Wednesday, November 19, 2014

CMass Playoff Notebook: State Semifinal Preview

After shocking Central Mass and winning the D2 Central title, upstart Fitchburg is just one game away from Gillette. (Click to enlarge)
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Four Central Mass squads scored sectional championship wins Friday, and each now sits just one game away from a state championship game at Gillette Stadium.

Here is a look back at each team's big win, and a look forward to what they'll need to do to continue their journey.

Division 2

Central Mass Champ: Fitchburg

Next Step: State Semifinal vs Longmeadow at Doyle Field in Leominster. Saturday at 2 pm

Fitchburg is the greatest Cinderella in the state this year, after beginning the season 0-4, then rattling off six wins in a row against the likes of St. John's (Shrewsbury), Wachusett and Leominster in last weekend's D2 Central final.

It's hard for me to believe this team struggled out of the gate after watching the Red Raiders' defense stymie Leominster at every turn, and running back Alex Marrero batter his way to over 100 yards and a score against the Blue Devils.

Fitchburg is still a flawed team that isn't as deep as other top D2 contenders, but I'll be damned if they aren't one of the toughest teams left in the field. That toughness will be tested to the max against the football factory of Western Mass. Experienced Longmeadow brings a senior-heavy roster that knows how to win for a date with inexperienced, but talented Fitchburg.

The Red Raiders will again be widely viewed as underdogs this week, but have overcome greater odds to get to this point. Whether or not they have another night of magic in them, who knows, but these Fitchburg players have already exceeded all expectations.

Division 4

Central Mass Champ: Shepherd Hill

Next Step: State Semifinal vs Wahconah at Westfield State. Saturday at 2 pm

Shepherd Hill flexed its muscle against young St. Peter-Marian, plowing through Guardians 45-7 behind a big day from quarterback Drew Jean-Guillaume. The Rams have followed the script as D4 Central favorites and state title contenders this year, riding fantastic offensive and defensive lines to brutal efficiency on both sides of the ball.

The Rams will face their biggest challenge yet in D4 against a team that gave eventual-state champion Doherty everything it could handle last year. The Warriors have allowed 20 points just once this season, and their high-flying offense, led by QB Nick Clayton and his 24 TD passes, has been held under 27 points just once.

While the Rams will have the force, Wahconah may have just enough speed and savvy to trip Shepherd Hill up. Look for a solid game of contrasting styles.

Division 5

Central Mass Champ: Northbridge

Next Step: State Semifinal vs Pittsfield at Westfield State. Saturday at 11 am

Northbridge has won games all year with its offense, but it was the defense that rose up in last weekend's D5 Central final against Uxbridge. The Rams held Uxbridge to just a single touchdown, and junior QB Koby Schofer and Co. did the rest.

The Rams will have to deal with a resourceful and versatile Pittsfield team that is just as comfortable winning 43-42 shootouts as it is winning 13-12 slugfests.

The Generals are also riding high after avenging a loss to Hoosac Valley in the Western sectional final (their first sectional win in program history), and senior quarterback Chad Shade is making things happen in the game's biggest moments. While he may not be Schofer's statistical equal, Shade shares the Northbridge QB's flair for play making outside of the pocket. The team that can best contain the other offense's signal caller may be the one that comes away victorious here.

Division 6

Central Mass Champ: Littleton

Next Step: State Semifinal vs McCann Tech at Doyle Field in Leominster. Saturday at 11 am

The Tigers once again turned away Blackstone Valley Tech in the D6 Central final, and it's hard not to tab Littleton as the state favorite in Division 6 from here on out. The Tigers may not be quite as deep as they were last year, but the backfield combination of QB Connor Bassett and RB Elijah Pyram is as talented as you'll find in the state, and the Littleton defense is once again remarkably stingy.

McCann Tech may present the toughest defense Littleton has seen in some time, as the undefeated Hornets are allowing just 7 points per game, and specialize in slowing down run-heavy offenses.

Littleton has the talent and experience to get back to Gillette for another state title game, but McCann Tech is a trickier match up than most people think. The Tigers are favorites, but they may have to throw it a little more than they're comfortable with, and converting short yardage situations will be key as well.

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