Friday, September 5, 2014

Central Mass HS Football Preview & Preseason Power Rankings

Doherty (white) is the reigning D4 state champion, but many are expecting Shepherd Hill (maroon) to contend for a state crown in 2014.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

High school football season is upon us, and Central Massachusetts boasts several teams with state championship aspirations. Check out our preseason Power Rankings, along with a division-by-division preview of what to expect from CMass football in 2014.

Power Rankings

1. St. John's
Last Season: 9-4, Division 2 State Runner-Up

The Pioneers will need to replace two-time All-State quarterback Drew Smiley, but with Boston College commit Davon Jones making plays at receiver and safety, plus the return of stars Sean Ragan (Jr, G) and Shane Combs (Sr, QB/RB), St. John's is once again a favorite to make it to Gillette Stadium.

To read more about the 2014 Pioneers, click here.

2. Shepherd Hill
Last Season: 9-2, Division 4 Central Runner-Up, SWCL A Champion

The Rams were one play away from capturing D4 Central against Doherty last year, and this year's group returns senior Boston College commit Chris Lindstrom at guard, along with senior athlete/option quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume.

Many are saying that the athletic and savvy Lindstrom is the state's best lineman, and in Shepherd Hill's Double-Wing running attack he is utilized perfectly, both pulling out into space, and doubling then scraping to the second level. What's scarier is Lindstrom, at 250 lbs, could end up being the smallest guy in the Rams' front-five.

With a ton of beef up front, and a play making quarterback running the show, look for the Rams to contend for a state tittle in Division 4.

3. Auburn
Last Season: 8-3, Division 4 Quarterfinalist, SWCL B Champion

Last year the Rockets were solid, but it was a down year by Auburn's incredibly high standards. Under coach Jeff Cormier, Auburn has been great year-in and year-out, and the Rockets appear to have another potentially dominant squad, led by a powerful offensive line and returning 2,000 yard rusher Mark Wright.

Last year as a junior, Wright led Central Mass in rushing and, more impressively, boasted an absurd average of over 8 yards per carry. This season, with a more experienced offensive line and defense, plus budding star sophomore quarterback Steve Sauciver, expect bigger things from the Rockets. When I spoke with Cormier before the 2013 season, he said his group was a year or two away from great things. By the looks of it, they're just about there.

4. Doherty
Last Season: 12-1, Division 4 State Champion

Many will sleep on the Highlanders after they lost a pair of Division I do-it-all athletes in Isaac Yiadom (BC) and Alfred Adarkwah (UMass), plus star quarterback Luke Brennan (pitching at Franklin Pierce), but that would be unwise. Led by star guard and linebacker Sean Moran, running back/defensive back Jahkari Carpenter and running back/defensive lineman Tavian Vassar, Doherty will once again be a contender in D4.

The key will be the development of skill players and senior quarterback Eric Vecsey, but Doherty should actually be improved in the trenches on both sides of the ball. For more on the 2014 Highlanders, click here.

5. Northbridge
Last Season: 10-3, Division 5 State Runner-Up

Northbridge was, perhaps, the most resilient team in the state last year. The Rams bounced back from an embarrassing 40-3 loss to Tantasqua, and a defeat at the hands of rival Auburn in weeks two and three to finish the season on a 9-game winning streak that catapulted them to Gillette Stadium for the D5 title game.

Though they ultimately fell to Bishop Fenwick, the Rams boasted one of the most potent attacks in the state, and return two critical components of it this season. As a sophomore, Koby Schofer tore through the state to the tune of 1,535 yards and 11 touchdowns passing, and 1,672 yards rushing with 22 touchdowns on the ground. Top receiver Chandler Brooks also returns for his junior season on what should be an even more lethal Ram offense.

Northbridge loses some great talent up front, including star guard Tom Tabur, but with Schofer coming back, coaches won't get much sleep preparing for the Rams.

In the Hunt: Leominster, Nashoba, Shrewsbury, Marlborough, Fitchburg, Tantasqua, Holy Name, Grafton, Wachusett, St. Peter-Marian, West Boylston, Blackstone Valley Tech

For more on St. Peter-Marian, click here.

And now, here's what to expect in the four different divisions Central Mass teams participate in.

Division 2

Many are pointing to St. John's as the prohibitive favorite in D2, but it would be unwise to look past Leominster, the Pioneers' longtime nemesis. This year's Blue Devils squad isn't quite as loaded as last year's group, but sophomore athlete Noah Gray will look to step into reigning Gatorade Massachusetts Player of the Year Neil O'Connor's big shoes and lead Leominster back to prominence.

At 6'4'' with quick feet and a powerful arm, plus the play calling of Blue Devils coach Dave Palazzi behind him, I wouldn't bet against Gray being the breakout player of the year in Central Mass.

Other teams to keep an eye on include Nashoba, which should be improved after a year of transition under then-first year head coach Jamie Tucker, who took over for his legendary father Ken, who retired after nearly four decades on the Chieftain sideline. With a full year of head coaching duties under his belt, look for Tucker to unleash athletic senior Drew Schartner at quarterback, and once again build a solid defense, this time led by senior linebacker Greg Gothie.

Marlborough should again be a tough out, as coach Sean Mahoney has the needle pointing up for the Panthers, who shocked many in the region to make the D2 Central semifinals. Losing quarterback John Rumney and several other skill players on offense will hurt, but running back Will Cowdry returns to run behind what should be a solid offensive line.

Finally, you can't forget about Shrewsbury, a team that has defeated St, John's the last two years. The Colonials are devoid of "star" players, but always seem to produce solid lineman, backs and linebackers. I wouldn't sleep on the Colonials, because they seem to pull off a "what the heck" upset every year.

Division 4

Make no mistake about it, Shepherd Hill and Doherty are the favorites in this division, but there are a plethora of teams that can challenge the Rams and Highlanders for the top spot in Central Mass.

Holy Name ended last season on a four-game winning streak and, while the Naps missed out on postseason play, their young team built up a head of steam for 2014.  Junior quarterback Trent Dubois will look to capitalize on that, and a solid line led by senior Trent Geneva should help his cause. Grafton also ended its year on a tear. The Indians won three in a row to end 2013, and return the steady hand of senior quarterback Ben Cadrin, along with what should be a stellar defense.

St. Peter-Marian loses a ton of experience, but should be as talented as ever with junior quarterback Seamus Leary returning. As I said above, to read more about the Guardians, click here.

Tantasqua remains a solid program, with Zack Edawards leading a high-powered passing game for the Warriors. Meanwhile, Hudson will have to absorb some tough losses to graduation, including do-it-all stars Dan Mendes and Dan Bothwell, but the Hawks should again present challenges for teams across the division. 

Division 5

Wright and the Rockets are the early favorites to win Division 5, but we'll see what Schofer and Northbridge have to say about that. The September 26th matchup between these two teams in Auburn will likely be the biggest game in D5 Central this season, but don't sleep on Leicester, who must replace star Tom Rodrick, but still boasts a ton of strength and toughness on both lines.

There isn't much depth behind those three, but Uxbridge could be a sleeper after finishing 6-5 last year and bringing back quarterback Jake Taparausky and dependable receiver Oliver Sawyer. D5 is probably the most clear-cut of the divisions, but always be on the lookout for some program to do a total 180 and contend.

Division 6

Last year's D6 state champs from Littleton were the most dominant team, for their division, in the state, blasting opponents by an average of 26 points per game, and that doesn't even account for the fact that the Tigers often played their backups in the second halves of blowout victories. This year's Littleton squad will sorely miss the school's best group of seniors ever, but it's hard to think they won't again contend with star junior athlete Connor Bassett coming back. Connor's older brother Travis stole the show in the morning game at Gillette last December, and I wouldn't be surprised if Connor had the chance to do the same, wherever the Tigers line him up, this year.

But it won't be easy, as a tough and physical Blackstone Valley Tech program enters 2014 looking for revenge. The Beavers fell victim to Littleton, but bounced back to win the state's Large School Voke Bowl and finish the year 11-1. This year's BVT squad returns star running back/defensive back Ben Reiffarth, and should again be strong up front on both sides of the ball. With all that Littleton lost, it isn't crazy to think that this Voke school could be the favorite in D6 Central, though they'll have to replace longtime standout Nic Wojnar at both quarterback and linebacker.

Assabet is another Voke school that could contend for a Central and state title. Senior quarterback/athlete Marty Henry is back after a solid junior campaign, and the Aztecs will be eyeing a Voke Bowl title and trip to Gillette this season.

But still, both of these teams will have to contend with a West Boylston team that has gotten better and better the last three years. WB's three losses came to Littleton, BVT and Assabet last year and, though they lose several key players, look for the Lions to again contend with junior Ryan Noel stepping up and making a name for himself on both sides of the ball.

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