Monday, November 9, 2015

Central Mass HS Football Week in Review: Playoff Surprises

St. John's quarterback Tim Cassidy celebrates one of his three touchdown runs against Leominster Friday.

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Ed. Note- Since we won't be updating our Power Rankings until after the state championship games on December 5th, we will instead bring you a weekly review of Central Mass high school football.

The first weekend of the Central Mass high school football playoffs has come and gone, and we were treated to some shocking upsets, thrilling finishes, and break-out stars across the region.

Throw your expectations out the window, because top seeds and lower seeds went 4-4 against each other in the eight playoff games, including upsets in both Division 4 semifinals.

These past few days also brought us some intriguing non-playoff match ups that pitted up-and-coming programs against established powers, with bragging rights and momentum on the line.

Let's take a quick look back at the weekend that was.

Division 2

1. Nashoba defeats 4. Marlborough, 28-14.

3. St. John's (Shrewsbury) defeats 2. Leominster, 35-30.

Super Bowl Match Up: Nashoba vs St. John's, Saturday at 3 pm: Foley Stadium in Worcester

The Chieftains rode their dominant offensive line to a two touchdown win over Marlborough, and the score may not indicate just how much Nashoba controlled that game. All year long, Nashoba has won in the trenches, and they'll get their biggest test of the season Saturday.

That test will come in the form of St. John's, a team that knocked rival Leominster out of the playoffs for the second time in three years with a road victory last week. The last time the Pioneers knocked off the Blue Devils at Doyle Field, they made it all the way to Gillette for the Division 2 state championship game in 2013.

With Tim Cassidy running and throwing the football at a high level, and a defensive line that is getting consistent penetration, the Pioneer offense going against Nashoba's physical defense, and the St. John's D trying to slow down Nashoba's running game will be must-see TV Saturday.

As for Marlborough, the Panthers made a statement just by qualifying for the playoffs in Division 2. A powerful offensive line and running game made Marlborough a tough out for anybody, but Nashoba simply beat the Panthers at their own game.

Still, heads should be held high in Marlborough for a successful season.

In Leominster the mood is a bit lower, despite all that the Blue Devils accomplished this season.

After Leominster's loss to St. John's Friday night, many Blue Devil players took moments to just sit or kneel on the Doyle Field turf and stare at the scoreboard, reflecting on the (meaningful) end of their season. In the stands, fans piled out, and more than one conversation included the sentence, "we've still got Thanksgiving, but that doesn't matter anymore."

It was a painful end for the Blue Devil players, staff and faithful, which is a shame, because this was a great team that played some great ball. Perhaps it's a run of hard luck in big games fueling the doom and gloom.

After all, Leominster has lost to hated rivals the last two years in the playoffs (to St. John's in 2013 and Fitchburg last year), and fell to Nashoba in the de facto Mid-Wach A championship game earlier this year. To make matters worse, all those games came inside the friendly confines of Doyle Field.

But when you put all the angst aside, Leominster has plenty to look forward to. The Blue Devil backfield will return intact, with star quarterback Noah Gray coming back for his senior season, alongside slippery running back Angel Colina and versatile fullback Anthony Dandini.

With those three guys to build on, next year's Leominster squad should again be among the best in Central Mass, though that might be of little consolation to Blue Devil fans right now, as they try to get excited for a consolation game against Marlborough.

Division 4

4. Holy Name defeats 1. Doherty, 48-36.

3. Grafton defeats 2. Tantasqua, 27-7.

Super Bowl Match Up: Grafton vs Holy Name, Saturday at 3 pm: Doyle Field in Leominster

It was upset city in Division 4, and now we have two legitimate Cinderella stories to watch Saturday at Doyle. Holy Name fell behind by 16 early in the third quarter, but rattled off 28 unanswered points to stun Doherty in Worcester Friday, fueled by fullback Thomas Lech's four touchdown runs.

Star running back Kevin Mensah also scored on a long touchdown run, and interception return, but this was a total team win for the Naps against a very good Highlander squad.

Grafton followed a similar script to upset Tantasqua, riding Matt O'Brien and Ifeatu Melifonwu for four touchdowns and 27 unanswered points in the win. Melifonwi also starred on defense, slowing down Tantasqua's lethal receiver/tight end J.J. Howland, while Jack Fontana snatched an interception just before intermission.

It could be a ground-and-pound affair in the D4 Central final, but whichever defense stiffens or forces a key turnover could be the difference in the game. Either way, it should be a great one.

Back to Tantasqua for a moment, and one of the most interesting teams in the region. With Howland and running back Matt Bressette out of the playoffs, there will certainly be some lost excitement. Those two guys always put on a show, and the Warriors certainly overachieved this season, grabbing the No. 2 seed, and upsetting Doherty earlier this year.

They were also the only team to score a point on D5 power Northbridge during the regular season, which may not seem like a big deal, but it kinda is.

Doherty also took a big step back toward contending on a state level this year. The Highlanders had a team that stepped out of the shadow of that 2013 state championship group and forged its own legacy. Led by Tavian Vassar, Manny Brown, Tariq Massenberg, Aaron Adu and a host of others, Doherty had a memorable run, but faced Holy Name as the Naps were absolutely rolling.

While both of these underdogs move onto bigger things, neither of the top seeds has anything to be ashamed of. I said it before the playoffs began: Division 4 is the most competitive in Central Mass, and that is playing out now.

Division 5

1. Northbridge defeats 4. Oakmont, 51-6.

2. Uxbridge defeats 3. Leicester, 21-6.

Super Bowl Match Up: Northbridge vs Uxbridge, Saturday at noon: Foley Stadium in Worcester

You know the deal with Northbridge by now, and the Rams will get to face their Thanksgiving rivals 12 days early in a truly manful game when they battle Uxbridge Saturday.

The Spartans defeated Leicester for the second time this season to prove they are Northbridge's biggest threat in D5, but beating the Rams will be a Herculean task.

As for the teams now out of it- Leicester battled adversity this year and still made sure it figured into the Division 5 race. The Wolverines boasted one of D5's best defenses, and rode running back Malichi Ceely to a 6-3 season (thus far), and should again be a contender next season.

Oakmont, on the other hand, shook off a streak of three consecutive losing seasons to make the playoffs in 2015. The Spartans recovered from a mid-season two-game losing streak to finish with back-to-back wins to qualify for the postseason, and will certainly use this season as a springboard to future success. With a young core, Oakmont will be one to watch in 2016.

Division 6

4. West Boylston defeats 1. Littleton, 14-6.

2. St. Bernard's defeats Blackstone Valley Tech, 42-25.

Super Bowl Match Up: St. Bernard's vs West Boylston, Saturday at noon: Doyle Field in Leominster

Since losing its opener to perennial power Littleton, West Boylston had won seven in a row heading into Friday night's rematch with the Tigers. The Lions were ready, and got an outstanding two-way performance from star running back/linebacker Cole McCubrey, but it was actually quarterback Tim McQuade who scored the tying and winning touchdown against Littleton.

That great defense will again be tested against high-flying St. Bernard's, who out-gunned an electric BVT attack in the other semi. Led by the two-headed run game of Cooper Bigelow and A.J. Robichaud, the Bernardians can score on anybody, but can they crack West Boylston's front, or slow down McCubrey for that matter?

Should be an interesting one.

It was a frustrating end for both BVT, a team that has emerged as one of the best Voke school programs in the state, and Littleton, a program that has made back-to-back state title games, winning a championship in 2013.

The Beavers should be even better next year with dual-threat quarterback Hector Petri returning for his senior season, and you know Littleton will be back hungrier than ever in 2016.

Key Non-Playoff Games

Algonquin defeats Shepherd Hill 29-28
Groton-Dunstable defeats Fitchburg 30-8
Auburn defeats Southbridge 21-7

Many critics of the new statewide playoff format have pointed to the "meaningless" non-playoff games as a major reason to scrap the system. Well, as we've found out, games have as much meaning as you attach to them. For an up-and-coming program like Algonquin, the chance to play regional power Shepherd Hill was certainly meaningful. The Rams showed up as well, and these two teams played a classic.

While it may not have been a playoff game, the T-Hawks scored a signature win, and are building momentum for 2016.

Also, give G-D some credit for knocking off Fitchburg. You want to talk about momentum? After losing four games in a row earlier this season, the Crusaders have now won four straight, and have the chance to head into Thanksgiving on a five-game winning streak. That would certainly make their date with Tyngsborough meaningful,

Auburn is another team trying to salvage a season that started poorly. Since starting the year 1-4, with a three-game losing streak built in, the Rockets have won four in a row, including shutout victories over Tyngsborough and Bartlett. They'll face Clinton this week with a chance to feel great about themselves going into Turkey Day.

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