Friday, September 12, 2014

Central Mass HS Football Preview: Week 2

Auburn and star running back Mark Wright will be looking for payback against Hudson.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The high school football season in Central Massachusetts began for a handful of squads last week, but things really get going tonight and tomorrow for most of the teams around the region.

While I will be in Brockton tonight for ESPN Boston covering the Boxers' game against St. John's Prep, here are some things to watch out for in the Heart of the Commonwealth.

What's Happened So Far: Shake Up in Division 4

After capturing the Division 4 state championship last December, Doherty's 2014 season got off to a rough start with a loss at North Middlesex. The Highlander offense had a chance to tie the game late, after junior Tavian Vassar blocked a Patriot punt, but a last-minute interception sealed their fate.

What does this mean for the race in Division 4? Well, it means the re-load project at Doherty might not be as far along as previously thought. You have to think the Highlanders will bounce back and find ways to get the ball into the hands of play makers like Vassar, senior Jahkari Carpenter and junior Ricky Webster (the latter two scored the Highlanders' touchdowns).

But this is still a North Middlesex team that closed 2013 on a eight-game losing streak, so unless the Patriots are GREATLY improved (certainly a possibility for a D2 school with a solid QB in senior John Boutwell) this loss raises concern. Is Division 4 now Shepherd Hill's for the taking?

The field is better than you think, and Doherty will surely improve, but right now the Rams look like a solid bet to come out of D4 Central.

Game of the Week

Leominster at St. John's, Saturday at 1 pm

Could it really be any other game? This rivalry has become one of the state's best in recent years, and the 2014 installment will not be devoid of story lines.

St. John's comes in with state title aspirations, but must replace two-time All-State quarterback Drew Smiley. Look for a two-quarterback system led by last year's starter at running back, senior Shane Combs, and junior lefty Tim Cassidy.

Leominster returns even less than St. John's, but expects sophomore Noah Gray to step in and fill the huge shoes of graduated Neil O'Connor, Gatorade's Massachusetts Player of the Year for the 2013 season.

Gray has the size, athleticism and arm to be an outstanding dual-threat quarterback, and the backfield actually does return some experience with seniors James Gurley and Eddie Rivera both back. Outside of that, the offense will rely on a cast of fresh faces to fill in the lines and other skill positions. Leominster is also green on defense, where only three starters return, and star safety Jarell Addo must be replaced.

Expect some points in this one, but that won't be a change from recent years. The Pioneers have a few more established names, with guys like Davon Jones and Sean Ragan, but Leominster has the talent to play with anyone. The question is, how ready will that young talent be in game one?

Sneaky Good Game of the Week

Fitchburg vs Shepherd Hill at Nichols College, Friday at 7:30 pm

If Shepherd Hill wants to claim the title of outright favorite in D4, it can get off to a great start against one of the better teams, historically, in D2. The Rams look to be one of the most physical teams in the region, with a dominant offensive line led by BC commit senior guard Chris Lindstrom. But Shepherd Hill also has speed and play making ability in the backfield, with senior quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume back for another year of running the Rams' brutally effective Double-Wing attack.

Most will give Shepherd Hill the edge, but don't sleep on a Fitchburg team that played SH close at the beginning of last year, and seems to be trending up in coach Dan Walker's third season.

The Red Raider defense struggled at times, mostly with the pass, but was actually comfortable fighting it out in the trenches with teams like Shepherd Hill, Wachusett and St. John's. With nine starters back on that side of the ball, including star senior linebacker Bruce Johnson, Fitchburg will present some challenges up front for the Rams.

The big question for Fitchburg will be how senior Nik Myles fares in his first start at quarterback, after moving from receiver, but the Red Raiders won't be a pushover for anybody this year, even a team as good as Shepherd Hill.

Player to Watch: Mark Wright, Sr. RB, Auburn

Wright led Central Mass in rushing last season, amassing over 2,100 yards on the ground, and began 2014 with a bang, rushing for 304 yards and a pair of scores in the Rockets' season-opening win at Chicopee Comprehensive.

Auburn opened last year with a win over CC, but came tumbling back to Earth the following week at Hudson. The Hawks blasted Auburn 33-0, behind big days from their senior Dans (Bothwell and Mendes) and a suffocating defense.

Since then, the Hawks have graduated virtually everyone on both sides of the ball, and Wright returns more comfortable and seemingly explosive than ever. Look for another statement game from the region's premier back.

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