Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Your 2015 Central Mass HS Football Playoff Preview

Leominster QB Noah Gray (19) and Nashoba OL/DL Mike Curtin will be two players to watch in the Division 2 playoffs.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

We've already given you our final Central Mass Power Rankings of the regular season, so today we'll take a look at all four playoff divisions in Central Mass.

With 16 CMass teams still alive in the hunt for a state championship, here's what to watch for these next few weeks.

Division 2
The Favorite(s): Nashoba, Leominster

The Chieftains are undefeated and have already defeated Leominster, but these two programs enter as co-favorites anyway. I mean, that classic game at Doyel Field earlier this year did come down to the last play, and only a point separated these two powers.

The Chieftains have been able to run the ball and push opposing offenses around all year, but they've also got great athletes like running back/defensive back Jake Benjamin and fellow two-way star Tony Kennon to back up all the beef up front.

Leominster, on the other hand, has speed to burn on both sides of the ball, and perhaps the region's best quarterback in Noah Gray. If the Blue Devils play a clean game (penalties have bitten them this year), many believe this is the most talented team in the region, but avoiding penalties is a skill too.

Don't Sleep On: St. John's

The Pioneers are better up front than you think defensively, and the secondary features speedy play maker MacBrien Nkongchu (four interceptions), but if St. John's is to make a run, it will begin with the arm, and legs, of quarterback Tim Cassidy, behind the protection of left tackle Sean Ragan.

The Pioneers spread you thin to run and pass on you out of their no-huddle attack, and when Cassidy is in the zone, the St. John's offense is darn near impossible to stop. Add in the fact that nobody has been able to hold the point of attack against Ragan this year, and you have a scary offense that can score on anyone.

Player to Watch: Mike Curtin, Sr. OL/DL, Nashoba

You could plug a lot of names in here, but Curtin gets the nod to represent the offensive and defensive lines of Nashoba.

The Chieftains have won all year by dominating in the trenches, and Curtin has been brutally efficient from his left guard spot, and relentless as a hole plugger and pocket pusher when he plays defensive end.

Any team that hopes to beat Nashoba will have to find a way to slow down the Chieftain line and ground game, plus protect its quarterback from Curtin and company.

Division 4
 The Favorite(s): Doherty, Tantasqua

The Highlanders are just two years removed from a state championship, and this year's group is dreaming of a trip to Gillette as well. The three-headed rushing attack of Tavian Vassar, Manny Brown and Ricky Webster powers Doherty on offense, while athletic senior DB Aaron Adu helps make the defense a play-making group.

But Tantasqua has to be considered a co-favorite because, uh, it beat Doherty earlier this year. With the region's leading receiver and most lethal weapon J.J. Howland on the outside, and star running back Matt Bressette in the backfield, the Warriors can score on anybody. While many thought Division 4 would be a slugfest this year, led by Shepherd Hill, these two teams could turn the D4 playoffs into a track meet.

Don't Sleep On: Grafton

Grafton is lurking. The Indians lost to both Tantasqua and Doherty by a touchdown or less, and come in with one of the best running games, and most underrated defenses in Central Mass. On offense, it's all about senior running back Matt O'Brien, who currently ranks third in the region with 1,213 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground. Defensively, the Indians rely on sideline-to-sideline tackling machine Jack Fontana to clean things up.

While they do not have a "signature win" against any of the top teams in Division 4, Grafton may be on the verge of a breakthrough, and Tantasqua would be wise not to take the Indians lightly this Friday.

Player to Watch: Kevin Mensah, Jr. RB, Holy Name

Already drawing interest from Division I college teams across the country, Mensah may be the most explosive runner in Central Mass. He'll face a tough test Friday against a Doherty defense that is certainly not lacking in the speed department, but let's not forget that Mensah already returned a kickoff for a score and rushed for a touchdown as well against the Highlanders earlier this year.

With Holy Name coming in on a mini-run, keep your eye on the junior, who could turn some heads across the state with a big performance.

Division 5
 The Favorite(s): Northbridge

I don't think we need to re-state how dominant Northbridge has been, but the Rams defense, led by Alex Dowd, Chad Vaudreuil, Jalen McFadden and a host of others, has surrendered just seven points, and recorded seven shutouts in eight games.

The offense, led by dual-threat senior quarterback Koby Schofer, leads the region in scoring at 43 points per game, has scored at least five touchdowns in every contest this season, plus Northbridge has put up 40+ points against Division 4 mainstays Grafton, Tantasqua and St. Peter-Marian.

Basically, this team would be the prohibitive favorite even if it were classified a division up, and would even be considered one of the favorites in Division 2. The Rams are quite good.

Don't Sleep On: Uxbridge

While it's hard to see anybody defeating Northbridge, the Spartans have a puncher's chance thanks to prolific quarterback Max White-Cohen. The talented gun-slinger leads Central Mass with 22 touchdown passes and completions with 127.

It's a tall order, but if anybody can stun the Rams, it might be their Thanksgiving Day rival.

Player to Watch: Jake Wood, Sr. RB/S, Northbridge

Most of the attention around the Rams' historic season has focused on star quarterback Koby Schofer, and rightfully so, but Northbridge is loaded with talent, and Wood takes a backseat to nobody as one of the most versatile players in the region.

You want versatility? Wood is the only player in Central Mass pile up 500 yards receiving and 300 yards rushing, and he stars on the defensive side as a safety that has racked up over 30 tackles and three interceptions.

The senior truly does it all on a team full of talented players.

Division 6
 The Favorite(s): Littleton

Littleton has been to Gillette Stadium the last two years, first defeating Cohasset for the state title in 2013, then coming up short against those same Skippers last year. The goal is clearly a return trip to Foxboro for a team that enters D6 Central as a big favorite, and with good reason. Quarterback Connor Bassett and receiver Chris Renaccio rank among the region's best at their respective positions on the offensive side of the ball.

Linebacker Steve Collins leads an aggressive defense that has allowed just 4.3 points per game (second in the region behind Northbridge's absurd 0.9 PPG), and the Tigers feature five different players that have recorded an interception. Backing up a physical front is a dynamic secondary led by junior corner Griffin Shoemaker, but the Tigers will likely enter the playoffs without do-it-all senior Nick Fontanella, who left the Tigers' season-ending win over Tyngsboro with an MCL injury.

Even with the loss of a great two-way player like Fontanella, this is as complete a team as there is in Division 6. Littleton has ambitions for a state title, but must first emerge from a deceptively tough D6 Central.

Don't Sleep On: St. Bernard's

If anybody can knock off the Tigers, perhaps the 2-seeded Bernardians can. With dual-threat quarterback Cooper Bigelow getting going on the ground the past few weeks, St. B's has a difficult offense to game plan for, and the defense has done just enough to keep the Bernardians unbeaten, led by Zach Merchant and Bigelow, who each have three interceptions.

But forget about beating Littleton, it will be difficult just getting out of the first round against Voke school power Blackstone Valley Tech. D6 Central is sneaky difficult, but St. B's has the top-line talent to surprise.

Player to Watch: Cole McCubrey, Jr. RB/LB, West Boylston

If there's one guy in Division 6 that can take a game over by himself, it's West Boylston's two-way star that brings the pain both as a punishing running back, and as a bruising linebacker. On offense, McCubrey leads Central Mass with nearly 1,700 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns, and is also best among CMass backs with over 50 carries, averaging an absurd 11.5 yards a pop.

Defensively, McCubrey is one of the "rangier" linebackers in the state, tracking runners down sideline-to-sideline and making plays against the pass as well.

A first round date with Littleton is never easy, but with McCubrey running the ball, and doing his best to slow the Tigers intermediate passing game, West Boylston has as good a shot as anybody in D6 Central.


Anonymous said...

shepherd hill got the shaft … no one plays a harder schedule for a division 4 team .. too bad ..

Joe Parello said...

Yeah, with the field contracting from 8 teams to 4 teams in each division this year, they've almost penalized teams that play tough schedules and aren't afraid to schedule teams that might beat them. If this were last year, SH would have gone in as the 7th seed, and most people would probably still think of the Rams as a favorite. In most other sports, playing in a D2 league as a D4 team would punch your ticket to the playoffs, thanks to the Sullivan Rule, but, as we always hear, football is different than every other sport.
Will be interesting to see how all these teams shake out in the new format, which will spread CMass across six divisions.

Anonymous said...

Shep hill 35 . Doherty 0 .. Enough said

Anonymous said...

Thanks for recognizing Kennon and Benjamin for Nashoba. These two have gotten little to no recognition all season, yet Nashoba won the D2 State Championship. Benjamin was #1 in rushing for Nashoba and Kennon was #1 in interceptionsand #2 in tackles for Nashoba. The player with the most tackles for Nashoba was Kyle Hume, who also got little recognition.