Monday, November 16, 2015

Central Mass Super Bowl Wrap

St. Bernard's corner Cooper Bigelow flips West Boylston running back Cole McCubrey when the big man attempts to hurdle him Saturday in the Division 6 Central final.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Saturday was a fantastic day for high school football in Central Massachusetts, as four Super Bowl champs were crowned in Worcester and Leominster. Those four CMass champs will now move onto the state semifinals next week, and are each just one step away from Gillette Stadium.

But it wasn't just about the winners, as several teams and players acquitted themselves very well in defeat.

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

Division 2

Nashoba Knows How to Close

The Chieftains have just done their job all year, and now Nashoba is an unlikely Division 2 Central champion. I mean, before the season started, everybody was picking either St. John's or Leominster. Well, thanks to a pair of close wins and big last-minute plays, Nashoba has topped both of them for the title.

A few weeks back it was generating a stop on Leominster's two-point try, and this week it was Harry Ashline's 4th down sack of Tim Cassidy, when the Pioneers were just two yards away from a game-winning score.

When the game is on the line, these Chieftains come through, and did so Saturday to the tune of a 32-27 championship win over St. John's. Nashoba will move onto face Springfield Central next Saturday at Westfield State. Winner goes to Gillette.

Bitter End to Great Season for St. John's

But take nothing away from the Pioneers, who won a thriller against Leominster to get here, and scored impressive wins against Xavier (CT), Shepherd Hill and Marlboro along the way.

Quarterback Tim Cassidy emerged as one of the best players in the region, period, and the Pioneer defense got better as the year wore on, particularly up front. Offensive tackle Sean Ragan will move onto Boston College next year, but this season he was Central Mass' best run blocker and improved tremendously in pass protection.

St. John's may have come up two yards short, but this was a great team.

Division 4

Grafton's Crazy Win

You can check out my full highlights of Grafton's insane 28-16 win in the D4 Central final, or you can just watch Deven Senya's improbable 101-yard fumble return that sealed the game.

Basically, the Indians made plays when they had to. Leading by six in the game's closing moments, Grafton forced Holy Name's Thomas Lech into a fumble at the goal line. Senya, who at first thought the play was dead, picked the ball up in the end zone, and ran it all the way back for the game-clinching score. More on that play in a bit.

Thanks to that play-making defense, and an impressive run game, Grafton was able to edge Holy Name in a classic. I came away very impressed with Grafton's offensive line, as well as running back Matt O'Brien, a guy that has been one of the best in the region all year long.

But another player that caught my eye was Grafton's Ifeatu Melifonwu. The tall and speedy junior played wide receiver, quarterback and cornerback for the Indians, and was always making an impact. His 58-yard touchdown run in the third quarter would have been the play of the game in pretty much any other game, and he just appeared to be gliding with the ball in his hands.

But don't let his long limbs and speed fool you, Melifonwu packs plenty of pop when he finishes runs. If you're looking for a Central Mass comparison, he sort of looks like Doherty alum and current Boston College starter Isaac Yiadom with the ball in his hands.

It will be interesting to see which colleges start sniffing around Grafton for Melifonwu's services. He certainly looked like a D1 athlete Saturday.

Holy Name's Kevin Mensah looks for room against Grafton's defense in Saturday's Division 4 Central final.
Holy Name's Improbable Run

Take nothing away from the Naps, though, who were a controversial fumble away from punching the ball in to tie, or potentially take the lead in the game's final moments.

When you watch this team you can't help but be impressed by their pair of primary ball carriers, both junior running back Kevin Mensah and junior fullback Thomas Lech.

In coach Mike Pucko's Double Wing, the two complement each other perfectly, with Mensah's speed serving as the lightning and Lech's power the thunder. Both backs have tremendous vision and patience, two things you need to operate in this offense, and Lech came up with some bowling ball runs tower the end of the game to give Holy Name a chance.

As for Mensah: You can see why this kid is drawing Division 1 college football interest. He's got speed, deceptive power, and is just downright shifty with the ball in his hands. With these two coming back, don't be surprised to see Holy Name right back in the thick of things next year.

Breaking Down the Game's Controversial Plays

The game ending 101-yard fumble return by Senya will be talked about for years to come by both schools, as Holy Name thought, perhaps rightfully so, that their runner, Lech, was either down, or that his forward motion had halted. I only have one camera angle of the play, but here's my best stab at what happened.

Here's a screen shot of just before the ball came out.

Lech's helmet is on a Grafton defender's knee (lower right corner of the picture), but you can't see the rest of his body. The ball still hasn't come out yet. You could say he appears to be down, given how low his helmet is (don't be fooled by the elbow and arm on the ground, that is the arm of a Grafton defender), but from this angle it's impossible to tell if he was on top of another defender, or if the rest of his body was still up in the air.

Here's the next frame, with the ball popping up.

Lech's helmet is even lower, showing that he was still moving downward in the last frame. Basically, I have no idea if he was down, and I'd love to know if anybody has a better angled shot of this than I do. Either way, it was one of the most insane plays I've ever seen.

The other controversial play came just before the half, as Grafton was driving to increase its 14-8 lead. Quarterback Ben Cadrin tried a sneak from a yard out, but the play was ruled a fumble, recovered in the end zone by Holy Name's Kevin Mensah. The Naps were awarded a touchback and started their next drive at the 20.

Here's a great goal line video of the play, courtesy of Grafton parent (and unofficial SuiteSports correspondent) Aleke Msumba.
I've grabbed a screen shot from the play, where it appears that Cadrin and the pile have fallen into the end zone. But, it's unclear, in that mass of bodies, if the ball has already come out, or even where the ball is. Check out that shot below.

In this next frame, we see Mensah on his back, holding the ball.

For the call to be right, we would have to assume the ball came out, in the scrum, before it crossed the plane, and fell into Mensah's stomach while he was on the ground.

My conclusion: Both teams probably have legitimate gripes with these two calls, but man were they both close. Even breaking it down, frame-by-frame, I'm still not sure what the right call was. The officials did the best they could in live time, and the first call worked out for Holy Name while the last one sealed a win for Grafton.

Again, if anybody has better angles of these two plays, I'd love to see them. You hate to see a team's season end on a controversial call like this, but it did create one of the greatest moments of the season. Mixed feelings all around on this one.

Division 5

Northbridge Continues Its Dominance

It was more of the same from the Rams, who blanked rival Uxbridge 33-0 to capture the Division 5 Central crown.

The tremendous Rams defense and explosive Northbridge offense will now turn their sights to Hoosac Valley and the Division 5 state semifinal next Saturday in Leominster. A win there would send the Rams back to Gillette for the third straight season, and this team has some unfinished business in Foxboro.

Uxbridge the Best of the Rest

But really, nobody in D5 Central was beating Northbridge this year. The Rams were historically good, but Uxbridge emerged as the best in a crowed D5 pack playing for second place.

The Spartans topped Leicester twice this year, and came within a touchdown of both the Division 4 Central champs (Grafton) and the Division 6 Central champs (St. Bernard's).

Max White-Cohen emerged as one of the region's best quarterbacks, and Uxbridge looked like a team that could play with anybody. Just maybe not this year's Northbridge group.

Division 6

St. Bernard's Still Unbeaten

It was a complete team win for St. Bernard's, who knocked off West Boylston 7-6 in the early game at Doyle Field to capture the D6 Central title. The Bernardians actually fell in an early 6-0 hole, thanks to some tough running by WB's Cole McCubrey, but stuffed the two-point conversion attempt, and answered back with a long drive of their own, engineered by senior quarterback Cooper Bigelow.

The dual-threat signal caller hit Manny Rodriguez for an 8-yard touchdown, and Zach Merchant's extra point was good to give St. B's a lead it would not relinquished. It was an amazing display of disciplined defense and sure tackling the rest of the way from St. Bernard's. McCubrey broke a few runs and got his yards, but the Bernardians always found a way to stop the bleeding.

St. B's forced two turnovers in the second half, and Bigelow's 4th and 7 stop of McCubrey late in the fourth was one of the highlights of the season, as was his flipping of the big fella in the first half (pictured at the top of the article).

If you didn't take the undefeated Bernardians, who have wins over Uxbridge and Blackstone Valley Tech on their resume, seriously before, it's time to start. This is a team that can really run the ball and defend the run, but also has the athletes to make plays in space.

There was also an undeniable will on the Bernardians sideline. Even going against a running game as bruising as West Boylston's, St. B's just kept fighting, and refused to lose, even as the Lions' size and strength began to wear on them. St. B's will move onto face Lee at Westfield State next Saturday, and a win would send them to Gillette Stadium.

West Boylston Left It on the Field

As good as St. B's was on defense, West Boylston was still able to run the ball, and generated several scoring opportunities. Unfortunately for the Lions, two untimely fumbles doomed their best scoring chances in the second half, and they just weren't quite able to beat the door down when it mattered most.

That shouldn't take away from the great season Cole McCubrey had. He was a beast again Saturday, and the Lions played even with the Bernardians all day. At the end of the game, however, it was a failed two-point conversion that did them in.

In the Super Bowl, one play can change everything.

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