Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Pioneer Gridblog Report - Final Edition


by Tom Condardo

North Reading Leftovers

The short-staffed Pioneers had no business being in this game. Yet there they were with 5:35 to go in the game, playing with a backup quarterback and backup running backs driving for what could have been the go-ahead touchdown.

"If we had gotten that in, we were definitely going for two," Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman told me after the game.

But then came the back-breaking, game-ending bad snap/fumble and North Reading turned what might have been a 21-20 Lynnfield lead into a 27-13 heart-breaking loss. But in defeat, this game told you more about this year's team than all the blowout wins over Newburyport, Amesbury, Winthrop, Manchester-Essex, and Bedford ever could: The 2017 Pioneers had heart and guts.

This 60th game between the rivals could have gotten ugly in a hurry and it looked like we were headed that way early. The explosive Hornets gashed the Pioneers on their first two drives gobbling up 134 of their 311 rushing yards and jumping out to a 14-0 lead.

But the Pioneer defense stiffened and held the Hornets offense to only one more TD. The Lynnfield defense, on the arms and legs of Matt Mortellite, then got in gear to cut the lead to 14-6 just before the quarterback's day ended on a spinning tackle right before the half.

But the resilient Pioneers kept at it. Junior Brett Cohee showed his mastery of the spread run game making the right reads and picking up 87 rushing yards including a 35 yard scamper that made it 20-13 after captain Nick Kinnon's PAT. With a quarter and a half to go, the Pioneers were in business.

However, it was not to be on this holiday morning, but it wasn't for lack of effort or determination.

Much of grit was the result of the stellar leadership of captains Kinnon, Cooper Marengi, Nathan Drislane, Harry Collins, and Anthony Murphy (whose absence in the game due to a broken leg suffered against Watertown was huge). Coupled with the loss of Mortellite for the second half and the loss of several other key players due to disciplinary reasons, and the Pioneers faced a mountain just too steep to climb.

"We have definitely had to deal with adversity all year," Drislane told me after the game. "It's been kind of a common theme. It was again today, especially when our quarterback went down. I'm proud of what we did today with so many things fighting against us."

"For all these young guys to step up in what we consider one of the biggest games of our career is huge," added Marengi. "We just told the guys to be confident in what they were doing. We told them they are in that position for a reason and we trust them to make the plays and they ended up doing pretty well."

"We did alright," Weidman summed up. "The kids we asked to hop in did a nice job and the kids that have been there all year really played hard. We were really close to pulling this one out."

Champs Again
Lost in the disappointment was the fact that 20 miles to the north, the Ipswich Tigers were in the process of helping to secure the Pioneers' sixth straight CAL championship. Ipswich upset Hamilton-Wenham 22-20 in overtime leaving the three teams in a tie with 3-1 league records.

"It wasn't really an up and down year," said Weidman. "Hamilton-Wenham outplayed us. That's the only game I can say was a real disappointment. But give credit to them. They outplayed us that day in every way and I would have like to see a little better performance that night but other than that we were right there. Watertown we played tough in some tough circumstances with the weather and then today we played through some tough circumstances as well but I can't complain. I really can't."

Deja Vu 
Thursday morning's game brought back some bad memories of the 2011 Thanksgiving game on the same field when another short-handed Pioneer squad fell to the Hornets 37-18. Like this year, the Pioneers went into the game without their starting running back. That year is was Mike Thomas who was out with a collarbone and outside linebacker/placekicker/backup quarterback Alex Roper.

And again like last week, they lost their quarterback to concussion symptoms in the second quarter when starter Mike Karavetsos took a hit to the head on a nine yard run. With Roper unavailable, Weidman was forced to jump start the career of Danny Sullivan.

The freshman, alternating with sophomore Matt Kramich, hung in there - all 5'6" 135 lbs of him - and picked up the first of his eventual 29 career TD passes. On the Pioneers' first play of the second half from their own 20, Sullivan reared back and drilled a perfect pass to a streaking Alex Pascucci who got behind the Hornet defense and raced all the way in for the score. It gave Lynnfield a short-lived 18-16 lead, but the depleted Pioneers couldn't hold off the Hornets' devastating running game.

Still Ahead
Despite the loss, the Pioneers still lead the series with the Hornets 35-25. They hold a 1013-824 scoring edge. It was the second loss in a row to North Reading, the only time the Pioneers have suffered consecutive losses to their rivals in the past 10 years.

Unlucky 13
It was only the second time this season the Pioneers have scored 13 points or less, the other being the seven they tallied against H-W and both resulted in losses. In the past ten years of the Weidman Era, the Pioneers are 2-15 in such games and five of those came in the coach's first season in 2008. The two wins both came against Ipswich, 13-7 in 2008 and 13-6 in in 2011.

Top Gun
The unceremonious end of Mortellite's day at Arthur Kenney Field brought to a conclusion a stellar career that puts him in the company of all time great Pioneer passers. Mortellite's two year career numbers puts him in the conversation with Danny Sullivan and Gino Cohee, two other elite passers of the past three decades.

Mortellite's 38 career touchdown passes shattered the previous mark of 30 set by Cohee from 2007 to 2010. His 21 TD passes last season tied him with Sullivan (2014) for the most in a single season. He also tied the record for most career two-point conversion passes with 10, a 45-year old record set by Steve Mucica from 1960-62.

Mortellite's 1,878 yards passing this year is the best ever for a single season since at least 1989 (and probably all time considering how offenses were run before the advent of the spread offense), topping Sullivan's 1,741 in 2014. Mortellite's 68.1% completion percentage this year is second only to Sullivan's 69.1% in 2013. Mortellite's two-year total of 3,609 yards is almost 700 yards more than Sullivan's second most 2,954 career total.

Mortellite's NFL passer rating this season was 128.8 a tenth of a point behind Sullivan's 128.98 in 2014. His two year passer rating was 118.1.

Not bad for someone who stepped into a brand new offense when he transferred in from Malden Catholic as a junior last year. He struggled in his first game against Newburyport throwing three interceptions and no TD's in the 32-12 loss. It would be the last game in which he ever played that he DIDN't throw a touchdown pass. He would go on to throw TD passes in 20 straight game culminating in the 24 yard beauty he tossed to Jason Ndansi in the second quarter Thursday morning. Even more impressive, after three picks in game one, he was intercepted only eight more times in the next 20 games.

Truly an outstanding career.

Catching a Record
Captain Nick Kinnon caught 7 TD passes this year and 8 last year to set a career touchdown reception mark of 15, edging Jon Knee who caught 14 in 2013-14. Kinnon also scored 68 points giving him 178 for his career placing him 6th on the all time scoring list. Captain Anthony Murphy finished with 108 career points good enough for 16th on the all time list.

Data Points
- The 60 year Lynnfield record now stands at 317-275-11, an all time winning percentage of .526,
- The 337 points the Pioneers scored this season placed them fifth on the all time single season points scored list. Seven of the top ten teams on the list are from the Weidman Era.
- The 188 points against - a 17.1 ppg average - places them 40th on the all time points allowed list.
- It was the 16th Pioneer team to reach at least eight wins in a season. Six of those have come in the last 10 years.

That's it from here. Congrats to the Pioneers for another great season.









Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Pioneer Gridblog Report - Thanksgiving Edition


by Tom Condardo

The Big Game Preview

The Pioneers and Hornets will meet on Thanksgiving Day for the 59th time on Thursday (actually its the 58th time on the holiday and 60th time overall. I'll explain the discrepancy in a bit) and both teams are hankering for more than just turkey.

The Pioneers are coming off a devastating 38-34 loss to Watertown in the D5 North Final (and the Raiders went on to get smushed by Dennis Yarmouth 41-3 last Friday) while the Hornets suffered a one point loss to Melrose (who is going to be playing for the D4 State Championship a week from Saturday). North Reading followed that up with a 21-7 loss to a tough, 8-2 Wilmington team last week.

So combined the rivals are 0-3 coming into the big game.

It normally takes a while to shake off the affects of a playoff game loss which may have been the case with the Hornets. The Pioneers struggled in the first halves against Watertown in 2013 and Greater Lawrence last year before clearing the cobwebs and coming back for wins. The Pioneers need to avoid a first half letdown or they will find themselves in a deep hole to a strong Hornet team at Arthur Kenney Field in North Reading.

"Sometimes having a game to get it out of your system is better but we're not in that situation," Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman told me. "So we need to find a way to be ready to go."

North Reading Battle Tested
The Hornets come into the game with a 6-4 record, but that is very deceptive. Their four losses have come at the hands of Melrose, Wilmington, Hamilton-Wenham, and Lynn English, teams that currently sport a combined 36-4 record. They swept the CAL Kinney beating Masco, Newburyport, Pentucket and Triton to capture the league title for the second straight year.

"They played some tough teams," said Weidman. "They're physical and very sound defensively."

Offensively, they will look to run the ball, nothing unusual sine the Hornets have a TOTAL of 54 yards passing in the past five Thanksgiving Day games combined. They will unleash a stable of talented runners led by Jake Bedell who does most of the heavy lifting. Alex D'Ambrosio and Ryan Edison, will also get some carries.

Quarterback Kyle Bythrow, who returned for the Melrose playoff game after missing five games in the middle of the season, is also a dangerous runner. He will also throw the ball as he did last year picking up 58 yards and a touchdown in the Hornets' 21-20 win in Lynnfield.

Pioneers Feature Dangerous Offense
The Pioneers will have to overcome the loss of leading rusher and starting inside linebacker captain Anthony Murphy, who suffered a broken leg against Watertown. Murphy (535 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns) was the thunder to Tyler Murphy's lighting (469 yards, 10 TD's), giving the Pioneers a change of pace one-two punch.

Tyler Murphy and quarterback Matt Mortellite (358 yards rushing, 5 TD's) will have to pick up the slack in the running game. But with the forecast calling for a clear day, look for Mortellite and the Pioneers' combustible receiving corps to fill the North Reading sky with footballs tomorrow morning.

Mortellite has passes for 1,778 yards and 16 TD's this year as he keeps adding to his career TD passes record which now stands at 37. He has plenty of targets in captain Nick Kinnon (698 yards, 7 TD's), Jason Ndansi (337 yards and 4 TD's), and Peter Look (402 yards, 2 TDs). Murphy is also dangerous out of the backfield with 113 yards and a TD.

Common Opponents
The Pioneers and Hornets have only three common opponents this year. Both beat Newburyport: the Hornets 32-14, the Pioneers twice 32-0 and 26-7. Both beat Wayland, NR 17-14 and the Pioneers 28-26 in OT. Both lost to Hamilton Wenham, NR 28-14 and the Pioneers 35-7.

The game should be evenly matched and offer a delectable appetizer for everyone's Thanksgiving Dinner to come.

What's the Number?
So earlier I noted that this is officially the 59th Thanksgiving Day game. However, the 1989 game was actually played on the Saturday following Thanksgiving due to a snowstorm. It was also the day then Pioneer head coach Bill Adams was getting married so he had to hightail it from North Reading to get to his wedding.

Unfortunately, the Hornets were killjoys scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to erase a 14-13 Lynnfield lead to upend the Pioneers 28-14.

And this will be the 60th meeting between the schools, but the first game was played the last week of October in 1958 so is not officially recognized, which has always been a pet peeve of mine. Officially the Pioneers lead the series 35-23, but the Hornet won that first game 26-12 so Lynnfield really holds a 35-24 edge.

Let There Be Light
This will be the one and only day game the Pioneers will play all season. They haven't played in daylight since last Thanksgiving. Since Pioneer Stadium's opening in 2014, the Pioneers have played 39 total games, only eight in the daytime. The Pioneers are 5-3 in those games with the only losses coming to Holliston 26-0 in 2014, Pentucket 28-27 in 2015 and North Reading 21-20 last year.

My Top Five Thanksgiving Day Games
Tomorrow I will be covering my 42nd Lynnfield/North Reading game. Yikes. My first came in 1976 when I was a cub reporter/advertising sales/paper delivery person for the North Reading Transcript, fresh out of Suffolk University with my brand new journalism degree.

Back in the day, the games usually ended up as mudfests as the Middle School and Arthur Kenney Field melted as the temps rose through the morning.

There were plenty of exciting Thanksgiving Day games before I came on the scene - the 1960 classic between two undefeated powerhouses is probably the all time number one - but this list is made up of only games I have witnessed personally.


So as we get ready for the 60th meeting between the Chestnut Street Rivals, it's time to fire up the LHS Football Wayback Machine. Here in reverse order is my personal Top Five Most Exciting North Reading-Lynnfield games.

Number 5: 2002 - Stung at the Buzzer 13-12

The excitement for the 2002 game started when Mother Nature dumped an early season snow storm just before Thanksgiving. The DPW along with the football team and other volunteers worked all day Wednesday to clear the field for the holiday morning game.

Their efforts were not in vain as the large crowd that turned out at the Middle School field were treated to a real nailbiter.

The Hornets were running a double wing in 2002 and they took the opening kick and drove 78 yards over the snow covered field to take a 6-0 lead. Jamie Solomon and Chris Bryant helped the Pioneers get in gear late in the first half. Quarterback Mike Parizale connected with Andy Poor and Jared Polansky to get the Pioneers to the NR three yard line. But the Hornets stuffed Polansky at the one to preserve their 6-0 lead.

The Pioneers broke through on the opening drive of the second half when Chris Stivers took a reverse handoff and sprinted 53 yards for the score. The PAT try was wide but the score was now tied at 6-6.

Lynnfield took the lead in the fourth quarter on a clock eating drive capped by a six yard Bryant run to give the Pioneers a 12-6 lead with three minutes to play.

The Hornets began their final drive at their own 39 and methodically moved down the field. They got to the Lynnfield two yard line with 20 seconds left. Quarterback Steve Labo took the snap, tried to find a receiver, could not, tucked it under his arm and plowed into the endzone for what appeared to be the tying touchdown. However, the Hornets were flagged for illegal motion which nullified the score and pushed them back to the seven yard line with seven seconds left in the game.

The final play of the game was one of the most bizarre in North Reading-Lynnfield history. Labo took the snap and handed off to John Murphy who was immediately grabbed by Matt Talis for what appeared to be the game winning tackle.

In desperation, Murphy shoveled the ball to Labo who was just standing at the three yard line watching Murphy getting stopped. Finding the ball in his hands, he turned and stumbled into the endzone with no time remaining to tie the score. Labo then drilled the extra point for the 13-12 win over the stunned Pioneers.

Number 4: 1981 - Another Stunning Comeback Defeat 20-15

The Pioneers were heavily favored in this one, coming into the game 6-3 to North Reading's 3-6. The game was billed as a defensive struggle, but the Hornets came out fired up and scored first. Mark Tremblay bulled in from the two and Brian Jones added the PAT and NR led 7-0.

The Hornets made it 14-0 midway in the second when Les Montford hit Jeff Hull with a ten yard scoring strike. The Pioneers got on the board late in the half when Andy Nekoroski plowed in from the two yard line. Nekoroski added the two point conversion and Lynnfield trailed 14-8 at the half.

The Pioneers appeared to right the ship with under three minutes to play when quarterback Scott Sanborn tossed a screen pass to Nekoroski who zigged and zagged his way to a 62 yard touchdown. Joe Krieger added the PAT to take a 15-14 lead with only 2:57 left in the game.

But the Hornets were not done. Billy Germano returned the kick to the 38 and a late hit call on the Pioneers gave NR the ball at midfield. On the next play, Montford found David Lee down the right sideline for a 51 yard strike to get the Hornets to the Lynnfield two yard line. Two plays later, Montford slashed into the endzone for the score. Jones missed the PAT but the Hornets led 20-15 with less than a minute to play.

The Pioneers did not quit. Sanborn hit Jeff Perkins for 28 yards and a head slap penalty on the Hornets moved the ball to the NR 29 yard line with less than 30 seconds to play. But the Pioneers could get no further and Sanborn was sacked on the final play of the game to seal the Hornet victory.

Number 3: 2000 - Veinot leads the way 29-23

This was one of the highest scoring Lynnfield-North Reading games and get my vote as the second mod exciting in the past 35 years.

Tailback Danny Veinot was the story in this one as the outstanding runner finished with 277 yards and scored all four Lynnfield touchdowns and 27 of the Pioneers' 29 points.

Veinot got the Pioneers on the board on their first drive with a four yard run. He booted the PAT and Lynnfield led 7-0. The Hornets answered when quarterback Tom Tone hit A. J. Richardson for a 43 yard TD to tie the score at 7-7.

On the first play following the NR touchdown, Veinot responded with a 63 yard run and PAT to give the Pioneers the lead at 14-7.

The Pioneers appeared to be taking control but quarterback Jimmy Motzkin turned an ankle and had to leave the game. But Veinot was hitting on all cylinders and scooted 38 yards for another TD. Backup QB Mike Parziale hit Brian McBride with the two point conversion and the Pioneers appeared to be in control 22-7.

The Pioneers cut into the lead when Tone his Matt Cecchini for a 22 yard TD pass to make it 22-13 at the half. The Hornets then began to stop the Pioneer offense and crept closer in the third when Drew Canan scored from the three to make it 22-20.

The Hornets were driving again, but Veinot went to work on the other side of the ball and picked off a Tone pass to end the threat. At this point, Motzkin reentered the game and seemed to energize the Pioneers.

Motzkin hit Drew Barraford and McBride on consecutive passes to get the Pioneers to the NR 14 yard line. Veinot took it in from there to give the Pioneers some breathing room at 29-20.

The Hornets nailed a field goal on their next possession to make it 29-23. But the Hornets would not go away quietly. They got the ball back with 1:57 left in the game and marched to the Pioneer 21 yard line. On fourth down, with 23 second left, Tone attempted one last pass into the endzone. It was picked off by...guess who...Dan Veinot to preserve the win.

Number 2: 1980 - For All the Marbles 7-6

This was the most exciting Pioneer-Hornet game I have witnessed not only because of the play on the field, but also because of the stakes involved.

The Hornets came into the game as the two time defending CAL Champs with a 7-1 league record (8-1 overall). The Pioneers were 6-1-1 in the CAL and 6-2-1 overall. If they beat the Hornets and Amesbury could knock off Newburyport, the Pioneers would take the crown.

So this was in affect a CAL championship game.

The two teams battled through a scoreless tie as the day started cold then warmed up turning the Middle School field into a quagmire. With 1:14 left in the game, Andy Nekoroski plowed in from the three to give the Pioneers a 6-0 lead.

Playing like the champs they were, the Hornets came back. Warren McNeill hit Jeff Hull on two post patterns to get the ball to the Lynnfield three yard line. With only 23 seconds to play in the game, Billy Welch bulled in from the one to tie the score. Marco Vittozzi nailed the PAT to seal the win and sew up a third straight CAL Championship for the Hornets.

If it makes anyone feel better, the Clippers beat Amesbury 26-6 so even if the Pioneers had held on, they would not have earned a piece of the title.

Number 1: 2012 - Playoff Bound 14-7
This was the final year before the current playoff format was adopted and getting to the post season was a lot more difficult. The only way to earn a shot at the Super Bowl was to win your league title. The Pioneers (7-2) and Hornets (8-1) faced off at the Middle School field in a battle for the league championship. The winner would move on to the Super Bowl semi-finals and the loser would go have some turkey dinner.

The game was billed as a battle of contrasting styles with the Pioneers "sideline to sideline, spread 'em and shred 'em" attack vs. the Hornets "toe-to-toe, pack 'em in, throwback single wing" ground game.

The Pioneers came out on top in both style and substance. They held the dangerous single wing and super back Carl Lipani to only 145 total yards. The Lynnfield Spread meanwhile exploded for 319 total yards, 275 of it on the ground led by junior Kyle McGah.

McGah carried four times for 55 yards on a 63 yard Pioneer scoring drive late in the opening quarter including the final nine for his 13th TD of the year. Alex Roper nailed the PAT and the Pioneers led 7-0.

The Hornets knotted the score midway in the second with Lipani edging into the endzone to make it 7-7.

Midway in the third quarter, captain quarterback Mike Karavetsos broke loose for a 65 yard run to the eight yard line. Three plays later he bootlegged around the right side for a five yard TD that turned out to be a the winning score.

The Hornets answered by marching to the Lynnfield 30, but on fourth and three, Anthony Costa knifed through and cut down Lipani short of the first down. North Reading would not threaten again.

The Pioneers went on to defeat Amesbury for the second time, this one in a playoff at Lowell's Cawley Stadium, earning them a trip to the Super Bowl against Bishop Feehan.

So there it is. My top five.

Who knows. Maybe 2017 can crack the list on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!