Thursday, December 4, 2014

Massachusetts HS Football State Championship Preview: Divisions 4-6

Northbridge quarterback Koby Schofer will look to lead the Rams to a state title on their return trip to Gillette.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

A dozen Massachusetts high school football teams have finished their journeys down the #RoadToGillette and are preparing to play for state championships.

Year Two of the MIAA's new statewide football playoff system has produced another slew of intriguing matchups, so let's take a look at everything you need to know about Saturday's games in the smaller divisions.

*All game times listed below are approximate. Each game will begin 15 minutes after the previous one ends.

Division 4

Holliston (11-1) vs Wahconah (11-0), 3:30 pm

Holliston comes in hoping to prove it is one of the best teams in the state (the Panthers' only loss came when they rested their starters on Thanksgiving) by completing its journey toward a title in D4.

The Panthers will hope their restful Thanksgiving will help them against a Wahconah team that appears tougher than many predicted. The Warriors rode an opportunistic and play making defense, plus the legs and arm of quarterback Nick Clayton, to an upset victory of D4 Central power Shepherd Hill in the state semifinals.

With Clayton throwing and running the ball at a high level, and running back Ryan Washburn and do-it-all threat Ryan Garvey making plays, the Warriors will be tough to stop.

For Holliston and its explosive offense, the key will be making this business as usual.

“The big thing for us will be not to get too hyped-up,” Holliston senior running back Joe Bellamo said. “Being at a stadium like Gillette, with the atmosphere, we don’t want to be looking up at the jumbotron after every single play. We just want to get in here and focus and do our jobs.”

Storyline to Watch: Which Defense Can Make a Play?

It's easy to view this as a contest between two explosive offenses, but the Warriors' ability to get stops and force turnovers will be key against a Holliston offense averaging over 275 yards a game on the ground and over 410 yards of total offense.

On the other side of the ball, Holliston has the talent to do stop anybody. The Panthers are surrendering just 15 points per game (not counting Thanksgiving), all the more impressive when you consider that they've jumped out to early leads and had teams in "must-score" mode for most of the game.

Player to Watch: Zach Elkinson, Holliston

The Panthers will lean on a dual-threat quarterback of their own in Nick Athy to power their offense, and Zach Elkinson's abilities as both a receiver (over 700 yards and 8 TDs) and a runner (over 600 yards and 7 TDs) make him as complete a player as there is in the state.

Holliston does a little bit of everything with both of these guys, but the Warriors will have to identify where Elkinson is at all times. If they don't, it could be a long day on defense.


This one has the makings of a shootout, but both these teams love to run the ball, so a turnover one way or another could swing things if either side has to play from behind, a position that would be unfamiliar territory for both squads.

Either way, expect some fireworks.

Division 5

Abington (11-2) vs Northbridge (12-0), 8 pm

If you end up staying late, you'll get the chance to watch Northbridge play for some history, and redemption. Last year the Rams came up just short of a state title as Bishop Fenwick's ground game proved too much for sophomore and junior-heavy Northbridge, but this year's Ram squad is another year older, stronger, better and hungrier.

Heck, they've already made history this year, with longtime head coach Ken LaChapelle capturing the Massachusetts all-time wins record, but he'd love to cap his storied career with an undisputed state championship to go with all those Super Bowl wins.

Standing in Northbridge's way is the team that shocked Bishop Fenwick this season, physical Abington. The Green Wave have ridden senior running back Shawn Donovan all season, and the signature performance of his career (so far) came against Fenwick, when he rushed for 192 yards and two touchdowns on just 12 carries.

“Coach has been telling us, we have to be good on first down,” explained Northbridge junior safety, Jake Wood. “They’re good on first down so we have to put them in passing situations. They’re a running team and it’s their strong suit so it’s all about making plays on first down against them.”

Storyline to Watch: Potent Passing Game vs Play Making Defense

The Green Wave's young defense put together its best and most complete performance of the year in the state semis, holding Bishop Fenwick to just 15 points, intercepting three Crusaders passes and holding strong on a pair of fourth downs.

Defensive back Aidan Cawley (who doubles as a receiver for Abington) will likely have the unenviable task of covering Northbridge star receiver Chandler Brooks in what could be the most exciting one-on-one matchup of the day. If the Green Wave can hold Northbridge's CMass-best pass offense in check, it will go a long way toward an Abington title.

Player to Watch: Koby Schofer, Northbridge

Leading that Ram passing game is coach LaChapelle's grandson, junior quarterback Koby Schofer. While Schofer's passing numbers have been stellar this season (over 2,300 yards and 25 touchdowns to lead Central Mass), his ability to run the ball and make good decisions in the option game are what truly make him a nightmare for defenses.

Schofer has rushed for over 1,300 yards this season at an astonishing 9 yards per carry, and his ability to sell the run and pick his spots opens up space for classmate Jake Wood. Add in the fact that Schofer is also one of CMass' best safeties on the other side of the ball, and you get maybe THE player to watch Saturday at Gillette.


The Rams are hungry to avenge last season's loss, but Abington has the feel of a team that can overcome just about anything. The junior-heavy Rams actually have the championship experience advantage, but Abington's tougher schedule and playoff run could make them the more battle-tested team.

Look for the Green Wave to ride Donovan and attempt to keep the ball out of Schofer's hands, hoping to wear out a Rams squad that plays a ton of guys both ways. But, if Northbridge can stack the box and force Abington to air it out, it will be just the kind of game the Rams like.

Division 6

Cohasset (10-2) vs Littleton (11-1), 9 am

This is our only rematch from last season's state final slate, and Cohasset would very much like to avoid a repeat of last year's thrashing at the hands of Littleton. Led by Travis Bassett's record-tying five rushing touchdowns (and two interceptions on defense), the Tigers blasted the Skippers 52-35 in a game that wasn't even as close as the final score makes it look.

This year, Travis' younger brother Connor Bassett will take center stage as a dual-threat quarterback for repeat-minded Littleton, and he's joined in D6's most dominant backfield by star running back Elijah Pyram.

If the Skippers hope to avenge last season's defeat, they'll need to continue playing smothering defense. Since losing two-in-a-row early in the season, Cohasset has responded by tightening up, allowing just 5.3 points per game the last nine times out.

Senior defensive lineman Steven Iantosca has helped lead an improved Skippers front that has virtually lived in opposing backfields throughout the playoffs, and will hope to slow down the powerful Tiger ground game.

Storyline to Watch: Familiar Foes

As I said, this will be Saturday's only rematch, and you have to believe that familiarity will make it a much more competitive game than last year. Last season I can remember everybody in the press box at Gillette being surprised at just how good Littleton was. The Tigers' speed and continuity were insanely impressive for a small town program in Division 6, and you could tell the Skippers didn't know what they were in for.

With a game against the high-powered Tigers offense and swarming Tigers defense, plus the experience of playing at Gillette already under their belts, expect the Skippers to feel right at home Saturday.

Player to Watch: Chris Renaccio, Littleton

As great as last year's Littleton offense, led by quarterback Alex McLaughlin and Travis Bassett, was, this year's Tiger attack may be more complete. Connor Bassett has stepped in at quarterback and added more of a passing dimension to the offense, and Renaccio has given the Tigers a legitimate threat on the outside.

Leading Central Mass with over 900 yards and an astounding 23 yards per catch, Renaccio is the big play threat in the passing game that makes Littleton even scarier than last year. If the Skippers are hoping that simply shutting down Littleton's running game will be enough, they could be in for a rude awakening.


Those that are pointing toward this game as a potential blowout because of last year's result are selling the Skippers, and their experience, short. Last year, with little knowledge of their opponents, the Skippers ran into a buzz saw in the early game and never recovered. This season, Cohasset knows just what is waiting for it at Gillette, but that doesn't mean defeating the defending state champs will be easy.

Littleton is the champion until somebody knocks it off, but an improved and more experienced Cohasset team presents a bigger threat than many think.

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