- Brendan C. Hall, ESPN Staff Writer
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On Monday, we unveiled our statewide MIAA Top 25 preseason football poll. Today, we continue our annual countdown of the poll with Nos. 20 through 16.
NO. 20 DOHERTY
Coach: Sean Mulcahy (24th season, 112-141)
2013: 12-1, Division 4 State Champions
Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Key Returnees: Jahkari Carpenter, Sr. RB/DB, 5-7, 160 lbs.; Javon Watkins, Sr. WR/RB/DB, 5-9, 170 lbs.; Eric Vecsey, Sr. QB/S, 5-10, 175 lbs.; Rickey Webster, Jr. DB/RB, 5-8, 160 lbs.; Dominique Lee, Sr. DB/RB, 5-9, 165 lbs.; Tavian Vassar, Jr. RB/DT, 6-1, 230 lbs.; James Shaugnessy, Sr. LB/WR, 5-11, 185 lbs.; Fitzroy Spencer, Sr. OL/DL, 6-2, 240 lbs.; Sean Moran, Sr. OL/DL/LB, 6-0, 240 lbs.; Manny Obisui, Sr. OL/DL, 6-2, 260 lbs.; Tariq Massenberg, Jr. DB/WR, 6-0, 160 lbs.; Aaron Adu, Jr. DB/WR, 5-11, 160 lbs.; Jack McGrail, Sr. DE/LB/TE, 6-1, 160lbs.
Strengths: Athleticism, offensive line, defensive line, senior leadership
Weaknesses: Inexperience at skill positions, inexperience at LB and DB
Outlook: Repeating as state champions is never easy, nor is replacing a pair of Division 1 athletes and arguably the best quarterback in school history. That is the challenge Doherty is faced with in 2014, with Isaac Yiadom now playing for BC, Alfred Adarkwah off to UMass and Luke Brennan pitching for Franklin Pierce. Still, the Highlanders should be right in the thick of things in D4 Central thanks to one of the state's most experienced and athletic offensive lines, and the versatility of speedy running back Jahkari Carpenter. Consistent targets will need to emerge for senior quarterback Eric Vecsey, but the Highlanders never seem to lack for athletes. Doherty is stacked up front on defense, where junior Tavian Vassar's quickness and the power of both Fitzroy Spencer and Manny Obisui should provide some cover for a back seven looking to replace six starters. Some talented options are available in the secondary, where juniors Rickey Webster and Aaron Adu will fight for playing time against classmate Tariq Massenberg, who started at corner last year when Adarkwah was nicked up. The linebacker corps will be totally overhauled, but the move of star guard Sean Moran to MLB should make things a little easier, and the return of James Shaugnessy from injury is certainly a welcome site for defensive coordinator and Associate Head Coach Steve Bucciatlia. This year's group isn't quite as talented or experienced as last year's title team, but sleeping on Doherty would be foolish for anyone in Central Mass.
NO. 19 PLYMOUTH NORTH
Head Coach: Kevin Cobban (3rd season, 11-10)
2013: 8-3, lost to Plymouth South in Div. 3 Southeast final
Returning Starters: Eight returning starters on offense; six returning starters on defense.
Key Players: Christian Carr, Sr. RB; Cullin Cosgrove, Sr. QB; Jack Gallagher, Sr. OL; Gavin Johnson, Sr. C/G; Justin Cabral, Jr. OL; Brian Proctor, Jr. OL; Ryan Boudreau, Sr. S/CB;
Strengths: Rushing game; experience on the offensive line and defensive secondary.
Weaknesses: Depth on defensive line; special teams.
Outlook: There was no secret to Plymouth North’s formula for turnaround success last season: give it to Christian Carr. “That was our forte last year,” Eagles head coach Kevin Cobbin said. “Everybody in the stadium knew what we were going to do, but we just kept doing it.” The ground game will again be the bread and butter for North, with Carr coming off a season in which he broke the school’s single-seasons rushing record. The Eagles return four starters on the offensive line, including Jack Gallager, who was lost after the second game of the season last year but Cobban says “might have been our best lineman.” However, Cobban also sees the Eagles airing it out a bit more in 2014 behind incumbent three-starting quarterback Cullin Cosgrove. The Eagles also have an abundance of experience in their defensive secondary, where they return a full corps of three-year starters. While North lacks the same kind of experience along the defensive line, Cobban is confident the Eagles will be able to win the point of attack on either side of the ball. “The kids have bought into offseason workouts and we’re bigger and stronger than we’ve been,” Cobban said. This year also marks the Eagles’ first year in the Patriot League, moving from the Atlantic Coast League. The shift means North will be establishing some new rivalries and reigniting some lost in time. “It doesn’t matter that we’re moving into a new league, we’re just excited to play,” Cobban said.
NO. 18 ATTLEBORO
Coach: Mike Strachan (Second Year, 9-2)
2013 Record: 9-2 (6-1), lost to Xaverian in Division 1 South sectional final
Returning Starters: 12 (6 offensive, 6 defensive)
Key Players: Kyle Murphy, Jr. OL/DL 6-3, 235 lbs.; Brenden Massey, Sr. WR/DB, 6-0, 170 lbs.; Thomas Belin, Sr. RB, 5-11, 170 lbs.; Matt Elliot, Sr. WR/DB, 5-9, 190 lbs.; Nick Desmaris, Sr. WR/DB, 6-1, 160 lbs.; Tim Christensen, Sr. OL/DL, 6-2, 235 lbs.; Ross Killion, Sr. QB, 6-3, 185 lbs.; Tyler McGovern, So. QB, 6-1, 140 lbs.
Strengths: Offensive and defensive line
Weaknesses: Inexperience at quarterback and skill positions
Outlook: Last season was one to remember for the Bombardiers with a change of leadership under new head coach Mike Strachan and his staff and a trip to the Division 1 South final. Now the test for the Bombardiers is to build off the success of last season and prove that they can be a perennial threat in the Hockomock League. That will be a difficult task without star quarterback Tim Walsh, whose dynamic ability to make plays with his feet and his arm aren’t easily replicated, which head coach Mike Strachan admitted at the league’s recent Media Day. While Attleboro may not have a settled quarterback position heading into camp, with Ross Killion being the senior but a lot of people close to the program talking about the talent of sophomore Tyler McGovern, the Bombardiers can rely on strength in the trenches. Senior Tim Christensen and junior Kyle Murphy, who is receiving interest from Clemson University after a breakout sophomore season, will anchor the offensive and defensive line and try to open holes for running back Thomas Belin. The senior did not see action until the fourth game of 2013, but he will be the focal point of the offense this year and his breakaway speed will be crucial. If teams bunch the line of scrimmage, then Attleboro can also look downfield to senior wideout Brenden Massey, who made several remarkable catches last season and was named to the ESPNBoston.com 2014 Preseason All-State team. Every team has to deal with the loss of great players to graduation and Strachan is expecting his players to step up in camp to prove that 2013 was not a fluke. “I think if we’re going to build our program long term than we need to be like the Mansfields, North Attleboroughs, and KPs, and continue that level of player from year to year,” he said. “We expect a lot of competition in camp.”
NO. 17 SPRINGFIELD CENTRAL
Coach: Valdamar Brower 6th season (45-16)
Last Year: 10-2. Beat Longmeadow 35-12 in WMass Divison 2 semifinal. Beat Westfield 44-20 in WMass Division 2 final. Lost to St. John's (S) 37-32 in Division 2 state semifinal
Returning Starters: 10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Key Returnees: Antoine Williams, Jr., RB/WR/S, Justin Bolden, Sr.,RB/MLB, Nate Smith, Sr, WR/S/KR, Issac Morales, Jr., WR/DB, Kaleb Hunter-Sams, Sr., OL/DL, Aaron Williams, Sr., QB/S; Tysean Williams, Sr., WR 5-11, 170; Tyreque Estrada-Crapps, Jr., RB/CB, 5-8, 170; Daryl Wiggins, Sr., OL/DL, 6-0, 340; Noah Mayberry, Sr., C, 5-11, 248.
Strengths: Offensive line, team unity
Outlook: The Golden Eagles have a major task ahead of them as they try to replenish their arsenal following the graduation of several key contributors from last year's highly-successful season. This will most-likely be felt on the offensive side of the ball. Cody Williams, the brilliant duel-threat quarterback, now playing for Monmouth University (NJ), was a three-year starter, having passed for 5,290 yards and 59 TDs during his remarkable tenure here. On the ground, Williams had a career rushing mark of 801 yards, scoring 19 times. Last season he threw for 2,214 yards and 24 TDs, while rushing for 578 yards and 12 TDs. Also gone are WR/CB/K Ju'an Williams, who finished last year with 823 receiving yards and 7 TDs, WR/CB Malik Johnson (595 receiving yds, 7 TDs), HB/S Troy Morrow (986 rushing yds, 4 TDs) and RB/SS DaQuan Clemons (536 rushing yds, 4 TDs). That group was the primarily nucleus in guiding the Golden Eagles to within a game of playing in the Division 2 Super Bowl before losing to St. John's of Shrewsbury in the state semifinal round last November. Without question, it was a very gifted and uniquely talented group of seniors _ all of whom will be sorely missed. However, as Brower is quick to point out, this is not the time to reflect on the past.The focus now turns to him and his staff attempting to developed a young squad, many of whom are considered to be untested and unproven, in preparation for this season.
"We are returning just three guys that started on offense and four that started on defense so right now we have a lot of inexperience and a lot of unseasoned guys," Brower said. "A lot of these kids will need to step up to the challenges that lie ahead of us this season. We will be able to evaluate throughout the preseason and especially after our first game to see where we are at and make the necessary adjustments along the way. Hopefully some of our younger guys took a few mental and physical notes by watching how those kids from last year conducted themselves, not only in games, but on the practice field and inside the locker room as well. But now it is their time. We continue to have high expectations for this program. No matter how we do, we still need to weather any storm that comes our way and continue to get better and not beat ourselves up when things go bad. There are many other teams that have younger players too so, for us, we just need to keep getting better everyday and not stop working until someone tells us our season is over."
Despite the number of departures, Central still has be considered one of the favorites to win the highly-competitive AA Conference mostly because Brower and his staff, as proven, are well-versed in getting the most out of their players. Last season, the Golden Eagles finished 7-0 in conference play, but are expected to face some fierce competition this season particularly from the likes of Westfield, East Longmeadow, Longmeadow as well as much-improved Holyoke and West Springfield squads. Central opens its season with a home date against powerful Everett on Sept. 5 -- marking the fourth consecutive year these two clubs have squared off against one another. The Crimson Tide hold a 3-0 lead in the series. "We love playing against Everett and it is my hope that this series will continue," said Brower. "Obviously they are a great team with a great tradition and are well-coached. We really enjoy playing them. For us, we want to continue to play the top programs in the state. That's how you get better as a team." As far as returners go, Crapps gives Central a solid two-way threat as a rusher and receiver out of the back field. He is a talented downhill runner who saw limited action last year due to the emergence of Morrow and Clemons. Bolden and Antoine Williams will also get their fair share of the work load as well. Tysean Williams should be the Golden Eagles' top receiving threat. The fleet-footed wide out hauled in four touchdowns a year ago. But it will be difficult for opposing teams to double up on him with Smith and Morales also on the field. Look for Mayberry to anchor a strong offensive line from his center position. And obviously, with Aaron Williams taking over the signal-calling duties, he will have some big shoes to fill however no one is questioning his pure athleticism to excel at the position. Defensively, Wiggins, at 6-foot, 340-pounds, is a beast with unlimited potential to be a sure-fire gap stopper. He will also be counted on heavily to keep constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. One of the biggest question marks surrounds Hunter-Sams. At 6-2, 280, Hunter-Sams has shown traces of developing into a solid two-way lineman, but does he have the high motor to go along with it? Only time will tell as the skill level seems to be there. One intangible in the Golden Eagles' favor is the addition of Bill Watson, the former Putnam Voc head coach. Watson, who enjoyed a successful two-year stint holding down the reins with the Beavers, decided to leave the position at the conclusion of last season, moving across town to join Brower's staff and will serve as defensive coordinator. Watson's particular attention to detail, ability to motivate players and calling out the proper defensive packages on the fly will certainly be a major asset for Central moving forward. "He's a great addition," Brower said. "We've coached against one another and have gotten to know each other very well. He and I have always talked about working together someday. It didn't seem like it would be a reality until this last spring when things just happened to pan out. All of us here are ready to accept him with open arms. We both have similar philosophies and we both have a strong passion for the game. It is going to be exciting to have him with us."
NO. 16 LEOMINSTER
Coach: Dave Palazzi (Fourth season, 29-8)
2013: 10-1, lost in Division 2 Central Final
Returning Starters: Five (2 offensive, 3 defensive)
Key Returnees: Nate Lambert, Sr. OG, 5-11, 195 lbs.; James Gurley, Sr. RB/CB, 5-9, 190 lbs.; Kevin Beran, Sr. DL; Hector Aponte, Sr. DL
Strengths: Size, defensive line.
Outlook: After a dominant three-year stretch that included back-to-back Super Bowl titles, an historic shutout of long-time rival Brockton and a district final appearance, the Blue Devils are hitting the reset button. Gone are All-State safety Jarell Addo and last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year, Neil O’Connor. In their places are a whole lot of fresh faces, from linemen Alex Bourgeois and Jared McDonald; to skill guys like tight end Carlos Santana and receivers D’Andre Addo, Shane Crayton and Mike Lovewell; to a promising sophomore class led by Anthony Dandini, Dylan Tanner and 6-foot-4 athlete Noah Gray. “To be honest with you, I’m more excited than ever to coach this year,” Palazzi said. “We know what we have this year, but we don’t know what we have because there’s no experience. So, it makes it more exciting, to see kids grow. It might be painful, it might be frustrating, but you know, that’s why I love coaching.” Defensive coordinator Charlie Raff has taken over at Oakmont, and in his place Palazzi promoted line coach and long-time compatriot Kevin Murphy, and also added former North Middlesex head coach John Margarita to the defensive staff. The Blue Devils under Palazzi have never blown you away with size, but they’ll have more of it this year with the new blood. Still, the newbies are going to have to grow up quick this fall. They open with three preseason Top 10 opponents (at No. 5 St. John’s, Sept. 13; vs. No. 7 Lowell, Sept. 19; vs. No. 8 Shepherd Hill, Sept. 26), then host No. 20 Doherty on Oct. 10. That’s a brutal stretch for even the most experienced team, never mind one as green as the Devils.
-BRENDAN C. HALL