Wednesday, November 30, 2016

State Championship Preview: Maynard vs Millis-Hopedale in Division 4A

P.J. Falzone stars on both sides of the ball for Maynard, but he's not the only one. With only 26 players on the roster, the Tigers have many guys pulling double duty, and now they're only one game away from the ultimate prize.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

As we've already told you, it's football state championship week here in Massachusetts, and SuiteSports is going to be giving you wall-to-wall coverage of all eight state championship games this Saturday.

But, before we tell you what happened, we first have to give you a sneak peak at each of these intriguing match ups. We begin with Division 4A, the MIAA's smallest division for football, and a clash of styles that could make for one of the day's most entertaining games.

Unfortunately for everybody involved, the game will not be played at Gillette Stadium. Rather, these two programs will play for a championship in the Heart of the Commonwealth, at Worcester State University on Saturday at noon.

If you're looking for positives, it will definitely be a more intimate, and probably louder venue than the massive NFL stadium most other teams will be playing in. And hey, winning a state championship feels pretty good no matter where you do it.

Meet Millis-Hopedale

Millis-Hopedale Mohawks: 9-3, D4A South Champs

The Mohawks have become one of the state's true small-school powers over the last few years, producing a number of college players, most notably Boston College starting center Jon Baker, and several stacked teams. But none of those teams ever made it to a state championship game, and this year's group, as talented as it is, won't take this achievement for granted.

M-H has boasted one of the most explosive and diverse offenses in the state all year. The headliner coming into the season was University of Maine commit Brian Espanet, a 6-foot-4 highlight reel receiver and safety, but quarterback Bryce Latosek has proven to be among the Commonwealth's best at his position as well.

Add in the development of speedy receiver P.J. Adams and junior running back Kurt Hopkins, and the breakneck pace that coach Dana Olson's offense can operate at, and you have a scary proposition for opposing defensive coaches.

Defensively, M-H has finished the year playing its best ball. The Mohawks started the season with a shaky defensive performance against powerful Holliston, and struggled against high-flying Westwood, but locked things up once the postseason came around.

Since the state tournament began, Millis-Hopedale has surrendered just 31 points in four games.

That's just over a touchdown per game against four tournament teams. A very impressive finish indeed.

Meet Maynard 

Maynard Tigers: 12-0, D4A Central Champs

The Tigers have been the story of the year in Central Mass, and with good reason. Not only does Maynard dress less than 30 players (26 at our most recent count), but the Tigers came from seemingly nowhere to knock off regional small-school powers Littleton and West Boylston.

Maynard has done that behind an incredibly physical offensive line, led by senior guard Akram Semakula, and the two-headed running back attack of P.J. Falzone and Alex Longo, who are each averaging over 7 yards per carry.

The Tigers will run it down your throat, but don't sleep on quarterback Tommy Smith, who makes the most of his opportunities, throwing for 12 touchdowns on only 35 attempts, and tight end/receiver Eric Kiley,  who has been a lethal vertical threat this year, catching eight touchdowns and averaging an absurd 32 yards per reception.

The Tigers don't throw it a ton, but when they do, it usually works out for them.

On defense, uh, you'll hear a lot of the same names. When you only dress 26 players, many of them have to play both sides of the ball, and the Tigers get more out of their players than almost anybody in the state. Kiley led Central Mass with 151 tackles (39 more than second place), while Semakula excelled as a defensive end and Falzone intercepted four passes as the leader of the secondary.

Sophomore Timmy Lawton also emerged as a budding star on the defensive line.

The Bottom Line

This game will likely come down to whichever team can impose its will and tempo. Millis-Hopedale would love for this to turn into a shootout, where Brian Espanet's immense length/speed and knack for making downfield plays comes into focus, while Maynard is hoping for a slugfest where the Tigers' offensive line and swarming defense can deliver big hits, and wear down the Mohawks.

Whichever team wins, it will be a fantastic ending to a historic season, and even the losing team will be able to hold its head high after making school history.

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