Boston High School: Nick Olson

After setbacks, a brilliant career for Dunlap

November, 7, 2014
Nov 7
NATICK, Mass. –- He’s always been tough on opposing defenses, but now we know that nothing can slow Brian Dunlap down.

After bursting onto the scene with an outstanding freshman season for the Natick Redhawks, Dunlap led the state in receptions (86), receiving yards (1,570), and touchdowns (21) as he helped Natick reach the MIAA Division 2A Super Bowl in his second year.

Dunlap became the first sophomore ever to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors, and seemed primed for another huge year when a Lisfranc fracture on his left foot derailed his 2013 season before it got started.

Now he’s back on the field, leading the state in receiving yards (906) once again, and relishing every moment, including a recent walkthrough in the freezing rain as Natick (7-1) prepared for a showdown at Marshfield (7-1) in the MIAA Division 2 South Semifinals.

“More than anything, I was just happy to be out there,” Dunlap said about his return to the field this fall. “I missed the games, and even the practices. Sometimes you’re so focused that you forget to take it all in, so I wanted to make sure that I really enjoyed my senior year.”

It didn’t take long for Dunlap to start enjoying himself on the field. In fact, he turned his first touch of the season into a long touchdown, and broke a 99-yard receiving touchdown at Wellesley in Natick’s third game of the season.

“That first touchdown of the year was the moment I realized I was back,” Dunlap recalled. “Then in the Wellesley game, we were backed up at the 1-yard line on a third and long and Nick [Olson] threw a great ball on a corner route. Running up the sideline past my teammates and seeing my dad in the end zone, it was one of those touchdowns that I’ll probably remember forever.”

Big Shoes to Fill

Dunlap wasn’t the only member of the Redhawks that had to make a difficult transition to start the season. Senior quarterback Nick Olson put aside his role as a full time safety to take over as the starter for graduated legend, Troy Flutie.

However, Olson had an uncommon familiarity with his primary target considering he had been playing pitch and catch with Dunlap since their days at Memorial Elementary School in Natick.

“Me and Brian grew up just a couple miles apart, and we’ve been throwing with each other for years,” Olson said. “He’d come to my house, or I’d go to his house and we’d run a couple of routes, so we definitely had a feel for each other and that made the transition pretty smooth.”

Olson and Dunlap may have blown away the competition during recess with ease, but playing at a high level for Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli would require plenty of work.

Of course, Dunlap’s no stranger to hard work, having earned acceptance to Harvard University while excelling in basketball and football at the varsity level. So it comes as little surprise that he was able to recover from his injury and develop chemistry with a new quarterback in a matter of weeks.

“It was remarkable to watch the stages that he went through,” said Mortarelli. To see him go from the wheelchair, to the cast, to the walking boot, and come back bigger, faster and stronger than he was before the injury was incredible.”

Mortarelli continued, “People think his talent is just natural, and while he is a gifted athlete, he’s also the hardest worker we’ve ever had at this program. He refuses to lose any competition, he’s a great leader, and the fact that he’s a great player is just gravy on top.”

Three weeks after Dunlap’s show stopping performance at Wellesley, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound wide receiver set a new school record when he scored his 56th career touchdown in a win over Milton. He’s scored at least two touchdowns in seven of Natick’s eight games this season, as he’s putting an emphatic stamp on one of the most illustrious careers in the history of Massachusetts high school football.

Excellence at First Sight

Very few freshmen are able to crack the varsity roster at their school, but Dunlap was so impressive that he forced his coaches’ hand.

“The very first night of [7-on-7] passing league at Xaverian, we knew that he’d be coming to camp with the varsity squad,” Mortarelli said. “He caught two or three touchdowns, and looked very comfortable out there. He was already very athletic, and physically and mentally mature enough that it was a no-brainer.”

In his first full season, Dunlap finished second in the state with 69 receptions, 1,172 receiving yards, and 14 touchdowns, so you can imagine how opposing defenses feel about his self-assertion that he’s gotten much better since then.

“My football IQ is higher. Obviously getting bigger has been helpful, but I think learning about the game and studying film has made an even bigger difference,” said Dunlap.

As defenses roll coverage his way, Dunlap’s used those football smarts to find ways to continue producing. He’s averaging 9.3 yards per carry on 31 rushes this season, and credits the coaching staff for designing deceptive plays that allow him to get open.

In Natick’s first round playoff bout with Duxbury, Dunlap carried the ball four times in the first quarter, and then proceeded to motion into the backfield before running a flat that resulted in a breathtaking 79-yard touchdown.

Nick Olson completed just four passes as Natick defeated Duxbury 48-22, and Dunlap caught all four for 157 receiving yards and three touchdowns (adding a fourth touchdown on an 88-yard kick return).

“He makes my job a breeze honestly. He knows the routes better than anyone on the team. He knows the game better than anyone, and he’s like a coach to me. He’s always teaching the other players. He’s taught me almost everything I know,” said Olson.

Dunlap’s contributions to the program seem to go beyond the field, but he’ll need to be at his best on the field if he wants to lead the Redhawks to a Division 2 Super Bowl, the one achievement that’s eluded him to this point.

Natick’s offensive players will have their work cut out for them when they face Marshfield on Friday, as the Rams are allowing just 10 points per game this season.

“They probably have the best defense we’ve seen all year, with a lot of big, strong kids,” Dunlap said. “It’s going to be a good test for us, but our team works hard every day. We have a lot of seniors, a lot of leaders, and a lot of underrated guys. I think we’re more balanced than we’ve been in the past. This is going to be a good test for us.”

Crimson Skies Ahead

Regardless of how the Redhawks’ season ends, Dunlap’s football career will continue at Harvard University next fall. The senior made his verbal commitment to the Crimson over the summer, and credits Harvard for continuing to recruit him despite his injury.

“Going to Harvard always seemed like a far fetched idea when I was little, but I went to their camp to work out the last few summers, and the relationship developed over the years. Everything sort of fell into place, and that’s why I don’t think there’s any place I’d rather be going,” said Dunlap.

Humble as ever, Dunlap was sure to credit his coaches for helping him reach a goal that he once considered to be a long shot.

“Our coaches put a lot of time in, and they really care about us not just as players, as people too. They showed a lot of character when I was injured last year, coming to visit after my surgery and checking in on me during rehab.”

Dunlap continued, “They treated me so well. They gave me one of the coaches’ hats, and treated me as a coach during my junior year. I think the whole process of being injured really shows you a lot about people, and I can’t thank them enough for everything they’ve done for me because they’re part of the reason I’m going to Harvard.”

When asked about how his star receiver would fare at the next level, Mortarelli didn’t hesitate to provide a ringing endorsement.

“I think he’s going to be lights out,” the coach said as his player’s practiced kickoffs in the rain. “He’s so mentally tough, nothing really gets him off his game. He welcomes all challenges, and he’ll respond the way he responds to anything, by taking it head on.”

In the meantime, Dunlap will take on the Rams vaunted defense, but as he’s proven time and time again, it’s going to take a lot to slow him down.

D2 South: Natick 48, Duxbury 22

November, 1, 2014
Nov 1
NATICK, Mass. – The all-time leading receiver in the history of Natick football was having a relatively quiet game in the first round of the D2 South playoffs.

Senior wide receiver Brian Dunlap carried the ball four times for 15 yards in the first quarter, and failed to secure either of his two targets in the passing game. But it was only a matter of time before an athlete of Dunlap’s caliber provided Natick (7-1) with a huge play.

Midway through the second quarter, he motioned into the Redhawks backfield as if he was going to receive another handoff from senior quarterback Nick Olson. Yet as soon as the ball was snapped, Dunlap turned on a dime and ran a flat, catching Olson’s pass before blazing down the sideline for a big gain. Three Duxbury (5-3) defenders converged on the Harvard-bound wide receiver, but he eluded them all with one breathtaking cutback and turned the short completion into a 79-yard touchdown that put his team up 21-0.

“We designed that early in the week as a way to get me open,” said Dunlap. “The coaching staff’s done a tremendous job of putting new stuff in every week to try and find ways to get me the ball. We put in a lot of work on this practice field every day, and when it all comes together it’s a beautiful thing.”

That long touchdown was just one of Dunlap’s many highlights during Natick’s first-round victory. He racked up 156 yards and three touchdowns in the second quarter alone, and put the game beyond all doubt with an 88-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that followed Duxbury’s second scoring drive of the night.

“Teams have done so many different things to cover Brian,” said Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli. “They press him, play a safety over the top, walk a linebacker up, hold him, they do everything to him, so we have to be creative. We wanted to be patient, to put the ball is in belly and let him carry it early, move him around a little bit to avoid double teams, then wind him out and a little bit and let him run.”

And run he did. Dunlap (317 all-purpose yards) and Chad Kidd (14 carries, 143 yards, 3 TD) were so effective in this game that Nick Olson (4 of 8, 156 yards, 3 TD), who threw for 1,374 yards over seven regular season games, was able to simply the hand the ball of most of the night.

Dunlap said that a 17-14 overtime loss to Walpole in the Bay State Herget League championship game last week helped motivate the Redhawks to perform well in the first round of the playoffs.

“The offense was definitely motivated. We’re not happy putting 14 points on the board, and that Walpole game was in the back of our minds during practice this week. Especially for the seniors, we didn’t want to lose this final game on our home turf.”

Bright Future: Duxbury’s senior wide receivers Cam Walsh (4 receptions, 63 yards) and Brian Zec (5 receptions, 115 yards) played well for the Dragons, as did senior linebacker Hunter Marston (7 tackles, 1 sack).

However, the future is bright for this program. Junior running back Collin Prudente (12 carries, 62 yards, 2 TD), sophomore quarterback Bobby Maimaron (15 of 31, 271 yards, TD, INT), and junior wide receiver Ryan Reagan (4 receptions, 91 yards, TD) performed very well against top-notch competition and will provide a solid core next season.

The Dragons also called up freshman running back Joe Gooley from their junior varsity squad, and the youngster showed impressive speed and vision on four carries.

Big Shoes To Fill: Olson’s outstanding season continues, and with a playmaker like Dunlap to target, he could continue to make Natick fans forget about a certain legendary quarterback that preceded him.

“Nick’s done a great job of filling a big role,” Dunlap said about his quarterback. “Troy [Flutie] was known as one of the greatest quarterbacks in Massachusetts history, and Nick’s found a way to make his name known by putting in the hard work and earning these results.”

In fact, after Dunlap’s game breaking 79-yard touchdown, the Natick fans began chanting. “Who needs Flutie?,” in reference to graduated Redhawks quarterback Troy Flutie. If Olson and Dunlap can deliver a D2 Super Bowl, their fan base may continue to feel that way.

Natick 42, Duxbury 27

NAT 7 27 14 0 --- 48
DUX 0 7 7 8 --- 22

First Quarter
N – Chad Kidd 4 run (PAT good) 5:56

Second Quarter
N – Brian Dunlap 36 pass from Nick Olson (PAT good) 7:56
N – Brian Dunlap 79 pass from Nick Olson (PAT good) 3:45
N – Chad Kidd 8 run (PAT good) 1:51
D – Ryan Reagan 11 pass from Bobby Maimaron (PAT good) 0:59
N – Brian Dunlap 2 pass from Nick Olson (PAT failed) 0:00

Third Quarter
D – Collin Prudente 18 run (PAT good) 7:23
N – Brian Dunlap 88 kickoff return (PAT good) 7:11
N – Chad Kidd 6 run (PAT good) 3:07

Fourth Quarter
D – Collin Prudente 10 run (conversion good) 4:40

Recap: No. 8 Walpole 17, No. 9 Natick 14

October, 25, 2014
Oct 25

NATICK, Mass. – For whatever Jack Lavanchy might go on to accomplish in life, he’ll always have the memory of making a field goal with the game on the line in the final seconds.

It wasn’t just any game either. As No. 8 Walpole traveled to No. 9 Natick in a battle of unbeatens and with the Bay State Conference Herget division title on the line, the senior wide receiver and cornerback could have been struck with pangs of trepidation before setting up for what would prove to be the game-winning 28-yard field goal Friday night.

With the hopes of a town settled on his shoulders, Lavanchy split the uprights, giving the Rebels a 17-14 win.

For the last seven years, the game had decided the Herget title, with Natick getting the upper hand in recent years, including a wild overtime victory at Walpole last year, when the teams combined for 111 points. With Lavanchy’s boot, the Rebels returned the favor in serving the Redhawks a taste of the gut-wrenching loss they’d encountered a year prior.

With so much riding on one kick, it would have been understandable for a young man to falter. Lavanchy didn’t. And, for whatever emotions might have been bottled up inside his helmet in lead up to that kick, you certainly weren’t able to tell otherwise afterward. “Probably number one in the books,” was Lavanchy’s assessment of one of the finer high school football games you’d ever see.

“It’s a hyped-up game, but you try to stay mellow,” he added. “But we came to play, the defense played well.”

The kid’s just cool as a cucumber.

“I’m just elated”: So how did the Rebels beat the Redhawks?

It was one part plan, and another part execution.

Walpole’s coaching staff knew they needed to stop Natick’s Harvard-bound receiver Brian Dunlap coming in, but the myriad ways in which they’d have to stop Dunlap might have been another story.

Natick (6-1) used Dunlap across a number of formations, setting him in the backfield of what Rebels head coach Barry Greener called “Georgia” sets, pushing Dunlap in motion out of the backfield and, of course, split out wide. Dunlap accounted for Natick’s longest offensive play of the game with his feet. His 79-yard run on a jet sweep, which set the Redhawks up with a first-and-goal to go from the 1, led to Dunlap’s 1-yard touchdown for the game’s opening score, with the senior lined up at tailback in a two-back set.

Dunlap accounted for both Redhawks’ touchdowns, hauling in a 5-yard pass from Nick Olson (8 of 13, 94 yards) while motioning out of the backfield out of the same goal-line set used on his rushing touchdown.

“He’s a hell of a player, the best I’ve ever seen,” said Lavanchy, who drew the primary responsibility of covering Dunlap from his cornerback position. “The double moves will get you, he’s got quick feet.”

Walpole (7-0) countered Dunlap’s rushing score with some special teams wizardry.

Senior wide receiver and defensive back Andrew Papirio returned a punt 37 yards for a touchdown to tie the score, 7-7, with 9:59 remaining in the first half.

Unlike the game’s predecessor from a year ago, when the teams volleyed scores with each possession, the 2014 installment of the rivalry was marked more by clutch defensive stops. And Walpole struggled at times to finish drives, despite getting 159 yards from running back Steve Cuqua on 29 carries.

However, the Rebels were at their offensive best in the fourth quarter, with junior quarterback Tyler Berkland orchestrating the game-tying drive in the fourth quarter.

Yet another of Walpole’s promising drives was threatened with sputtering out in Natick’s half of the field with a third-and-1 from the Redhawks’ 25. That’s when Berkland took the game into his own hands.

“Quick count. First sound. Go.” That’s how Greener summed up Berkland’s decision to check out of a running play to Cuqua and steam 23 yards in between the hash marks, setting up a first-and-goal to go.

“Our number one play – I probably shouldn’t say this – but if the quarterback sneak is there,” Greener said.

He paused and added, “Tyler Berkland is one smart cookie – a very smart quarterback. He understands the game, he understands fronts.

“If he sees it … What Natick was doing, their linebackers were filling great, their secondary was coming up hard in short-yardage situations – and if you hand it back to your tailback, it’s too much time that’s elapsed and they’re outnumbering you at the hole.”

Berkland eventually finished the 11-play, 79-yard drive with a 1-yard keeper on fourth and goal after T.J. Collins (2.5 tackles for loss) and Natick’s defensive front resisted.

“He’s a great athlete and he kept his head in it,” Papirio said of Berkland, a first-year starter. “He knew he had to make plays and he did.”

That score, with 4:13 remaining in regulation set the stage for Lavanchy’s heroics, after the Rebels forced a Natick punt with less than two minutes to play.

Papirio added his second noteworthy punt return, picking up a bounding ball on the fly and turning it down the left sideline for a 51-yard gain.

“Papirio had two big plays, one in the first half and one in the second half,” Greener said. “He’s just a warrior. I think they caught one ball on him all night. He was right there in coverage.”

After running a couple of plays and centering the ball between the hashes, Lavanchy’s 28-yard kick was the synthesis of Walpole’s plan: one part stifling defense, one part opportunistic offense, one part special teams prowess.

“I’m elated,” Greener said. “I’m just elated.”


Lack of pocket time: Olson entered the game with more than 1,200 yards passing and, with a stable of receivers at his fingertips, Walpole’s defensive brain trust knew getting pressure on the Natick quarterback would be paramount.

Greener said his staff targeted five sacks as a goal for the game. Well, the Rebels hit their mark and then some, tallying six sacks on the game, led by junior defensive lineman Xavier Andujar, who got his second sack of the game on the final play of the game.

“We played very little zone, we were in man most of the time and we were sending pressure to get at Olson,” Greener said.

Walpole’s defensive ends were a factor throughout. Despite playing through a shoulder injury, Chris Bender was a constant pest for Olson, contributing two pressures along with a tackle for loss.

“Bender didn’t play last week, with his shoulder it’s very painful,” Greener said. “He played in a lot of pain tonight, but sucked it up and went. [Nate] Porack played his usual, our tight end and defensive end, he’s smart as hell. Kevin Mansen came in and gave us some good time there as a sub, he’s another good, smart player and a senior.”

On the back end, Walpole stayed mostly in man, with a sprinkle of combo coverages sprinkled in. With pressure established up front, it limited the amount of time required for the Rebels defensive backs to trail the Redhawks’ stable of receivers.

“We had to give Dunlap extra attention, so Lavanchy was playing some man-under with our safety Jon Henri over the top,” Greener said.

Dunlap had as many carries (5, for 80 yards) as he did targets.

“He just had that one play that he hit big,” Greener said. “We turned it in pretty well, our defensive end played it great, but one of our linebackers must’ve gotten blocked because we didn’t get the fill – I’ll have to see it on film. But he cut it up and we didn’t have the scrape.”

Players of the Week: Holliston's Athy and Elkinson

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
HOLLISTON, Mass. -- Can anybody slow Holliston's attack?

The Panthers rank among the top offenses in the state, and they hit high gear in Friday night's 63-21 win over Hopkinton. Quarterback Nick Athy and Zach Elkinson combined for four scores, as Athy threw for 350 yards and five touchdowns in the rout.

ESPN Boston High Schools editor Brendan C. Hall caught up with our co-Players of the Week in this segment brought to you by New England Dairy:

(Video by Scott Barboza)



Nick Athy, Sr. QB/ Zach Elkinson, Sr. Ath., Holliston -- Teamed up for 272 receiving yards and four touchdowns while Athy threw for 350 yards and five scores in a 63-21 win over Hopkinton.

Chris Cervizzi, Sr. RB, Brooks -- Recorded 34 carries for 288 yards and three touchdowns in a 30-13 win over Noble & Greenough.

Nick Olson, Sr. QB, Natick -- Threw for 320 yards and four touchdowns in the Redhawks' 35-7 win over Wellesley.

Doug Santos, Jr. RB, Peabody – Turned in his third straight 200-yard rushing game with 273 yards and three touchdowns in the Tanners' 35-19 win over Danvers.

Brooks Tyrrell, Sr. RB, Marblehead – Ran for 260 yards and seven touchdowns in the Magicians' 56-35 win over Swampscott.


Top 25 Countdown: Nos. 25-21

August, 19, 2014
Aug 19
On Monday, we unveiled our statewide MIAA Top 25 preseason football poll. Today, we begin our annual countdown of the poll with Nos. 25 through 21.

Head Coach: Mark Mortarelli (5th season, 35-11)
2013: 10-1, lost to Barnstable in D2 South semifinal
Returning Starters: Five offensive; Six defensive.
Key Players: Jared Abbruzzese, Jr. WR/LB/DB, 5-8, 160 lbs.; T.J. Collins, Sr. LB, 5-11, 185 lbs.; Brian Dunlap, Sr. WR/CB, 6-0, 175 lbs.; Chad Kidd, Jr. RB/LB, 5-6, 190; Trenton Wright, Sr. DE/TE, 6-2, 205 lbs.; Anthony Natarelli, Sr. OL/DL; Nick Olson, Sr. QB/FS; Tommy Ranucci, Sr. WR/DB.
Strengths: Passing game; defensive secondary; linebackers.
Weaknesses: Depth and experience on offensive line; size on defense.

Outlook: Even without last year’s Mr. Football winner, Troy Flutie, the Redhawks will still be able to air it out with the best of them, as senior Nick Olson gets his first crack at playing varsity quarterback. A returning starter at safety, Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli isn’t concerned about how the first-year signal-caller will fit in. “He’s used to the spotlight,” Mortarelli said of Olson. “He started every game for us at safety. He was a tremendous safety for us, he was all-league. He’s a varsity basketball player, too, so I think all of things in combination, this isn’t the first time for him under the lights.” Olson’s transition will be advantage by the return of a healthy Brian Dunlap. The Harvard commit was forced to sit out his junior year with a Lisfranc injury, but Mortarelli is happy to report he’s back at 100 percent. While defensive coverage schemes will naturally set around Dunlap, the Redhawks should be able to expose a soft underbelly as second-year starting running back Chad Kidd can provide tough yards in between the tackles. “I think we’ll run the ball a little more [this year],” Mortarelli said. “Coach [Matt] Brenneman, our offensive coordinator, likes to the throw the ball around a little, but we have a great running back in Chad Kidd. He’s a big, strong kid; he can handle the workload.” Meanwhile, Mortarelli is counting on junior Jared Abbruzzese among others to create complementary options in the passing game. On defense, Natick’s athleticism shines again. With a ball-hawking secondary last year, the Redhawks were routinely able to win the turnover battle. Natick graduated the leader of that group – Mike Abbruzzese -- but returns a few starters in Olson and Tommy Ranucci. The strength of Natick’s defense runs up the middle, with returning all-league selection T.J. Collins quarterbacking the group. While the Redhawks will not be the biggest defense in the state, they should be able to gain consistent pressure off the edge with returning three-year starter Trenton Wright. “We’re going to need to generate some pressure up front with a four-man rush,” Mortarelli said. “We can’t be blitzing all the time, so Trenton’s going to be a big part of that. He can create some havoc; he’s a rangy kid. We’re going to rely on him a lot for that.”

Coach: Lou Silva (34th season, 205-139-7)
Last Season: 5-6 (4-2 ACL), lost in Div. 2 South Quarterfinals.
Returning starters: 16 (8 offense, 6 defense)
Key Returnees: Jack Masterson, Jr. QB, 6-1, 190 lbs.; Dan Dalton, Jr. TE/LB, 6-5, 235 lbs.; Frank Catanoso, Sr. RB/DB, 5-8, 160 lbs.; Jason Darcy, Jr. WR/DB, 6-2, 185 lbs.; Matt Armstrong, Jr. TE/DE, 6-1, 180 lbs.; Shane Leonard, Jr. C, 6-2, 230 lbs.; Pat Kielty, Jr. OL, 5-11, 200 lbs.; Ian Duffy, Jr. LB, 5-8, 160 lbs.; Chris Lunn, Jr. RB/DE, 6-0, 185 lbs.; Fred Allen, Jr. MLB, 6-1, 210 lbs.; Josh Ramos, Jr. OL/DL, 6-3, 240 lbs.
Strengths: Quarterback, tight ends, offensive line, linebackers.
Weaknesses: Pass defense, experience at running back.
Outlook: The Rams offense found their identity down the stretch of the 2013 campaign and that was largely based on the superb play of quarterback Jack Masterson. As a sophomore, Masterson broke three school passing records and has many more in his sights for his junior season. Masterson’s favorite target, Dan Dalton also returns for his junior year and will present mismatches in the passing and running game. Dalton can lineup anywhere on the field and has all the tools for a monster season with his large frame (6-foot-5, 235 pounds), sure-hands and quick speed. Protecting the junior signal caller, center Shane Leonard anchors an experienced offensive line that also returns Pat Kielty and Josh Ramos. The Rams defense had difficulty taming high-powered offenses last season, allowing 40 or more points four times. Looking to this season, the Rams will have a talented front seven returning, led by MLB Fred Allen and Dalton at defensive end, but their defensive backfield remains a question mark with the loss of a handful of defensive backs. Offensively, the Rams running game took a big hit, losing their three top tailbacks to graduation in the offseason. Junior Chris Lunn is the favorite to take the brunt of the carries this season, while the search continues to another tailback to compliment him with. It has taken two years for the Rams to climb back to their perennial power status, but their talent-laden junior class will make Marshfield a team to watch out for this season. An experienced offensive line and the ability to stretch the field will give their young running game an added boost. With the Atlantic Coast League shrinking down to five teams this season, circle their September 26th matchup at No. 12 Dennis-Yarmouth to likely decide the ACL title.

Coach: Chris Whidden (Fourth season, 28-8-0)
Last season: 9-2 (3-0 OCL), lost in Div. 2 South Finals.
Returning starters: 4 (2 offense, 2 defense)
Key Players: Owen Murray, Sr. OL/DL, 6-4, 250 lbs; Clyde Perry, Sr. MLB, 5-11, 225 lbs; Colton Bergal, Sr. LB, 6-1, 225 lbs; Bo Delaney, Sr. WR, 5-11, 165 lbs.
Strengths: Linebackers, offensive line, coaching staff.
Weaknesses: Overall experience, defensive secondary, offensive backfield.
Overview: The Red Raiders have many holes to fill at the skill positions on both sides of the ball after losing 30 players to graduation, but Barnstable has the tendency to reload rather than rebuild. Of the 307 points scored in Barnstable’s 2013 campaign, only 16 points hit the scoreboard from non-seniors, meaning there will be plenty of position battles when the Red Raiders open camp. Head coach Chris Whidden praised his roster, citing their work ethic and coach-abillity as strengths for the team. Senior Owen Murray will bolster the offensive line from his position at right tackle, diverting the pressure from first-year starting quarterback Griffin Burke and carving holes for the running back-by-committee system in the backfield. MLB Clyde Perry is also one of the few returning starters on the Red Raiders defense and with Murray on the defensive line, Barnstable has a strong core up the middle to build around. It will be a trail by fire for this young Red Raiders team to begin the season. The first four weeks consist of No. 12 Dennis-Yarmouth, at No. 24 Marshfield, No. 15 BC High and at top-seeded Xaverian which will put Barnstable to the test early and often. Barnstable doesn’t begin Old Colony League play until mid-October, which gives them plenty of time to get their game on-track to defend their three-consecutive OCL titles and perhaps more importantly, an automatic bid to the Div. 2 South playoffs. Entering his fourth year at the helm, Whidden has never had a losing season and has shown that he can lead his troops into battle while getting the most out of each player on the field.

Coach: Jeff Cormier (16th season, 136-43 overall)
Last Season: 8-3, lost in Division 5 Central Quarterfinals
Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Key Returnees: Mark Wright, Sr. RB/DB, 5-8, 180 lbs.; Dillon Bruso, Sr. OL/DL, 6-2, 250 lbs.; Josh Furmanick, Sr. FB/DL, 5-8, 195 lbs.; Nick Thomas, Sr. LB, 5-6, 160 lbs.
Strengths: Running game, receivers, competitiveness in camp.
Weaknesses: Depth.
Outlook: After going 63-2 with five Super Bowl titles from 2008-12, with a 41-game win streak sandwiched in between, the Rockets were as green as any point in Cormier's tenure last fall, returning just one starter on either side of the ball. It showed early, and again late when they were one of just four home seeds in Massachusetts to lose their first round playoff game, taking one on the chin to SWCL rival Bartlett in D5 Central. But it was quite the revelation for Wright, who led CMass in carries (258), rushing yards (2,111) and rushing TDs (25) in his first year starting with the varsity. "Once we get five yards, Mark will make his one cut and explode through the hole. As long as we get some decent blocking, he'll be able to make a play," said Bruso. Still, there's a bitter taste in the Rockets' mouths about the way things ended in 2013. "Everywhere we had to hear about it. Even kids from our own town were telling us we were done," Furmanick said. The Rockets are most known for their power running scheme, deploying two-back, double-tight personnel and seeking to outweigh their opponents at the point of attack. This year, with a giant target on Wright's back and a good grouping of perimeter skill players, the Rockets may throw more. Cormier is not ready to name a starting quarterback yet, with several players in the mix, but keep an eye on sophomore Steve Saucier. The undersized signal-caller puts good zip on the ball for a player of his frame, and showed some great flashes as a freshman last fall.

Coach: Brian Alyward (17th year, 102-82-1)
2013: 13-0, Division 3 State Champions
Returning Starters: Six (2 offense, 4 defense)
Key Returnees: James Sullivan, Sr. RB/SS, 5-11’ 215 lbs; Tom Casey, Sr. FB/MLB, 5-9 190 lbs; Ryan Bednarek, Sr. S, 5-9 160 lbs; Ethan Eloi Sr. DT/NG, 5-9 226 lbs.; Alex Schelfhaudt, Sr. T/DE, 6-0 195 lbs; Brendan O’Connor Sr. WR/CB 5-7 145 lbs; Mitchell Miskell, Sr. K, 5-10 160 lbs; Jimmy Hurtle, Sr. RB/CB 5-9 167 lbs; Jimmy Doran, Sr. OG/DT, 5-11, 215 lbs; Ryan Carey, Sr. RB/DB, 5-6 143 lbs.
Strengths: Physicality, running game.
Weaknesses: Inexperience at offensive line.
Outlook: Tewksbury will never be confused for its Merrimack Valley Conference neighbors that run spread offenses and like to throw the ball all over the field. The hallmark of Tewksbury has been its continuous physicality. Its run to last year’s Division 3 state championship was predicated on (no pun intended) its ability to run the ball and outmuscle teams on both sides of the ball. While it lost some linemen to graduation, impact players like Eloi and Casey return to anchor the middle of the defense. Sullivan will play behind them at strong safety, flanked by other skilled defenders. Offensively, the team will continue its multiple-running back approach that brought it so much success last season. “We feel pretty confident in all our backs,” said Alyward. “We’ve got a lot of guys that can contribute. We’re not going to have a need for a one-man show, nor do I think that would be effective. We’re going to try to stay as multiple as we can and try to use the same format as we do every year.” The starting offensive linemen on last year’s Super Bowl-winning team were lost to graduation, leaving spots open for players to try and create running lanes for Sullivan and others. Last year’s line continuity helped the team steamroll through D3 and allowed Sullivan to score over 20 touchdowns. “We have about 10 kids that are vying of those spots that have been good kids in our program,” said Alyward. “We’ll work with them and learn more about what we can do and what we can’t with them.” John Aylward, the quarterback of that undefeated team, also graduated, so the Redmen will have someone new under center to go along with that new offensive line. Juniors Brett Morris and Steve Hamel are in the running to take over for Aylward, with Morris the early odds-on favorite to win the job. On top of all that, as a defending state champion, the team now has a target on its back. It has not lost a game since November 2012, so it will get its opponent’s best game every week as they try to dethrone the champion. How the team reacts and responds to that pressure will determine whether the Redmen can duplicate last year’s success. “I told the kids at the start of our first practice, ‘Hey guys, you had such a special experience last year and a state championship under your belt and that’s money in the bank that no one can ever take away from you,’’ said the coach. “But now you just have to put it aside and understand that doesn’t buy us anything but a little more attention than in years before. So now we’ve gotta get ready to fight.”

Recap: No. 7 Natick 42, Milton 19

October, 19, 2013
NATICK, Mass. -– As victories go, No. 7 Natick’s 42-19 win over Bay State Conference Herget Division opponent Milton at Memorial Field was anything but aesthetically pleasing.

Despite a bevy of penalties -– especially in the first half -– coupled with numerous potentially crippling lapses in judgment, the Redhawks still managed to make enough plays over 48 minutes to earn the win and lock up a postseason slot for when the new MIAA playoffs begin Nov. 1-2.

“Way too many,” said Natick coach Mark Mortarelli of his team’s first-half penalty total. “I don’t know how many, but it was way too many.

“We had to clean it up. We had holds, we had off-sides -– we had two or three off-sides –- illegal formations . . . everything you could do wrong, we did wrong. Luckily, we played very well in the second half.”

Senior quarterback Troy Flutie, who finished 12-of-24 for 241 yards along with four TDs and an interception, added, “We made a lot of mental mistakes out there, which hurt us big time on a couple drives.

“I think it’s just guys coming back and playing who haven’t been playing a lot like Alex [Hilger], who had a couple of those false starts. He just needs to get loose and get into the game. In the first half, I felt like we had to get into the game. We didn’t play that much; we didn’t get a lot of snaps. Once the second half hit we were on a roll.”

While Natick, which improved to 6-0 (4-0 Herget) secured a top-two spot in the Herget Division, enough to clinch a berth in the Division 2 South playoffs, the Redhawks did not make it easy on themselves.

Natick wasted little time finding the end zone first against Milton (3-3 overall, 3-1 Herget), as sophomore Jared Abbruzzese returned the game’s opening kick 82 yards for a 7-0 lead.

The Redhawks looked poised to take a commanding two-score lead after holding Milton on its first possession when Andrew Boynton returned the ensuing punt 85 yards –- zigzagging across the field, seemingly untouched –- for a touchdown.

However, a block in the back against the Redhawks negated the play and instead gave Natick the ball at its own 11-yard line.
Following a three-and-out and punt, Milton assumed possession on the Redhawks 38-yard line with 6:31 remaining in the first quarter. Approximately four minutes later, Milton senior Chula Loomis rumbled into the end zone from six yards out to knot the score at 7-7.

The Redhawks responded on their next possession. Flutie first found Alex Hilger (six catches, 128 yards, two TDs) on a 42-yard strike down the right sideline before hitting Tommy Ranucci for a 37-yard touchdown. Ben Nottonson – who stayed perfect on PATs this season, going 6-for-6 on the evening – split the uprights to give Natick a 14-7 lead.

Though Milton had a chance to tie the score when senior quarterback Liam Collins connected with Chavinskee Milcent for a 38-yard touchdown with 9:52 in the second quarter, the point-after attempt by Dara Kennedy sailed just wide.

The Redhawks then stretched their lead to 21-13 with 39 seconds left before the half as sophomore Chad Kidd (12 carries, 47 yards, TD) plunged in from 1-yard out.

In the opening minutes of the second half, Natick appeared poised to score again after Nick Olson picked off Collins at Milton’s own 35-yard line. But a Flutie fumble three plays later was returned 73 yards by Milton’s Anthony Smith, setting up a pivotal two-point conversion attempt.

“That’s me being too greedy, trying to make a big play,” Flutie admitted. “I can do that from time-to-time, but against good defenses like this, and for the more that we’re going to see in the playoffs, I’ve got to stop that. I’ve just got to make smart plays out there.”

Fortunately for Flutie and the Redhawks, the home team’s defensive unit came up with a big stop as Milton junior running back Jonathan Pierre attempted to run it in between the tackles.

“We were thinking run the whole time,” said Milton coach Jim Bowes. “We had faith in our big guys. We just blocked it the wrong way and let go of the ball down here, inside. They did a good job up front. We thought we’d be able to pound it and stuff it in.”

From there, Natick effectively sealed the win by scoring 21 straight points.

First, Flutie connected with Hilger for a 7-yard touchdown with 7:43 left in the third quarter. Less than two minutes later Flutie struck again. This time, he found Andrew Boynton for a 13-yard touchdown which was set up by an Olson fumble recovery. Then with 52 seconds remaining in the third quarter, Flutie tossed his fourth touchdown, finding Hilger in back right corner of the end zone on a beautiful throw and catch from 23 yards out.

Still, it was Natick’s defense which had Mortarelli satisfied after the game.

“I think we stopped them on three different fourth downs and the two-point conversion,” he said. “Those were obviously huge.

“I thought our defense played well. We don’t want to give up 19 points to anybody, but I think we played well on defense. We tackled well. We stopped their counter which was part of our game plan. They got a couple [passes] behind us, which we’ll have to fix, but overall we pulled it together in the second half and we’ll take the win.”

In addition to interceptions by senior defensive back Colin Leddy and junior defensive back Nick Olson, who also added a fumble recovery, senior middle linebacker Gus Black was everywhere defensively.

“Gus Black was huge tonight,” said Mortarelli.

Back-to-Back in the Herget: With a postseason berth now secured, the Redhawks can focus on capturing a second consecutive Herget title. To do so, Natick will need to defeat host Walpole next Friday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m.

“It’s huge,” said Flutie. “Walpole week. Rebel week. This is what you look forward to as a kid when you’re watching these games and you’re in middle school. You just can’t wait for it.”

However, if Walpole, which beat Norwood, 35-6, on Friday to improve to 4-2 (3-1 Herget), were to defeat Natick, the Rebels, and not the Redhawks, would be crowned Herget champs based on league tiebreaker rules.

Natick knows it will need its best effort, especially in light of its inconsistent performance versus Milton, if the Redhawks are to knock off Walpole and repeat.

“We have a lot of things to fix if we want to even give Walpole a game,” said Mortarelli.

Recap: No. 7 Natick 35, Weymouth 14

September, 13, 2013

WEYMOUTH, Mass. – Alex Hilger was waiting for a game like this.

For most of the 2012 football season, all the Natick wide receiver and defensive back could do is watch from the sideline and cheer on his teammates, after a broken collarbone claimed most of his junior year. He still bears the scar of the injury, hidden underneath his shoulder pads.

The irony of the situation, in the No. 7 Redhawks’ 35-14 win over Weymouth Thursday afternoon, is that Hilger’s performance was, in part, due to the absence of one of his teammates. With ESPN Boston preseason All-State receiver Brian Dunlap lost for this season, the scene was set for Hilger to make up for lost time.

Hilger hauled in 14 catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He also showed up in the kicking game, connecting on each of Natick’s point-after tries and booting several kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks.

It came to the surprise of none on the Redhawks’ sideline, who saw Hilger’s efforts as a case of promise realized.

“We’ve always known Alex is pretty dangerous,” Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli said. “We knew if our offense was going to move the ball, he was going to be the focal point. And Troy [Flutie] is so good at finding the open receiver, and Justin Robinson stepped up, and Andrew Boynton stepped up. We just had a lot of guys make plays for us.”

Hilger deflected praise when asked if he’d become Flutie’s top target, instead crediting his quarterback for reading the defense.

“They were playing way off with their safety,” Hilger said, “and we were saying, ‘Hey, let’s just keep taking these short routes.’”

Along with Hilger, fellow senior Andrew Boynton also assumed a greater load in Natick’s passing game, grabbing a 15-yard touchdown pass from Flutie to open scoring in the second quarter.

The Redhawks (1-0) clung to a 14-7 half-time lead after Wildcats quarterback Matt Long lofted a fade to the back left pylon to Ryan Ainslie for a 21-yard touchdown pass with three seconds remaining in the second.

In the second half, Natick used four Weymouth (0-1) turnovers to run away with a win that looked much more difficult than the score indicated.

“We got a little luck, when they put one on the ground, but then we had a great drive and we punched it in,” Mortarelli said. “That was really the difference, in my mind.”

After marching down the field off the opening kickoff of the second half, the Wildcats lost a fumble at Natick’s 3-yard line on a first-and-goal rush.

Fifteen plays and 97 yards later, Flutie (22 of 29, 247 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT) capped the statement drive with a 1-yard plunge over right guard.

“We talked about it in the locker room at halftime,” Hilger said, “one stop and a good drive and the game’s over.”

Oh, what a relief it is: For a few tense moments during the second quarter, Mortarelli’s stomach resided in his throat.

After running for a 5-yard gain on second and 9, Flutie pulled up lame on his left leg. The Boston College commit then sat out the next two plays and was replaced under center by junior Nick Olson, who would later go on to nab an interception.

Following the near brush with disaster, Flutie returned to the sideline in good spirits, insisting he was fine.

Aside from his contributions on game day, Flutie also assumed another role during practice this week: that of Weymouth’s multi-talented athlete David Harrison.

“You can’t simulate the speed of Harrison during practice,” Mortarelli said.

So he had the idea to use Flutie, perhaps the closest facsimile of what Harrison offers, on the scout team. Of course, that comes with perils of its own kind.

“It’s a little dangerous running your starting quarterback on scout team offense,” Mortarelli said.

A multitude of possibilities: Speaking of Harrison, a preseason All-Stater in his own right; there was the issue of exactly what form the Wildcats offense would assume. For the most part, Harrison was flexed out wide and sophomore Matt Long ran the read option at quarterback.

Long, who saw varsity snaps last year as a freshman, proved capable Thursday, making plays with his feet (a 49-yard run on Weymouth’s second play from scrimmage) and his arm (a pair of touchdowns to Ainslie, including a 55-yard play in the fourth quarter). Along with senior back Derrell Fernandez, the Wildcats have a stable of versatile athletes who can line up at multiple positions and create matchup problems for defenses.

Turnover battle: Both teams committed their share of turnovers Thursday, with the Wildcats’ four second-half giveaways factoring greatly.

The defensive secondary of both teams exhibited good ball instincts, primarily Weymouth’s Tyler O’Brien, who snagged two picks.

Natick safety Mike Abbruzzese also had an interception in addition to two fumble recoveries by the Redhawks in the second half.