Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Central Mass HS Football Playoff Preview

Cole McCubrey leads West Boylston into the Division 4 playoffs with a head full of steam.

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

It's playoff time in the heart of the Commonwealth and, with an expanded playoff format, even more team will be participating in the postseason this year. With CMass teams competing across six divisions, we've got a ton to cover, so let's dive right in.

Division 2 Central
The Favorite: St. John's

You could throw Wachusett here too, especially since the Mountaineers defeated the Pioneers earlier this year, but the talent of St. John's, at every position, along with the winning tradition of the program, makes them the favorite in most fans' minds. But it's not just perception, the Pioneers can run the ball as well as anybody, with a variety of backs, and quarterback Steve Bucciaglia is having a stellar first season starting.

Add in one of the state's best front sevens, and coach John Andreoli's reputation as a big-game coach, and you've got a team that will be a tough out for anybody.

The Sleeper: Algonquin

The T-Hawks are the only team to defeat Wachusett this year, and have as underrated an offensive/defensive line as you'll find in the state. Quarterback Ryan Barry and tight end Colin Robinson have big-play potential together, and a group of rugged backs, led by Max Cerasoli, give the Tomahawks the ability to grind out games.

Player to Watch: A.J. Laramee, RB/LB, Shrewsbury

If Shrewsbury is to pull off the upset against rival St. John's in the first round, the Colonials will need a big night from everybody, but Laramee has the ability to lift his team on both sides of the ball. A well-rounded back who can help Shrewsbury keep the St. John's "Blur" offense off the field, Laramee's abilities to cover a ton of ground, and live in opposing backfield defensively, will need to be on full display if the Colonials are to slow the Pioneers down.

Again, it will need to be a team effort, but a big game from Laramee would go a long way toward Shrewsbury shocking the region.

1st Round Game to Watch: Algonquin at Wachusett

I'm sure Wachusett must feel disrespected. After all, the Mountaineers just won in blowout fashion, then dropped two spots in our final Power Rankings of the regular season. But, imagine how disrespected Algonquin must feel.

The Tomahawks are the only team to defeat Wachusett this year, and people around the region are already asking if St. John's will be able to win its rematch against the Mountaineers. Expect two very physical, very motivated teams to put on a classic Friday night.

Division 2A Central
The Favorite: Marlboro

The Panthers boast one of the region's best offensive lines, and running back Owen Cappadona brings an old-school toughness, along with plenty of speed and ability to this offense. Quite simply, Marlboro has blown away all competition in this division, having defeated Nashoba and Doherty by a combined 55 points in the month of October.

They may need to repeat that success in November, but as of now, there's little reason to doubt the Panthers.

The Sleeper: Nashoba

Or is there?… Since losing 27-7 to Marlboro, Nashoba has bounced back to defeat Shepherd Hill out of Division 2, and absolutely throttle Westboro. Have the Chieftains righted all their wrongs? We don't know yet, but it's looking more and more like coach Jamie Tucker's run defense is re-discovering its form from last year, and that's a good sign for a team that wins with physicality and toughness.

Player to Watch: Colin Eliason, QB, Tantasqua

But, if Marlboro falls in the first round, it will likely be because of a Herculean effort by Tantasqua's signal caller. With over 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns passing this season, Eliason has proven to be one of Central MA's most lethal quarterbacks, and the Warriors would like nothing more than to turn this game into a shootout.

1st Round Game to Watch: Doherty at Nashoba

The Highlanders are a young, but explosive squad, with a bunch of guys that can hurt you offensively. But, their Achilles heal has been tough teams that can run with power. The Chieftains fit that bill, but I'd expect Doherty to be able to spread Nashoba out, and quarterback Chris Schoen to find some open receivers.

Doherty will need to play its best game defensively, and most disciplined game offensively, but this young team has the talent to pull off the upset.

Division 3 Central
The Favorite: Grafton

What more can we say about the Indians? Everyone knows Ifeatu Melifonwu has been unstoppable this year, but watch out for Jack Fontana and the Grafton defense as well. Coming off a 34-0 thrashing of No. 2 seed Auburn, it's hard not to call the Indians prohibitive favorite here.

The Sleeper: St. Peter-Marian

Underestimate the Guardians at your peril. Quarterback Danny Malm gives SPM a chance to score any time it has the ball, both as a passer and a runner, while P.J. Barry has emerged as one of the region's best receivers and defensive backs.

With a difficult schedule behind them, the Guardians are battle-tested heading into the D3 Central tournament.

Player to Watch: Ryan Malkowski, QB, Quabbin

Malkowski leads the region in every relevant passing category, and is more than just a stat machine. The junior quarterback has helped Quabbin lead the region in scoring, and win must-have games against North Middlesex, Gardner and Hudson down the stretch.

Just to put Malkowski's dominance into perspective: His top three receivers are also the three leading receivers in CMass, and Quabbin has scored over 35 points in EVERY GAME THIS SEASON. The Panthers have also scored over 40 points in seven out of eight games, and put up 50 on three separate occasions.

It will be unstoppable force meets immovable object, when Quabbin and its 45.8 points per game go up against Grafton's region-leading defense, which allows just 6.8 points each time out. 

1st Round Game to Watch: St. Peter-Marian at Auburn

We should be treated to a great dual-threat quarterback duel in this one, assuming Auburn quarterback Steve Saucier is good to go. He and Malm should be able to move the ball, so this one could come down to which team can force a turnover, or clamp down on the opposing team's ground game.

Most are expecting the Rockets to roll here, but like I said above, don't underestimate the Guardians.

Division 3A Central
The Favorite: Nipmuc

Nipmuc will host a playoff game for the first time in school history, and the Indians looked like world-beaters just three weeks ago. Unfortunately for the Indians, they are currently riding a two-game losing streak, including a defeat at the hands of their first round opponent, Holy Name.

Still, this team's complete body of work is undeniable, and a 24-0 win over St. Bernard's, along with a victory against Sutton show what the Warriors can do when they're on their game.

The Sleeper: Sutton

That said, don't sleep on the Sammies, who are enjoying a fine season, with wins over Holy Name and Leicester under their belt. This team has proven it can play with anyone in the division, and if they can get past Uxbridge, the Sammies know they have a shot against either Nipmuc or Holy Name.

Player to Watch: Max White-Cohen, QB, Uxbridge

But that's a big "if," because Uxbridge brings one of the best gun-slingers in the region into that game against Sutton. When White-Cohen is at his best, he's darn near unstoppable, and he's kept the Spartans in games against Division 3 powers Grafton and Auburn.

1st Round Game to Watch: Holy Name at Nipmuc

The Warriors know they didn't play their best game in a 16-6 loss to the Naps a few weeks back, and that game also served as a turning point for Holy Name's season. The Naps followed that performance up with a blowout of Burncoat, and enter Saturday's game brimming with confidence.

Will the Warriors be able to win their first-ever home playoff game, or will Holy Name find the same magic it had last postseason?

Division 4 Central 
The Favorite: West Boylston

The Lions are turning Cole McCubrey loose, and the UMass-bound running back/linebacker is delivering. He rushed for six touchdowns in a season-ending win over Littleton, and it doesn't seem like there is anybody in the division that can slow the Lion offense down when McCubrey is rolling.

The Sleeper: Leicester

Leicester enters the tournament as one of the region's hottest teams, having won four in a row by a combined 93 points. Over that span, Kyle Pedini has been unstoppable running the ball, and quarterback Nate Powers has been as efficient as can be.

If you're looking for a team peaking at the right time, Leicester is your pick in D4.

Player to Watch: Cody Adams, RB/DB, Bartlett

Bartlett will certainly have its hands full against West Boylston, but if the Indians are to pull off the upset, it will all start with getting Adams going on the ground. Adams has proven to be Bartlett's biggest threat with the ball in his hands, and he's also served as a ball-hawk on defense, intercepting a pair of passes this year.

In the biggest games you need your best players to step up, and Bartlett will look for Adams to do just that.

1st Round Game to Watch: Leicester at Littleton

As well as Leicester has played down the stretch, the Wolverines will be strongly challenged by this Tiger squad. With quarterback Griffin Shoemaker, along with a stocked stable of backs, led by Anthony Rausa, Littleton can score with the best of them, and a speedy defense will make life difficult for Leicester.

Still, don't count the red-hot Wolverines out, as they've shown they can pack a scoring punch themselves, and their defense has tightened in recent weeks.

Division 4A Central
The Favorite: Maynard

The Tigers have beaten both West Boylston and Littleton this year, so they'd be the favorite even if they were playing a division up. With a roster short on bodies, the Tigers spread the ball around on offense to keep everybody fresh, and swarm to the ball as a unit on defense.

P.J. Falzone has emerged as a star running back, special teamer and defensive back, however, while Eric Kiley has led the region in tackles, and emerged as the team's best pass-catcher. Yeah, when you have so few players, your best guys have to do a little bit of everything.

The Sleeper: St. Bernard's

The Bernardians have licked their wounds well after a 24-0 loss to Nipmuc, winning three in a row behind a powerful offensive line, and underrated defense. With the ability to run the ball, and take away the run on defense, the Bernardians are going to make you play your best game to beat them.

Player to Watch: Gabe Souza, RB, Assabet

Assabet is just a four-point loss to Blackstone Valley Tech away from a perfect season, and Souza has been the engine that drives this team all year. Not only has he been one of the Central MA's leading rushers for the entire season, he's also been one of the most efficient. At 8.5 yards per carry, and a touchdown every 11 times he touches the ball, the Aztecs know that good things usually happen when they get Souza the rock.

1st Round Game to Watch: St. Bernard's at Blackstone Valley Tech

We may get a game of "anything you can do, I can do better" from St. Bernard's running back James Xarras, one of the most explosive runners in the region, and do-it-all BVT quarterback Hector Petri.

It will likely come down to whichever defense plays a more disciplined game, because each team can move the ball.

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