Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Four Teams Face the Challenge of Repeating as State Champions This Weekend

By Matt Feld (@mattyfeld612)

For seniors playing their final high school game, there is no better feeling.

The Gatorade shower they provide to their coach, the trophy they are presented, and finally the Super Bowl rings they are given in the spring all cap off a memorable four-year career.

While those seniors head off their separate ways in the fall, those that followed their leadership are hoping for something better.

The juniors, sophomores, and even freshman that were too an integral part of that Super Bowl run, now are on the road to solidifying that the championship was not a one-off event. Rather, that it was just the beginning of a program putting itself firmly on the MIAA football landscape.

There may be no more challenging feat to accomplish in high school sports than repeating as state champions.

Over the course of one season any team, a favorite or perhaps even a sleeper, may emerge talented and experienced enough for one shot at a state championship.

Come the next season, however, they no longer fly under the radar, and now carry a much bolder title next to their school name – "Defending state champion."

No longer are they a team to beat simply because of the conference they play in, or their history as a program, but because they own something that everyone else wants.

They are guaranteed to get everyone’s best shot.

This weekend, four schools will be looking to repeat, and in Mashpee’s case three-peat, as state champions at Gillette Stadium.

One program in particular, King Philip, is hoping to show that last year's Super Bowl win is just the start of a budding dynasty.

Senior two-way star Shane Frommer was a major piece of last year’s Warrior Super Bowl run, but this year, in an effort to lead KP to its second title in program history, he has taken on a larger role.

Frommer is one of three King Philip captains, along with defensive back Andrew Dittrich and Jack Pillerout , out to prove that the Warriors are squarely on the radar in Massachusetts for good.

Despite the title last year, Dittrich views Friday’s Super Bowl matchup with Lincoln-Sudbury as a legacy game.

“This is a must win for us,” said Dittrich. “It is for legacy and honor. Last year was an accomplishment of the whole team, but it will always be seen as that senior class' year.”

Not only have the Warriors had the pressure of carrying the title of defending champions, they are also the harbors’ of a 24-game winning streak.

Frommer is out to prove that, while it was nice to be a piece of the Warriors’ championship team in 2016, this year's seniors are equally capable of bringing home a title.

“We all feel the need to put a stamp on our legacy with the second title,” said Frommer. “We may have helped last year, but this is our team this year. Coach (Brian) Lee let us know that this wasn’t the same team as last year pretty much right away, so we all put in the work to get back to this point.”

Everett certainly does not have the issue of anyone questioning its position among the state’s best, win or lose on Saturday.

Rather, this current group of Crimson Tide stars are faced with the challenge of living up to the Everett powerhouses that have come before them.

Dating back to 1997, Everett has claimed 11 Super Bowl titles. It is not hard to see why expectations are higher for the Tide than any other program in the Bay State.

Quarterback Jake Willcox said the group definitely senses those expectations.

“We can definitely feel the pressure of the Everett legacy on our shoulders,” said Willcox. “It is definitely a relief knowing we got someone like Coach (John) DiBiaso in our corner, but we can feel it.”

The Crimson Tide’s opponent is no stranger in Super Bowl appearances.

After all, just two years ago it was Xaverian that raised the trophy for the second consecutive season. Not only that, the win extended the Hawks winning streak to 24 games heading into 2016.

Yale linebacker A.J. Ryan was a sophomore when the Hawks took home their first state title, only to take on a much more integral role on both sides of the ball when Xaverian knocked off Central Catholic when he was a junior.

Ryan said the most difficult part about repeating was piecing together a new identity.

“The nucleus of the team is different from the year before,” said Ryan. “It’s all about kids stepping into bigger roles, and new leaders emerging.”

Similar to how Willcox expressed the desire to live up to a lasting legacy, Ryan noted how the pressure does not come from outside, but rather from within the locker room.

“All the pressure is internal,” said Ryan. “You saw the guys before you do it, and feel like all eyes are on you to finish the job.”

A case could be made that, under the new postseason alignment, repeating as champion is even more difficult than it was in the past.

In order to just emerge from a sectional victorious, a team often needs to go nearly spotless through the regular season schedule, before holding off a variety of postseason opponents, many of whom are unfamiliar.

As Duxbury learned the hard way this season, home field advantage is at a premium.

The defending champion Dragons were taxed with the number two seed in Division 3 South, forcing them to make a trip to Community Field for the sectional final, where they fell to North Attleboro, 35-0.

Indeed, of the 16 teams that are left, only one – Everett – played more than one road postseason game.

Mashpee, however, has countered that argument, as the Falcons have rolled through the postseason, and come into the Division 7 Super Bowl as heavy favorites against Voke school surprise Blackstone Valley Tech. A consistently explosive ground game, whether powered by DeShaun Dias in 2015, or Devaun Ford last season, has made Mashpee one of the state's must-see programs the last three years, and the Cape power's status as a team to be reckoned with cannot be argued at this point.

Another smaller-division school that has demanded respect and attention in recent years is defending Division 4A state champion Millis. Now operating as a single-school program after years of success as a co-op with Hopedale, coach Dana Olson's group comes in with an explosive offense of their own, as the Mohawks look to capture the Division 8 state title Saturday.

Senior quarterback Bryce Latosek will look to solidify his place as one of the program's all-time greats, and the Mohawks will finally get a taste of playing in Foxboro, after they were sent to Worcester State to battle Maynard last year. This year's tussle with D8 West champion Hoosac Valley will bring a unique test for the Mohawk defense as well.

But, beyond their individual matchups this weekend, returning players from all four defending champions know the road back to the title game began well before the postseason.

“Coach Lee told us in June that we had earned nothing,” said Dittrich. “We were a new team without the class of 2017 anymore. We needed to turn the page. Coach Lee helped us move on and got us working together.”

For a majority of programs on Friday and Saturday, the hope is to capture that Super Bowl title that has escaped them for so many years.

But for three others, it is a chance to carry into next season the thought in everyone’s mind that their programs are not going anywhere anytime soon.

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