Tuesday, November 29, 2016

North Reading Leftovers

by Tom Condardo

Well you certainly got your money's worth.

I expected a wide-open shootout on Thanksgiving morning but the two defenses had something to say about that. Both teams moved the ball - the combined offense for the two teams was over 600 yards - but finding the end zone proved difficult.

In the end it came down to penalties (nullifying a Hornet TD and a Pioneer field goal from Liam Fabbrio, and a driving-killing unsportsmanlike penalty) and special teams (two field goals from NR's Bob O'Donnell, including a 40 yarder that would have been good from 45, a blocked punt, and a missed extra point).

Those are the types of things that often decide games between two evenly matched teams and make no mistake, on this day, the Pioneers and Hornets were equals.

The Pioneers understandably came into the game as underdogs to one of the best North Reading teams in 40 years. The Hornets made it to the D2A finals and finished 9-2, their best record in years. They are loaded with talent but it took everything they had and a few breaks to sneak out of town with a narrow win.

"That's a good team and we were right there," said Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman who suffered only his third Thanksgiving Day loss against six wins. "We actually had a chance to win."

But you also have to give North Reading credit. Trailing 7-3, things looked bleak for the Hornets
when their main offensive weapon, Matt McCarthy, left the game with what appeared to be an injured ankle. Things got even dicier for the visitors when Matt Mortellite and Louis Ellis hooked up for the 60 yard bomb to make it 14-3.

But they didn't fold.

With McCarthy watching from crutches on the sideline, captain John Merullo emerged from the shadows and led the Hornets to victory. He ran for over 100 yards and scored a touchdown in the second half and if you slipped on McCarthy's #25 jersey instead of his #33, you might not have known the difference. Big effort there from the senior.

The Pioneers wrapped up their season with a 6-4 mark going 6-2 after losing their first two games. Three of their four losses came against top quality teams in Danvers, St. Mary's, and North Reading.

Those three squads had a combined record of 29-4 a winning percentage of .879. St. Mary's is going to the Super Bowl, North Reading was one step away, and Danvers lost one step before that to the Hornets in the semi-finals. As for the other Pioneer loss? Newburyport in Newburyport. No more need be said.

So in a year in which the Pioneers returned only one starter, they won a league championship and finished with a winning record for the fifth year in a row. Not too shabby.

"We had a good year after those first two games," Weidman said to me after the game. "If you go back and watch the film from that first game it was like night and day. We were doing all kinds of crazy stuff. I think we improved a lot throughout the year."

Things look bright for the Pioneers for next year as they will be losing only seven of 22 starters. Not that there won't be some huge cleats to fill in captains Louis Ellis, Mike Stellato, Alex Boustris, and Kyle Hawes. But the coaching staff will have a talented pool of 18 seniors and 21 juniors to choose from. The 2017 season starts now.

And now a word about freshman kicker Liam Fabbri. The ninth grader was visibly upset when the PAT try to tie the game slid just right of the goal post. That was a huge spot for the youngster but there was nothing wrong with his form on the kick. He hit is solid and it had plenty of distance.

But understand that was not the reason the Pioneers lost. As Weidman said after the game, "You can never say one play cost you the game. There are a ton of plays that decide a game."

You could argue Fabbri should never have been in that position. He more than did his job in the game. He nailed a 25 yard field goal in the first quarter that was erased on a holding call. He drilled two other PAT's, including one from 25 yards following the Pioneers' second touchdown. He banged it through once, but it was called back for holding. Then North Reading was called for offside. The spot came on the 15 and he drilled it through cleanly.

For the year, the freshman was reliable, connecting on 18 of 25 attempts. His 18 PAT's tied for the ninth most in a season and he now sits in 10th place all time for PAT's.

Dan Bronshvayg's record of 113 looks far away, but who knows?

Passing Fancy
Speaking of newcomers, quarterback Matt Mortellite certainly shined in his maiden voyage with the Pioneers. Coming from Malden Catholic, the junior had to learn the complicated spread offense from scratch, and he excelled.

He finished an outstanding season completing 128/208 (61.5%) for 1731 yards and 21 touchdown passes. He tied Danny Sullivan's 2014 record for most TD's in a season and finished 10 yards behind Sullivan in passing yards. His 128 completions were the most since 1989 (which is as far back as I've been keeping stats).

His NFL passer rating was 109.7 and puts him in the Pioneer Passing Pantheon behind Sullivan's eye-popping 129.0 in 2014 and Gino Cohee's 114.7 in 2009 and just ahead of Mike Karavetsos' 101.5 in 2012.

He ended with only six interceptions and two of those were Hail Mary desperation heaves at the end of both halves on Thursday. If not for those picks, his rating would have been 113.7.

Quite a debut.

Better to Receive
While we're on the topic of records, there is one more we need to note. Captain Louis Ellis hauled in two more touchdown passes on Thursday giving him seven on the season. That equalled the seven he caught in 2015 giving him 14 for his career and tying him with Jon Knee for most career TD catches. Knee did the trick in 2013-14.

Ellis' 603 yards is third best since 1989 behind Jeff Millinazzo's 789 in 2007 and Brian McBride's 720 in 2001. Nick Kinnon's 597 yards is fourth best.

Kinnon's eight TD catches were one shy of the record held by Lindsey Ross (1973) and Knee (2014).

Scoring Leader
Kinnon led the Pioneers in scoring this year with 74 points. Combined with the 36 he scored last season, he now has 110 career points, good for a 14th place tie with Todd Coviello (85-86). Frank Berardino (1958-61) sits atop the list with 262 points.

Ellis was second on the season with 46 points and his career total of 94 places him in 23rd on the all time Pioneer scoring list.

Rivalry Update
Thursday's game certainly lived up to past games in the series. It was the fifth game decided by a single point. The Pioneers won only one of them, a 14-13 win in 1990 (I hope you caught my story about this game in last week's Villager). North Reading has won the other four one point games: 13-12 in 2002 (a late game heartbreaker), 7-6 in 1980, and 3-2 (yep that's right) in 1966. Ironically, all five one-pointers were played in Lynnfield.

The win snapped a two game losing streak in the rivalry and was the 24th victory for the Hornets. It was North Reading's first win at Pioneer Stadium and their first win in Lynnfield since 2006. The Pioneers still lead the series 35-24 and have outscored North Reading 1000-797.

Running for 10K
Anthony Murphy's one yard blast allowed the Pioneers to reach another milestone - the 10,000 point mark. Lynnfield came into the game with 9,999 points all time and finished the game with 10,019. In the 592 games of the program, the Pioneers are averaging 17 points a game. They've allowed 9,048 or 15.2 points per game.

Their overall record now stands at 309-272-11.

That's it for now. Congrats to the Pioneers on another successful season.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

North Reading Game Preview: Clash of Champions

By Tom Condardo

For the second year in a row the Pioneers will be playing in the Unofficial Cape Ann League Championship game. Last year it was Baker Champ Lynnfield against Kinney Champ Pentucket in an exciting 28-27 Sachem win.

Tomorrow, the five-time Baker/CAL-NEC4/CAL Small Champion Pioneers host the Kinney Co-Champion Hornets for supremacy in the overall CAL. Of course it's highly unofficial and no one cares or even mentions it but me, but still.

Both teams come into the game after successful championship seasons, the Pioneers at 6-3 after an 0-2 start and the Hornets at 8-2.

Both teams made brief playoff runs, Lynnfield bowing out in the section semi finals and North Reading lasting one round longer and losing in the sectional finals to a strong Marblehead squad.

Both can put points on the board in a hurry - the Pioneers averaging 32 points a game over their last six contests and the Hornets scoring at a 30 point per game clip in their last half dozen games.

But that's where the similarity ends. The methods of each offense vary significantly.

The Hornets are a run-first offense led by dynamic running back Matt McCarthy. North Reading has scored 39 touchdowns and 32 have come via the run - 18 from McCarthy and 8 from quarterback Kyle Bythrow. The Hornets have tallied only three passing TD's. They've run the ball 304 times and passed it only 20 times.

The Pioneers are more balanced scoring 15 rushing touchdowns (4 each from Anthony Murphy and
Nick Kinnon, and 3 from Tyler Murphy.) But quarterback Matt Mortellite has tossed 19 touchdown passes - 8 to Kinnon and 5 to co-captain Louis Ellis. They've had 221 running plays and 180 pass attempts.

There will be no surprises on what the Hornets want to do. McCarthy, who has gained over 1600 yards so far - will get the lion's share of the carries but the Pioneers will have to keep an eye on Bythrow who is averaging almost 10 carries a game.

The Pioneers have more offensive weapons with Mortellite throwing to a solid corps of receivers in Kinnon, Ellis, and co-capt Kyle Hawes. Anthony Murphy, Tyler Murphy (if he's able to go after suffering an injury against Greater Lawrence), and Kinnon will handle most of the ground game. If Tyler Murphy doesn't play, Justin Ysalguez could see significant action.

The wild card for the Pioneers could be Mortellite on the run. He's carried 55 times for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he has speed and could burn the Hornets if they don't pay attention.

The weather looks to be ugly with freezing rain on the menu, and that would tend to favor a running team like the Hornets. But the Pioneers have been able to throw in bad weather, something they have faced too many times already this year.

It should be a good matchup and the question will be which defense can slow down the other offense the best. If neither can, we could be looking at a shootout at Pioneer Stadium.

Pioneers like home cooking
The Pioneers come into the game winners of two straight against North Reading and four straight at home. The Hornets haven't won in Lynnfield since posting a 22-0 shutout at the Middle School field in 2006.

The Chestnut Street Rivalry is the longest for both teams. The Pioneers have played the Hornets every year since the program began in 1958. That first game was on the last week of October and since 1959, the game has been played on Thanksgiving.

The Hornets won that first game and then the Pioneers reeled off the next seven and 14 of the first 18 meetings. The series has been pretty even since then. The teams are 10-10 over the past two decades and the Pioneers hold a 21-19 edge over the past 40 years.

Playoff System Fallacy
Oh well. Too bad the Thursday's game doesn't mean anything and no one is interested right? Wrong.

The critics of the playoff system will tell you the Thanksgiving Day games have been devalued because teams that have been bounced from the playoffs or didn't make it in the first place are just playing out the string.

I never understood this logic since what would you call it when a team loses its first three games with seven to go and has no chance of winning a league title - as unfortunately Lynnfield and North Reading and many others - have done too many times in their respective histories.

The angst over the playoff system affecting the holiday games is simply hogwash. The Thanksgiving Day rivalries are normally long standing battles between neighboring towns and will ALWAYS mean something. That's the case whether both teams come in 1-9 or march in as champions of their respective leagues. And that will be the case tomorrow when the Pioneers and Hornets meet for the 59th time.

So let's tee it up, hope the rain holds off, and get ready for what promises to be an exciting game.

Game time at Pioneer Stadium is 10:30.

That's it for now. Check back next week for my Leftovers post