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No. 21 Needham finds its balance point

8/23/2013

About this time a year ago, Needham football head coach Dave Duffy was searching for a running back. Following Mike Vespa’s graduation, the Rockets were left with a gaping hole in the backfield.

In stepped then-junior Mike Panepinto, a natural athlete and UMass-Amherst lacrosse commit. Duffy knew the younger Panepinto – one year junior to brother and former wide receiver Nico – was talented, but even he couldn’t anticipate what was to come.

“He overcame my expectations,” said Duffy, who enters his 26th season of coaching this year.

Panepinto, who was among the statewide leaders with 25 touchdowns last season, ran for a shade more than 2,000 yards in his first season as Needham’s featured back.

In addition to quarterback Ryan Charter’s eight touchdown passes during a season in which he lost a couple games to injury, the Rockets found balance on offense. This year, they hope to strike the same chords with a talented group of skill players, including senior end Mike Elcock (yet another lacrosse standout and another UMass lax recruit).

“[The ground game] helped him immensely,” Duffy said of Charter. “He can rely on those hand-offs, but that also helps set up the play-action game. On the other hand, he takes a burden off the ground game when teams have to respect the pass.”

NEEDHAM AT A GLANCE

Coach: Dave Duffy (26th season)

Last season: 8-3

Returning starters: Six (four offensive, two defensive).

Key Returnees: Ryan Charter, Sr., QB, 6-2, 175 lbs.; Mike Panepinto, Sr, RB/DB 5-10, 165lbs.; Rashawn Wise, Sr. RB/S, 5-9, 200 lbs.; Mike Elcock, Sr. WR/S; John Bernard, Sr. WR/S, 5-10, 180; Zach Kohl, Sr. G/DT.

Strengths: Skill positions, defensive secondary.

Weaknesses: Lack of game experience, depth on lines.

Outlook: After graduating 33 seniors off the 2012 squad, the Rockets are left a little lean in the tooth. Still, there’s reason for optimism – even in what should be a stacked Division 2 South field. Along with the aforementioned returning starters on offense, expect an added punch to the ground game behind the tough-to-tackle Rashawn Wise, but also keep an eye on sophomore Joe Gowetski. On defense, the Rockets are anchored by tackle Mike Manigault, one of two returning starters including Wise.