunted Wing-T offense is not particularly reliant on the position. The Lancers’ offensive line will once again pave the way for one of the state’s best rushing offenses which will run through Austin Sierra and Frankie Elder with several other players also in the mix to get some carries. Sierra will be playing the fullback position vacated by T.J. Norris (1,313 yards, 23 TD in 2011) but showed last year that he is more than up to the task (620 yards, 7 TD). The always stingy defense is looking particularly quick again in 2012 and points will certainly be at a premium when playing against Longmeadow. The Lancers will play that crucial game against St. John’s (Shrewsbury) on Sept. 15 in Shrewsbury.