Monday, November 11, 2013

CMass Playoff Notebook: Champions to be Crowned

QB Drew Smiley and the Pioneers will have revenge on their minds when they face Leominster Friday.
By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

Our first season in the new state-wide football playoff system has been a fun one, but let's not forget you need to win Central Mass before you can prove your worth to the entire Commonwealth.

Taking home a CMass crown is exactly what eight teams have on their minds this weekend, as champions will be crowned across the region's four divisions. So, without further ado, here is everything you need to know about the championship games in Central's D2, 4, 5 and 6.

Division 2: St. John's and Leominster, Friday at 7 pm

It's an end of the CMass season tradition that these two schools meet to determine the champion of the region's top division. Leominster comes in unbeaten, and has gotten the better of St. John's the last five times out, including a season-opening 33-22 win over the Pioneers this year, and a pair of D1 CMass Super Bowls. Still, St. John's is playing its best football right now offensively with Drew Smiley picking teams apart, and the oft-maligned defense seems to have found its rhythm with junior linebacker Sam Norton and senior defensive end Jeff DeMango leading the way.

Key Matchup: Davon Jones (SJ) vs Neil O'Connor (LEO)

This battle between two of the most versatile athletes in the state will take place on both sides of the ball. When the Pioneers have the ball, Jones is their most explosive offensive threat as both a runner and receiver. You best believe O'Connor will be keeping tabs on him from his safety spot, but when the Blue Devils have the ball, O'Connor the quarterback will need to identify where Jones the ball-hawking safety is at all times.

The Storyline: Revenge

After their semifinal win over Marlboro, the Pioneers were not shy about it: They wanted to beat Leominster. Not only to win a championship, but also just to beat them. Coach John Andreoli pointed out to his squad that he had never defeated third-year Leominster coach Dave Palazzi, and star quarterback Drew Smiley was up front with his desire to beat the Blue Devils for the first time in his illustrious career. The Blue Devils have the feel of a juggernaut, but St. John's sure isn't going in scared. They want this one.

Division 4: Doherty at Shepherd Hill, Friday at 7 pm

Doherty has been a favorite in D4 all year, and not just in CMass. Many have liked the Highlanders as a state championship pick since the preseason, but Shepherd Hill's tough and physical style may throw a wrench in those gears. Doherty has the athletes in BC commit Isaac Yiadom and big receiver/corner Alfred Adarkwah, but if the Rams control the line of scrimmage on both sides, it may not matter.

Key Matchup: Shepherd Hill's O-Line vs Doherty's front 7

As I said above, Doherty has tremendous athleticism. On defense, the Highlanders' clear strength is their secondary, but if they can't win in the trenches against a physical and cohesive Ram line, those great athletes may be neutralized. A key player for Doherty will be senior defensive lineman Matt Smalls. The captain has been on a tear, racking up sacks like crazy the last three weeks, but Shepherd Hill's running game will present an entirely different challenge. Will he and the Highlanders be able to hold their ground and contain the one-two punch of Jake Gelb and Drew Jean-Guillaume?

The Storyline: Revenge Part 2

Doherty hadn't made the postseason in nearly 25 years until last season, but the Highlanders were denied their first playoff win in a generation by the hard hitting Rams. On a snowy night at Worcester's Foley Stadium, the speedy Highlanders were run over by a more seasoned Shepherd Hill squad. Doherty has gotten over the playoff win hump since then, defeating both Quabbin and Hudson, but Shepherd Hill is still a team that has had their number.

Division 5: Northbridge vs Bartlett, Friday at 7 pm. Location TBD

Many prognosticators, myself included, had written Auburn and Leicester into these two slots, but not so fast my friend. Thanks to power running, opportunistic defense and more than a little mental toughness, Bartlett and Northbridge are the two teams left standing in Division 5. Midnight will strike Friday for one of these Cinderellas, but which one?

Key Matchup: The Trenches on Both Sides

Both of these teams love to run the football, and whether it's Northbridge's sensational sophomore quarterback Koby Schofer or Bartlett's seemingly unstoppable running back Alexander Givens-Perry carrying the rock, success starts up front. Look for both these teams to ride their offensive lines in this one in an effort to impose their respective wills on each other. Whichever team is able to control the line of scrimmage will create opportunities for its play makers, and likely take home the D5 title.

The Storyline: Respect

Raise your hand if you picked either of these teams to make the D5 final… Ok, put your hands down, because nobody saw this coming. The magical run of AGP and the Indians has been one of the better stories of the season, after they blew out perennial power Auburn and knocked off Southbridge, but the turnaround at Northbridge may be even more impressive.

After allegations of hazing surfaced in the preseason, the Rams limped out of the gates 1-2 following a tough loss to Auburn. But, with the emergence of Schofer and a recommitment to the running game, Northbridge has reeled off six straight wins.

One team's magical run will continue.

Division 6: Blackstone Valley Tech at Littleton, Friday at 7 pm

As I've said multiple times, Division 6 just might be the most entertaining bracket in the region, and we get a great championship game to finish things out. Both teams come in unbeaten, and neither has really been challenged for quite some time. With this game being, potentially, the first close one either of these teams have played in months, who will make those crucial plays that need to be made in tight contests?

That could be what determines the winner of this exciting division.

Key Matchup: Alex McLaughlin (L) vs Nic Wojnar (BVT)

McLaughlin has been running all over every team the Tigers have faced this season, scoring a CMass second-best 17 touchdowns on the ground so far. But, he and the Littleton rush offense will face its biggest challenge of the year in BVT's tackling machine linebacker Nic Wojnar. Whether or not the Beavers can contain McLaughlin will be the story of the game on that side of the ball, and Wojnar's sideline-to-sideline speed will be their best chance of bottling the prolific quarterback up.

The Storyline: Respect Part 2

Littleton garnered some early-season respect when they slipped by West Boylston, the reigning D5 Central Mass Super Bowl winner, in the opener. But a weak slate of opponents since then has caused many to forget just how good the Tigers are.

BVT, on the other hand, went the entire regular season without facing a worthy challenger. The Beavers rolled through the Colonial, defeating league opponents by nearly 30 points per game. The style points were there, but BVT had faced one of the easier schedules in the state. Would they be ready for the playoffs after breezing through the regular season?

Well, the Beavers answered the question emphatically last week, pounding West Boylston 35-12 and establishing themselves as a legitimate state title contender in Division 6. Whoever wins this game will earn not only respect regionally, but state-wide as well.

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