Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Your Central Mass HS Football Playoff Preview

If you think St. John's (Shrewsbury) is the only CMass team with state title ambitions, you haven't been paying enough attention to the Littleton Tigers.   Photo from Littleton Public School Athletics on Twitter
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

While Eastern Mass' postseason got going last week, this weekend brings the start of the MIAA football playoffs in both Central and Western Massachusetts. We don't have a Western Mass expert on staff quite yet (but we're looking… Holla at me if you're interested at, I've got (almost) everything you need to know about the six different Central Mass brackets, including which teams have a legit shot at taking home a state championship.

Please note that CMass does not participate in Divisions 1 or 2, only 3-8, an issue that I will discuss in a mailbag blog later in the week.

Division 3
The Favorite: St. John's (Shrewsbury)

Up until they looked mortal in a 24-21 win over Marlboro, St. John's was straight up destroying people all year. The Pioneers made a mockery of EMass D1 standout Catholic Memorial, dropped 60+ on Western Mass top dog Springfield Central, and rolled through their CMass schedule with video game numbers to spare.

Led by record-seeking quarterback Steven Bucciaglia, and an unsung, but darn good offensive line, spearheaded by seniors Federico Ernst and Neal Nasuti, the Pioneers have scored 30 or more in seven games, and 55 or more in four.

Add in a much-improved defense led by seniors Liam Doran, Owen Ryan and Hunter Gorgas, and you have easily the most talented team in the region.

I could go on listing stars, from sophomore sensation Eamonn Dennis, to senior receiver Cole Drugotch, but the bottom line is this: St. John's has the talent to win a state championship, and now it's time to deliver.

Don't Sleep On: Shrewsbury

Until Marlboro gave St. John's a fright this past weekend, the only team to hang with the Pioneers was Shrewsbury, and you really can throw the records out every time these two teams meet.

But beyond the mystique of this great cross-town rivalry is the fact that Shrewsbury has two kids who always seem to light the Pioneers up, those being senior athlete Chris Campbell and junior quarterback Drew Campanale.

The Colonials did knock St. John's out of the playoffs last season on their way to a D2 state title game appearance, and the Pioneers know all too well how talented and versatile Shrewsbury is.

Player to Watch: Tajon Vassar, Jr. ATH, Doherty

Vassar is a small player who casts a long shadow. At only 5-foot-8 and 160 lbs, the versatile junior has still managed to emerge as one of the region's best all-around offensive threats and defensive backs.

Averaging nearly 10 yards a pop on 88 carries this season, Vassar also has 17 catches for 296 yards a pair of scores through the air.

If Doherty is to pull off the upset, it will need a career day on offense from Vassar against a much improved Pioneer defense, and the Highlanders may need their star junior to force a turnover or two as well.

Must-See Round 1 Game: Shepherd Hill at Shrewsbury

I mean, come on, these two played a 14-10 classic won by the Colonials in Week 1 of the regular season, so it's only fitting that they kick off the postseason against each other as well. Since that game, Shepherd Hill has grown up a ton defensively, and seen the emergence of several young play makers on offense, including stud sophomores Kobe Jean-Guillaume and Nathaniel Cooper.

Unfortunately, the Rams have also suffered some key injuries, most notably to senior captain Zack Magdis and star junior running back Ben Carpenter, but don't expect this up-and-coming group to go down without a fight.

Shrewsbury enters as a favorite, but the Hill has the talent to pull off the (mild) upset.

Division 4
The Favorite: Nashoba

A close win over Marlboro earlier this year makes the Chieftains our favorites, and coach Jamie Tucker has (another) stout defense and powerful running game that he hopes to ride to (another) state championship.

Nashoba also has a dynamic all-around athlete in Breese Hill, who leads D4 Central in receiving, and continues to be one of the state's best defensive backs. His four interceptions are tied with teammate Max Parrow for best in the section, and those turnovers are a big reason you can't count out Nashoba, even when the Chieftain offense struggles.

The Chieftains can get stuck in the mud offensively, but up until last week against Shrewsbury, their defense had been impenetrable, and had actually flipped games by turning other teams over. Look for that to continue into the playoffs, and if Nashoba can run the ball with any success, they're as good as anybody in D4 state wide.

Don't Sleep On: Marlboro

The Panthers may not have any superstars, but they can sure beat you a bunch of different ways. In a given game, one of any four or five guys can run around or over you, including Devin Raun, Kevin Short, Lou Vigeant and Evan Doherty, while quarterback James Carney has made the big throws when they've been there.

The defense is built similarly, with a swarming, but gap sound grope that give up personal glory for the good of the unit. The Panthers lost a 14-13 thriller to Nashoba they surely want to avenge, and just gave St. John's a better game than anybody else this year. With momentum on its side, Marlboro has no doubt it can get emerge from this bracket unscathed.

Player to Watch: Martin Moran, Sr. ATH, Westboro

Westboro is probably the surprise entrant in this bracket, and there are a number of seniors who have elevated their games to get the Rangers here, from big-play receiver/hard-hitting safety Samuel Lis, to speedy Michael Keogh and steady quarterback Peter Lamountain.

But third-year coach David Tinglof turned this program around with toughness, and nobody has been tougher than senior fullback Martin Moran. As a one-man wrecking crew up the middle, Moran has led the Rangers in rushing, and come up biggest in the biggest games, scoring two touchdowns in a de facto playoff game against Wachusett last week.

Considering this program hasn't had a winning season in seven years, but did take Marlboro to overtime, and just topped a D3 power in Wachusett, don't expect Moran and company to be a pushover for anybody.

Must-See Round 1 Game: Marlboro at Grafton

As good as Marlboro has looked, the Panthers are going to be pushed to the limit by stingy Grafton. After the Indians graduated star Ifeatu Melifonwu, now at Syracuse, many wrote them off as a contender, but under coach Chris McMahon, Grafton has once again risen up to boast one of the best defenses in the region.

Over the last half of the season, the Indians have surrendered less than a touchdown per game, and have scored big wins against Northbridge, Auburn and Uxbridge.

While the offense isn't as explosive as in year's past, they Indians can still pound the rock with a plethora of backs, led by Jackson Sonnett and Ethan Farrah, and this matchup against Marlboro's gritty style should prove to be a good ole-fashioned CMass slugfest.

Division 5
The Favorite: Nipmuc

The Warriors have been a great story since the start of the year, as Nipmuc has ridden workhorse back George Morrice and a stout defense to a perfect regular season.

The Warriors have given up a grand total of 45 points all season, and done a fair bit of scoring with their defense as well, while the offense has protected the ball, and mixed in some big plays to boot. The Warriors already have a 23-0 win over first round opponent Northbridge under their belt, but will need to be ready for a team that is always well prepared under the guidance of legendary coach Ken LaChapelle.

Don't Sleep On: Auburn

While the Rockets have struggled against larger division teams, and squads that can throw the ball a bit, there's no doubt that Auburn has toughness, and can get by on stuffing the run and controlling the ball.

An 8-0 win over Northbridge is evidence of this, but you just get a feeling that Auburn's running game is THIS close to breaking out, and the end result could a sectional crown.

Player to Watch: Colton Bosselait, Fr. QB Oakmont

Your wild card of the bracket is a freshman quarterback with a big arm, some quick feet, and seemingly no fear. The frosh has thrown for four touchdowns and rushed for two others during the Spartans' three-game winning streak to end the regular season, and could be the difference between a first round exit, and a run to a sectional title.

The Spartans have been scoring in bunches lately, and a large part of that is their outstanding running game, but don't underestimate this freshman, who probably doesn't even know he isn't supposed to be here yet.

Must-See Round 1 Game: Auburn at Oakmont

As I said earlier, you can make some hay against that vaunted Auburn defense if they have to respect your passing game, and Oakmont brings in a talented, but not-yet-postseason-tested quarterback. What could happen? Hmmm...

Division 6
The Favorite: Littleton

Littleton has been so good year in and year out, that it's almost hard for the Tigers to get our attention lately. Well, this team has still managed to do just that, ending the regular season by defeating its last three opponents by a combined score of 108-18, including a 30-6 trouncing of reigning Division 4A state runner-up Maynard.

On the whole, Littleton's smothering defense has given up double-digits just three times all season, with a pair of shutouts and three games where they surrendered just six points. Led by junior middle linebacker Mitch Beaudoin and play-making junior DB Mike Crory, the Tiger defense has been slow to concede yardage, but quick to turn opponents over.

Offensively, Littleton has its standard physical and tough offensive line, plus a deep stable of backs to carry the rock, but everything begins with senior running back Bradley Klock, who leads the team with 12 rushing touchdowns and 734 yard rushing, all on over 8 yards per carry. This Littleton group looks to be a legitimate state title contender, but the Tigers will be tested in one of the most interesting sections in Central Mass.

Don't Sleep On: St. Peter-Marian

Under first year coach Justin McKay, who helped Algonquin reach the D2 Central title game a season ago, St. Peter-Marian looks poised for a potentially deep playoff run.

The Guardians boast one of the most explosive do-it-all threats in the region in senior Matt Dumphy, who has rushed for 536 yards and nine touchdowns this season on just 58 carries (9.2 average), while also leading the team in receiving with 280 yards and four scores, and emerging as one of the best kick returners in the state.

Since a mid-season two-game losing streak to EMass' Concord-Carlisle and Worcester rival Doherty, SPM has strung together four consecutive victories, topping rival Holy Name, playoff-bound Oakmont and Worcester rival Burncoat in the process.

During that time, SPM's offense has really grown up in McKay's system, with already stellar quarterback Danny Malm going for 10 total touchdowns (5 pass, 5 rush) in those four contests. The defense has shown some susceptibility against the run, but it may not matter if the Guardian offense continues the tear it's on.

Player to Watch: Anthony Greenwich, So. QB, Millbury

Greenwich has played all over the field in his young career, moving from receiver to running back to quarterback, all while starting at corner on defense, and the sophomore's versatility has served the Woolies well.

While he is an efficient passer (completing around 70 percent of his throws), the biggest threat Greenwich poses is as a runner down by the goal line, where the sophomore has seven touchdowns this season. Millbury has a tall task facing off against an incredibly talented Littleton squad, but Greenwich gives them a shot.

Must-See Round 1 Game: Blackstone-Millville at St. Peter-Marian

For most of the year, you could argue that Blackstone-Millville was the best story in the region. The Chargers bounced back from a Week 1 loss to Bellingham to blow out Millbury, Burncoat, Holy Name and Worcester South, before losing a respectable game to talented Nipmuc, and then upsetting St. Bernard's.

Last week's loss to Worcester North does take some shine off of that remarkable regular season, but upstart BMR is in the playoffs, and that's all that matters. Plus, with a do-it-all quarterback like Robbie Siefring (he even kicks his own extra points!), that St. Peter-Marian defense will have to pick its poison. Expect points in the bunches when these two offenses get together.

Division 7
The Favorite: Blackstone Valley Tech

It really is amazing the kind of program BVT has. Let's just be honest: It's hard to win consistently as a Voke school, but that's just what the Beavers have done for close to a decade, and this year's iteration may be the program's best hope at state championship.

The Beavers have been great defensively all season long, but caught fire on offense late in the year, mostly thanks to BVT's unusual depth of play makers all stepping up at different times. Connor Polymeros is probably the known commodity of the bunch, and with good reason, but in recent weeks BVT has seen quarterback Scott Mackay, running back J.D. Antaya and a host of others all light up the scoreboard.

You just don't see this much talent or depth on a Voke school very often, and the Beavers have a chance to do something special this postseason.

Don't Sleep On: West Boylston

After losing record-setting running back and star linebacker Cole McCubrey to graduation, expectations where a little lower for the Lions than recent years. And hey, that's understandable, but WB has rattled off six straight wins to get back to the postseason, and the Lions are thinking that elusive trip to the state title game just might be in the cards for them this year.

Amazingly, junior David Rizzuto has stepped into the enormous shoes left by McCubrey, who is currently playing for UMass, both leading the Lions in rushing and starring at linebacker. But the gifted junior has had help, with Flynn Mitchell and Corey Shea helping to carry the load.

With an offense this is rolling on the ground, and a defense that has gone from good to dominant as the year has progressed, many are calling the Lions the "true" favorites in this bracket, but I won't go quite that far.

Player to Watch: Marc Juarez, Sr. RB, Assabet

Assabet's offense has been humming in general, but nobody has had a hotter hand than Juarez, who has rushed for over 330 yards and five touchdowns the last three weeks.

A threat to score from anywhere on the field, the speedy senior is a perfect complement to quarterback Justin Phillips in the Aztec backfield. Assabet has a tall task this Friday against a BVT team that already blanked it 33-0 this season, but with a red-hot offense, don't count this Voke school out just yet.

Must-See Round 1 Game: West Boylston at Leicester

These two had a knock-down, drag-out fight in Week 2, with Leicester emerging victorious, 8-3. Since then, West Boylston hasn't lost a game, or really been challenged.

As mentioned above, junior David Rizzuto has admirably replaced the seemingly irreplaceable Cole McCubrey, both as a running back and linebacker, but WB hasn't faced a defense like Leicester's since, well, playing Leicester. They also haven't seen a weapon like the Wolverines' Billy Roberts since Week 2, and the Wolverines are back on track, having won four in a row to end the year.

This could end up being one of those rare times that the sequel is better than the original.

Division 8
The Favorite: ???

Don't Sleep On: St. Bernard's, Bartlett, Lunenburg, Nashoba Tech

A few weeks ago, I thought Division 6 would be the most wide-open and exciting in Central Mass, but man have things changed in a hurry. D8 is as wide open and unpredictable as it gets, with three seemingly equally matched teams facing off, and a Voke school that has the firepower to pull of some upsets.

Predictions are further complicated by the fact that we've only seen one game between these teams all year (St. B's blowing out Nashoba Valley Tech 55-24). Just based off that result, you might assume St. Bernard's is the favorite, but really, we don't know how any of the groups match up other than those two. It's gonna be a crap shoot.

Player to Watch: Romeo Soto, Jr. QB, Bartlett

As Soto goes, so go the Indians. Earlier this month, when Soto ran for a pair of scores and threw a touchdown against Quaboag, Bartlett blew out the Cougars 32-0. But, when teams like Tantasqua, Millbury and Northbrige have locked Soto down, the Indians have struggled to do anything offensively.

Thanks to an improved defense, Bartlett actually won that Tantasqua game, courtesy of a late touchdown run by Jesse Torres, but there's no doubt that Soto will have to get loose if the Indians hope to keep up with St. B's.

Must-See Round 1 Game: Lunenburg at Nashoba Tech

Lunenburg hasn't been able to hang with powerful teams like Littleton and West Boylston, but against peer programs, the Blue Knights have gotten the job done, and certainly come in more battle tested than the Vikings. Still, NVT is coming off a thrilling 49-48 victory over scrappy Burncoat, where quarterback Vinny Eramo threw six touchdowns.

Lunenburg looks like the tougher team physically, but the Vikings have the firepower and, as I said earlier, we really don't know how these teams will match up. Color me intrigued.

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