Wednesday, November 12, 2014

CMass Playoff Notebook: Champions to Be Crowned

Star Shepherd Hill quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume will look to lead the Rams to a D4 Central title.

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The second season of the MIAA's new state-wide football playoff system has very much lived up to the original, 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 for Central's D2, 4, 5 and 6.

All games will be played this Friday at 7 pm.

Division 2: Fitchburg at Leominster

One of the greatest rivalries in the state comes to us two weeks early as these longtime Thanksgiving foes battle for the D2 Central crown. The Blue Devils certainly expected to be here, though they probably thought they'd see their big rival, St. John's (Shrewsbury), in the championship game, but either way there won't be any shortage of bitterness with the Red Raiders coming to Doyle Field for a surprising match up.

Fitchburg has turned its season around by playing traditional Red Raider football and hitting people in the mouth, but the emergence of quarterback Darius Flowers has given them the balance to knock off St. John's and blow out Wachusett in back-to-back weeks.

Storyline: Cinderella

Let's be honest, as successful and proud a program as Fitchburg is, nobody expected it to be here. After all, the Raiders did start the year 0-4 with double-digit losses to St. John's, Wachusett and Shepherd Hill.

Since then, Fitchburg has won five in a row, including avenging two of those losses, and have scored an impressive 32 points per game, a huge jump from the 17 they were scoring in the year's first four games.

Committing to the ground game with star back Alex Marrero, who has scored seven touchdowns during Fitchburg's winning streak, has helped the Red Raiders re-gain their footing and place among the best programs in Central Mass. Still, Fitchburg will need a big day from Flowers and receiver Nik Myles if it is to best rival Leominster, who comes in riding a seven-game winning streak of its own, and the hottest back in Central Mass in Eddie Rivera.

Division 4: St. Peter-Marian at Shepherd Hill (played at Nichols College)

St. Peter-Marian opened the year as a young contender with potential, but a 1-2 start that included double-digit losses to D2 schools Wachusett and Shrewsbury had many questioning whether the Guardians could hang with the top teams in D4.

Consider that question answered, as SPM won five of its next six, with the line loss coming against D4 favorite and upcoming opponent Shepherd Hill. In that span the Guardians knocked off defending D4 state champion Doherty twice and dispatched of upstart Worcester North and high-powered Tantasqua.

Shepherd Hill, meanwhile, is right where we all expected, playing for a Central Mass title in D4. The Rams offensive line, led by BC commit Chris Lindstrom is among the state's best, and quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume has orchestrated the program's Double Wing attack to perfection in recent weeks.

Still, the Rams have only been held to 20 points or less twice this season. Once was in a loss to Leominster, and the other was in a close win over the Guardians. If SPM can hold up defensively again, quarterback Seamus Leary will give them a chance to pull off the upset.

Storyline: Present vs Future

Coming into the year, everyone around the state seemed to concur that this was the Rams' time. They came oh-so close against Doherty in last year's D4 Central title game, and returned most of their beef up front, along with their star quarterback.

Shepherd Hill came in as the favorites, not just for CMass, but for the D4 state title.

SPM, meanwhile, was bunched in with a cluster of young teams with "potential." The Guardians emerged from that D4 pack, which included Doherty, Holy Name and Grafton, as the top contender but, for all intents and purposes, St. Peter-Marian is a year ahead of schedule after graduating a boat load of talent in 2013.

Both Leary and star running back Anthony Baldino are both juniors, as is breakout receiver/defensive back Alex Simonovitch. The Guardians will have a great shot to make it back to this point next year, and maybe even contend for a title at Gillette, but they'd like nothing more than to prove that this year belongs to them, not the Rams.

Division 5: Uxbridge at Northbridge

Much like Fitchburg and Leominster, there is sure to be no love lost between these Turkey Day rivals, as each vies for a D5 Central championship. Uxbridge's only loss this year came to Bartlett, but the Spartans clearly redeemed themselves with a 31-7 thrashing of the Indians behind four Jake Taparausky touchdown passes.

Northbridge, on the other hand, was played much closer by Tyngsborough last week than anybody expected. After blowing out the Tiger 42-19 earlier this year, many expected the Rams to cruise again, but Tyngsborough's Austin Escott proved nearly impossible to contain (1 rushing TD, 1 receiving TD, 1 return TD).

It took all of quarterback Koby Schofer and Jake Wood's four combined touchdowns, plus a 27-yard FG from Geoffrey Reichert to hold off the upset-minded Tigers.

Now, with an even more explosive Uxbridge passing game coming in, could we see another shootout? Perhaps, but keep in mind that Northbridge's region-best scoring offense (42 points per game) is going up against Uxbridge's region-best scoring defense (8.6 points per game allowed). This could actually be a case of unstoppable force meets immovable object.

Storyline: Established Power vs Up-and-comer

After going a combined 5-17 in 2011 and 2012, Uxbridge finally broke through, earning a playoff berth in 2013. Thanks to a 6-1 regular season, the Spartans claimed the No. 2 seed in D5 Central, but were upset by Southbridge in the first round, then lost their two non-playoff games and Thanksgiving against Northbridge to finish just 6-5.

That break down hasn't come from this Spartan team, which also finished the regular season 6-1, but has fought its way to a pair of playoff victories. Northbridge, meanwhile, was expected to be here. After the Rams made it to Gillette Stadium last year with a sophomore and junior-heavy team, it would have been crazy not to think the Rams would figure heavily into the D5 race in Central Mass.

Now, the up-and-coming Spartans have the chance to knock of the regional favorites, and one of the most storied programs in the entire state.

Division 6: Blackstone Valley Tech at Littleton

Littleton's 19-game winning streak is now a thing of the past, thanks to a loss to Lunenberg in the regular season finale, but the Tigers are still the defending state champs in Division 6 and come into this one as the favorites.

BVT, meanwhile, has wrapped up its second consecutive perfect regular season, and is once again unbeaten heading into the D6 Central final. To say they've been riding star running back Ben Reiffarth would be an understatement. The senior running back carried the ball 36 times last week to help the Beavers edge Maynard 28-24, producing 256 yards and four touchdowns on the ground.

Giving the ball to Reiffarth has proved a solid strategy for Valley Tech. The Beavers currently rank second in the region (behind only Northbridge) in scoring offense, posting an impressive 35.8 points per game. Much like the D5 final, it will be interesting to see if Littleton's stingy defense (12.4 points per game allowed, 2nd in CMass only to Uxbridge) can slow them down.

Storyline: Revenge

Not much else to say except that BVT wants to turn the tables in Littleton. The Beavers came into last season's D6 Central final undefeated but were run over by Littleton's powerful ground game.

With Ben Reiffarth leading one of CMass' best rushing attacks for BVT, it's possible we could see just the opposite happen this year, but Littleton is certainly no joke either. The Tigers have one of the most talented backfields in the state with quarterback Connor Bassett and Elijah Pyram both running the ball as well as anybody.

Expect some ground and pound, but whichever team can break a few big ones should come away with the win and trip to the state semifinal.

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