|Photo of Duxbury receiver Ryan Reagan looking confused (probably about our All-Star team), snapped by our Nate Weitzer.|
Winter sports are upon us, but high school sports fans across the Commonwealth are still catching their collective breath after a crazy football season that featured a number of record-breaking performances, multiple programs having historic seasons and, of course, eight state champions.
While you can debate the merit of eight champions in a state the size of Massachusetts (we will get there shortly), you can't deny the excitement the final few weeks of the regular season, and the tail ends of the sectional tournaments provided.
Unfortunately, that excitement didn't carry over to the state title games.
Out of eight contests, only one came down to the wire (King Phillp's 21-18 victory over Reading in the D1A final at Gillette Stadium), and only two other games were competitive at all, and neither was played in the House That Brady Built (Xaverian hung with Everett, but could never muster enough offense in the D1 final in Lynn, while Maynard didn't have the depth to hold down Millis-Hopedale in the D4A final in Worcester).
You could make a case that Wahconah played with Mashpee until a few calls went against it, but that game was never in doubt late. Basically, any way you slice it, the games weren't as competitive as they should have been, which was an unfortunate end to an otherwise great season.
Let's look back at some of our biggest takeaways from MIAA football 2016.
The Maimarons and Duxbury
Duxbury completed its journey in Division 2, winning a state championship at Gillette Stadium against scrappy Shrewsbury. Headlining that effort was the father-son duo of coach Dave Maimaron and quarterback Bobby Maimaron. The younger Maimaron broke the Massachusetts career passing touchdowns record this season, and helped lead the Dragons to one of the most prolific offensive seasons in Bay State history.
But it wasn't just a family affair, as Duxbury was loaded from top to bottom. Harvard bound receiver Ryan Reagan, when healthy, was arguably the most unstoppable force in the state, and all-purpose running back Devin DeMeritt did a little bit of everything.
Add in an offensive line long on both talent and experience, and you have a recipe for an offense that can do whatever it wants, whenever it wants.
But don't sleep on the defense either, because, led by play-making linebacker Nick Gearin, the Dragon D was fun to watch as well.
The point of the game is to win (you play to win the game, or so I hear), but it didn't hurt that Duxbury played one of the most entertaining brands of football you'll ever see. As I've said before, I know Duxbury has its fair share of haters, but this was a team I really enjoyed watching.
Everett Gets Back to the Top
Despite all of that, it was Everett who took the top spot in our end of year Top 25, and with good reason. The Crimson Tide finally got over the hump and defeated two-time defending state champion Xaverian, and did so with a suffocating defense, and play-making offense.
Perhaps the biggest difference down the stretch for Everett was the play of senior quarterback Jordan McAfee. A natural athlete who can heave the ball downfield with the flick of his wrist, McAfee put it all together in 2016, showing toughness, leadership, and the ability to get Everett's other play makers into space.
McAfee will continue his career at UConn next year, but no doubt it wouldn't have been the same had he not gotten Everett back to the top of the MIAA mountain. The Tide will return a number of stars next season, including Mike Sainristil, a rising-junior who excited every time he touched the ball.
Could this be the birth of another Everett dynasty? Only time will tell.
The End of an Era for Xaverian
On the other side of the field in Lynn was Xaverian, a team that was the two-time defending D1 state champion, and will now go through a period of transition as long-time head coach Charlie Stevenson has said he will step down.
At the helm since 1993, Stevenson won an incredible 7 Super Bowls and 14 Catholic Conference titles, to go with over 200 wins. He truly is one of the legends of Massachusetts high school football, and was nearly able to end his career with a three-peat.
Whoever takes over in Westwood will have a roster ready to contend immediately, but also some major shoes to fill.
Record Breakers Across Central Mass
Bobby Maimaron and Andover's E.J. Perry IV chased the statewide passing records, but a number of players in the Heart of the Commonwealth also enjoyed record-setting performances.
Speaking of passing, nobody in Central Mass history threw for more yards or touchdowns in a season than Quabbin's Ryan Malkowski. The talented junior threw for 42 touchdown passes, breaking Quabbin alum Dylan Kierman's record of 37, and 3,214 yards, passing Kierman's 3,100 for the CMass single-season record.
Malkowski's favorite target Travis Lanpher also rewrote the CMass record books with 87 receptions (smashing the old record of 66) and 21 touchdowns through the air. Another Quabbin star, Colin Sweeney, entered the Central Mass record books with an absurd 10 interceptions as a defensive back.
If you watched Quabbin play this year, you probably weren't bored.
But CMass also saw records fall on the ground, as West Boylston's Cole McCubrey ran for a regional record 34 touchdowns in 2016, and finished his career with 6,352 yards rushing, also a CMass record. The UMass commit has been running folks over for years in Central Massachusetts, and he replaces Holy Name's Quron Wright as the most prolific rusher in the region's history.
How about kicking records? Yes, even kickers got in on the act, though calling St. Peter-Marian's P.J. Barry, who also excelled as a receiver and defensive back for the Guardians, simply a kicker would be selling him short.
That said, he was a damn good kicker, nailing a CMass record 11 field goals in 2016, including three in wins over rivals Holy Name and Doherty.
The Cape Crusaders
Cape Cod had one of its better years in recent memory, as Mashpee repeated as a state champion, this time in the new Division 4 (last year in the old Division 6), and Falmouth not only won a state title in Division 2A, but looked dominant in doing so.
Both were complete teams, but each had dynamic play makers that you just had to love watching. Mashpee sophomore running back Devaun Ford was one of the most explosive runners in the state this year, and will no doubt be one to watch in 2017 as he continues to physically mature and develop as a player.
Falmouth senior quarterback/defensive back Nick Couhig, meanwhile, did just about everything for the Clippers. The Boston College baseball commit was one of the region's best passers, but also adept at running Falmouth's option, beating defenses with his legs and decision making. He also snagged a late-game interception on defense in the state championship game, capping a memorable day at Gillette.
The Cape always has its share of power programs, but this year's duo of Mashpee and Falmouth will be remembered for a long time.
The Playoffs and Thanksgiving
Look, I've already written an extensive column on how I would change the current MIAA football playoffs, so I won't get too bogged down in that now. But, I will say that there is no need for eight divisions. Simply put, Massachusetts and Florida both crown the same amount of state football champions, and that is ridiculous.
Furthermore, having more teams playing for state titles increases the number of teams caught in the "should we play our starters on Thanksgiving" bind, and ensures that not every team will get to play its title game at Gillette Stadium.
Ideally, I want to go to four divisions, but I know that isn't happening, so I'd take going back to six. Even though many of those title games were blowouts, it still felt like a sweet spot for competition, and allowed every game to be played at Gillette on Super Saturday. You should definitely read the rest of my column above for my thoughts on Massachusetts bowl games and whatnot, but I'll move on to Thanksgiving.
This year we once again saw the state's best teams walking a fine line on Turkey Day. Some, like Duxbury, chose to rest their starters entirely, drawing the ire of the state, and of course, their Thanksgiving opponent, Marshfield.
I understand Marshfield's disappointment, but I also get where Duxbury is coming from. Rivalries matter, and Thanksgiving football matters but, at the end of the day, it's an exhibition game. It's a game with only bragging rights on the line, and the chance to win a state championship looms the following weekend.
It's easy to get mad at Duxbury, but every team has the right to make that decision for itself, and I don't think they owe it to anybody to play their starters.
That said, some teams like Xaverian played their starters and laid it all on the line against rival St. John's Prep, and that is to be applauded as well. Grafton walked the tight-rope pretty delicately, playing most of its starters, but resting Syracuse-bound star Ifeatu Melifonwu.
My big takeaway is: I don't care what teams do. If a team has earned the right to play in a state championship game, it has also earned the right to decide what to do on Turkey Day. If going for that Catholic Conference title means everything to Xaverian, good for them. If playing underclassmen and losing by 50 doesn't bother you, I can't tell you you're wrong.
I blame the system for putting coaches in this predicament, not the coaches who are trying to make the best decisions for their respective teams.
Many people loved our All-State team, but many more probably hated it. That's because it's hard to be a player, coach, parent or friend and see someone you know (or yourself) not get recognized for a ton hard work. At SuiteSports, we know that, which is why we didn't take the insults personally when people yelled at us for leaving "Player X" off our team.
Still, we also recognize that there were MANY more deserving players that we simply could not recognize. There were over a dozen very tough cuts for me to make, and here are some of the guys that were hardest to leave off our team.
Brad Rogers, Sr. RB, Hanover
A physical, hard-nosed runner who carried the Indians to a Division 3 state championship. Rogers showed great vision, patience and toughness behind a stout offensive line, but also had more of a burst than people gave him credit for.
Running back was an incredibly deep position this year, and Rogers was our final cut there, despite one of our reporters fighting pretty hard for his inclusion.
Jack McNeil, Jr. ATH, Marshfield
We received many messages from coaches, parents and players after our team was released, telling us we had to check out their player. Most of them were players I thought we had given a fair look, but McNeil was an example of a player that slipped through the cracks. As hard to believe as it is, none of our writers got to see perennial power Marshfield in person this year (when you have a staff of six and try to cover the state, I guess that happens).
So, McNeil's name was thrown out early in the process, mostly on the back of his rushing statistics, but due to the depth at running back, he didn't make it too far. But, after going back and watching his footage as a linebacker, it's pretty clear McNeil would belong on any All-State team. As one of the fastest and most instinctive linebackers in the state, the rising-senior will be one to watch next year.
Colin Lama, Sr. LB, Xaverian
Speaking of speed and instincts from the linebacker position, Lama has those attributes in abundance. Often overshadowed by our Defensive Player of the Year, fellow Xaverian linebacker A.J. Ryan, Lama was undoubtably a special player in his own right. With both the ability to knife into the backfield and disrupt plays before they start, and sit read and react, Lama is everything you want in an outside 'backer.
Like Rogers, he had his share of supporters among our writers, and proved to be one of the toughest cuts on the team.
Derek Laundry, Sr. ATH, Billerica
Laundry was a guy that could've fit in if we had listed a fullback position (perhaps we should have), and was also a strong candidate as a linebacker. In the end, he just missed the cut at both linebacker and athlete, but his work on both sides of the ball helped Billerica have one of its better seasons in recent memory.
A favorite of Assistant Editor Nate Weitzer, Laundry was a jack-of-all-trades, whose versatility made him a viable All-State player on both sides.
We could go on and on with a number of other players who were hard to leave off (CC's Carlos Cabrera, Xaverian's Sam Laurent, NA's Bobby Mylod, etc), but I'll just say putting this team together was tough, and we knew we were going to anger more people than we pleased.
It comes with the territory.
But, I will say thank you to everybody who read SuiteSports during the season, even if it was just to leave a comment about how dumb we are. The site has grown tremendously the last few months thanks to your engagement, and we hope to bring you better and better coverage in the coming years.
Oh yeah, and hang around for our winter sports coverage, won't you?