Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Central Mass HS Football Playoff Preview

Doherty made history with its Division 4 Central title win last year. Which four teams will claim CMass crowns this season?
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The regular season has come and gone, and now eight teams from each of Central Mass' four divisions will continue their journeys down the #RoadToGillette.

The MIAA has finalized the playoff brackets, so lets' take a look at what to expect from each division in CMass.

Division 2

The Favorite(s): St. John's (Shrewsbury)
When Davon Jones is in the lineup, the Pioneers simply boast the district's best combination of talent and experience. When he's not, as he hasn't been the last two weeks, St. John's suffers on both sides of the ball.

With Jones back at receiver, quarterback Tim Cassidy gets his best target back and room should open up for running back Shane Combs. Defensively, Jones affects everything from his safety position, both as a "centerfielder," and as a defender that can come up and lay the lumber. The Pioneers were rolling until his two-game suspension, and they'll have to re-discover that form quickly against a Fitchburg team that seems to always play them tough.

The Contenders(s): Leominster

You could certainly talk me into listing Leominster as a favorite as well. Since starting the year 0-2, the Blue Devils have won five-in-a-row, including statement blowout wins over Shepherd Hill, Shrewsbury and Wachusett, along with impressive wins over Doherty and Nashoba as well.

With a young defense that is playing its best football and an offense that can beat you a variety of ways, the Blue Devils can certainly challenge for a district, and state title, in Division 2.

The Sleeper(s): Wachusett

The Mountaineers scored a huge upset win over St. John's two weeks ago, snapping a two-game losing streak. Wachusett seems to have found its identity. The Mountaineers are going to win running the ball with both quarterback Mitchell Driscoll and running back Connor Gill, along with a bend-but-don't-break defense that can cash in on mistakes.

It's hard to see them taking the district, but St. John's probably doesn't want to see them again, and they've improved significantly since a loss to Leominster on October 3rd.

First Round Game to Watch: North Middlesex at Wachusett

 North Middlesex was the surprise of the season in D2 Central, and quarterback John Boutwell's emergence as one of the region's premier signal callers has been fun to see as well. Wachusett will come into this game as the favorite, but ever since they knocked off Doherty on opening night, it's been impossible to sleep on the Patriots.

Player to Watch: Eddie Rivera, RB, Leominster

Part of Leominster's resurgence has been the play of the defense. Another part has been the development of sophomore quarterback Noah Gray, but the biggest part has probably been the dominant play of Eddie Rivera.

Whether he's working as a running back or "Wildcat" back, Rivera has been Leominster's best ball carrier, and his 10 yards per carry (not to mention 13 touchdowns) have powered the Blue Devils to five straight victories.

Division 4

The Favorite(s): Shepherd Hill
The Rams are right were everybody thought they'd be, and come in as the clear-cut favorites in D4 Central. Led by lightning quick quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume and running back Brady Ravenelle, the Rams have a loaded backfield, but their offensive success starts up front.

BC commit guard Chris Lindstrom anchors CMass' biggest and baddest offensive line, and physical tight end Sean McKeon is always ready to lend a helping hand as a run blocker as well.

If you're going to beat Shepherd Hill, you're going to have to slow down their patented Double Wing ground game. Certainly a task that is easier said than done.

The Contenders(s): St. Peter-Marian, Doherty

Both of these teams are very young, but both have gotten better seemingly every week as the season has gone on. Doherty quarterback Eric Vecsey has gone from game manager to legitimate threat, and running back Jahkari Carpenter may be the most explosive back in the region.

SPM, meanwhile, has won with a balanced attack and a defense that has come of age late in the year. On paper, Doherty's size makes them the bigger threat to Shepherd Hill, but the loss of junior nose tackle Tavian Vassar won't help matters. As for SPM, their fate with largely be in the hands of a player I'll get to later.

The Sleeper(s): Holy Name, Worcester North

Both of these teams have struggled with consistency, but each has shown flashes. Both have played Doherty close, and the Naps actually defeated D5 power Auburn earlier this year. Both face very tough first round matchups, but each has the talent to pull off the upset.

First Round Game to Watch: Worcester North at St. Peter-Marian

The Polar Bears come in losers of two-in-a-row, but will lean on one of the region's more productive backs in Tony Sanchez to get them back on track.

They'll have to do it against a Guardian team that has grown up in recent weeks, and star running back Anthony Baldino certainly shouldn't be overlooked when discussing CMass' best running backs.

Player to Watch: Seamus Leary, QB, St. Peter-Marian

Joining Baldino in the SPM backfield is sensational junior quarterback Seamus Leary. At his best, Leary is the only quarterback in the region that truly challenges Northbridge's Koby Schofer as a dual-threat, and I would expect the Guardians to rely heavily on his arm, and legs, as they look for a district title.

Division 5
 The Favorite(s): Northbridge
The Rams are undefeated and come in as the prohibitive favorites with junior quarterback Koby Schofer leading the way. Northbridge has been deceptively good on defense as well. With Jake Wood at running back and the high-flying receiver duo of Rob Fraser and Chandler Brooks, nobody in D5 can match the Rams' skill position talent and depth.

The Contenders(s): Bartlett, Uxbridge, Tyngsborough, Auburn

After Northbridge, D5 is about as wide-open as can be. All of these teams boast solid running games and defenses, but all lack the firepower of the Rams. 

Could one of them pull off the upset? Sure. But which one? Good luck predicting that.

The Sleeper(s): Lunenburg

 Lunenburg is riding high off a win over reigning D6 state champion Littleton, clinching a share of the Mid-Wach D title for the Blue Knights. Quarterback Jeremy Nash has been a threat to throw and run all year, but a huge game from running back Cody Lanzilotti showed that he's not the lone threat in the Lunenburg backfield.

Oh yeah, and that kid Joe Kapp is currently leading CMass with over 610 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Lunenburg can move the football every which way.

Watch out because if the Blue Knights can take down Littleton, they'll be a tough out for anybody in Division 5.

First Round Game to Watch: Auburn at Bartlett

I know I have both these teams listed as "contenders," but Auburn has plenty of doubters state and region-wide right now. The Rockets simply aren't the force they used to be, and matched up against Barlett's physical offensive line and dynamic backs, they could have some problems. Last year Bartlett shocked the region by defeating Auburn in the playoffs, but I don't think anybody would be surprised to see it happen again this season.

This one could come down to a battle of explosive running backs, with Bartlett's Darius Givens going head-to-head with someone you may have heard of...

Player to Watch: Mark Wright, RB, Auburn

 Oh yeah, that guy. Mark Wright is the reason you can't sleep on Auburn against anybody. One of the shiftiest runners Central Mass has ever seen, Wright led the state in regular season rushing yards with just over 1,700, averaging an absurd 10 yards per carry.

Whenever you think you've got him, you don't. Bartlett, and anybody else that could potentially run into the Rockets, will have their hands full.

Division 6
The Favorite(s): Littleton, Blackstone Valley Tech
Littleton's 19-game winning streak came to an end last week against Lunenburg, but the reigning Division 6 state champs have to considered favorites as long as quarterback Connor Bassett and running back Elijah Pyram have some room to work.

BVT comes in unbeaten, but has played a significantly weaker schedule than the Tigers. Still, with a brutal running game and ferocious defense, the Beavers have as good a shot as anyone to win D6 Central, not to mention repeat as state Voke Bowl champs.

The Contenders(s): Maynard, St. Bernard's

Maynard came as close as anyone in Division 6 to beating Littleton, and St. B's has the potential to hang with anybody based on offensive firepower alone. The ball would have bounce the right way, but both of these team could capture this district title.

The Sleeper(s): Worcester Tech

The Eagles run the ball as well as anyone and don't make mistakes. That will make them a team nobody wants to see late in the bracket. If they can make it past St. B's, they have the strength to slow down the game against Littleton and give the Tigers a run for their money.

First Round Game to Watch: Worcester Tech at St. Bernard's

Could it really be any other game? All these 4/5 matchups are great, but the contrast of offensive styles could make this one special. If St. B's can get rolling, the Eagles may not have the athletes to contain them, but if WoTech gets going running the ball, it's hard to see St. B's out-muscling them at the point of attack.

Player to Watch: Ben Reiffarth, RB, Blackstone Valley Tech

A touchdown machine at running back and rangy cover man on defense, Reiffarth means more to his team than perhaps any other player in the region. If the Beavers are to realize their potential and capture a district crown, much of it will fall on his shoulders.

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