Wednesday, December 9, 2009

O Pi'09ers!

If you weren't sure that high school football season was over, Mother Nature reminded us with a couple of snow/slush storms to drive home the fact. While it was painful to watch Austin Prep roll over Holliston in the Division 3A Super Bowl and knowing that the Pioneers would probably have done the same thing, at least we have the satisfaction of knowing that Lynnfield was probably the second best team in the division this year.

Pretty heady stuff.

The mind boggling announcement at the banquet last Sunday that 10 Pioneers were named All League illustrates how far the program has come. Chris Grassi (CAL Small Player of the Year) and captain Jon Leydon (Lineman of the Year and oh yeah, High Honors for the first quarter by the way) led All League seniors Ty Surette, Nick Roberts, Tim Lamusta, Doug Ullian and captain George Hennessey. All League Juniors who will be returning to defend Lynnfield's crown next year are 2010 captains A. J. Roberto and Gino Cohee along with Evan Panzero. Quite an impressive accomplishment.

And anyone who did not get a little chill watching Sophia Hennessey's outstanding video recap of the historic season needs to get checked for a pulse.

A full three page spread with pictures, all the award winners and a my recap article of the records set by the 2009 Pioneers is in this week's Villager. Definitely a keepsake edition.

It's been fun writng this blog all season, since space is always limited in the Villager and there is so much additional information to share. The fact that the team did so well made it even more exciting.

I have had a lot of positive feedback and kind words regarding the blog (and I thank you all for that) and even a request to keep it going during the offseason.  Now without games it will be difficult to come up with material on a regular basis, although I could bore you to tears with a year by year review of each team. Don't worry, I won't. But I have spoken to head coach Neal Weidman and he has agreed to keep me in the loop on the off season goings on, so I plan on putting something together at least once a month.

So you don't have to keep checking back and wondering when I will be posting, I have decided that I wlll post on the 9th of each month, just like today, in honor of the '09 team. So if you ever forget when to check back, just remember this year's team and that should serve as a reminder to tune in on the 9th of the month.

So to wrap up the season proper, I though I would do a quick review of the season, so we can all look back and enjoy one more time. And just as an aside, as I continue to post in the future, something tells me I am going to be referring to this 2009 club a good deal regarding "best since" and "most since" references. So I thought I'd hang a nickname on this year's championship season and I'm going to use Pi'09ers. I'm not sure if its pretty clever or just lame so I'll work with it a while to see how it feels before I make a final determination.

Now on to a quick look back.

Many people have heard the phrase "potential means you haven't done anything yet," particularly when it comes to sports. Coming into the season, the Pi'09ers had plenty of potential and actually had huge expectations heaped on them. The coaching staff tried to put a lid on it to keep the pressure off the players, but it was obvious that if it was ever going to happen for Lynnfield Football, this would be the year.

The first sign for me that something special was happening was the scrimmage against Northeast Regional. This was my 21st visit to the stadium by the rocks in Wakefield. It's always a good test for Lynnfield because the Knights usually have tough kids that play hard. I have seen scrimmages in which the Pioneers have held their own, some when they got pushed around and a few when they have done very well.

But this year, the domination was striking. Lynnfield piled up 34 points in a game like scrimmage. NE finally scored when the Lynnfield subvarsity checked in. Now I felt all along that this Lynnfield team had the horses, but after watching the way they dominated Northeast, my first reaction was that the Knights were in for a down year.

Not quite. In case you hadn't noticed, Northeast finished 6-5,  went 4-0 in winning their league (Commonwealth Small) and beat Brighton 22-12 in the Division 4A Super Bowl last Saturday.

The Pi'09ers got off on the right foot with a 34-7 beating of Matignon that could have been more had not Weidman called off the dogs early and let the backups and subvarsity pick up some valuable playing time. Another sign of what was to come. 6:'5" Warrior lineman Jay Kennedy was featured in the Boston Herald the Friday before the game but he was obliterated by what would become a powerful Lynnfield line led by Leydon, captain Eric Inglese and Panzero.

Things really started to come into focus at Georgetown the following week. All the preseason hype was that the Royals would be in the thick of things in the CAL Small. But with the graduation of all everyting Joe Esposito and standout lineman Matt Kumph, I never bought into Georgetown this season. I didn't have the nerve to say so, but it turned out that way as the Pi'09ers shredded Georgetown 32-6 and sent them reeling towards a 1-9 season.

The only bad news coming out of the Georgetown game was the loss of center Greg Banos. As Weidman related at the banquet, the three year starter had been playing his best football up to that time. For him to lose his entire senior season was a tough blow obviously for him, but also for the team. In presenting Banos the Matignon game ball, coach Mike Geary went as far as to say that "if he didn't get hurt, there is no question in my mind that we would be celebrating a Super Bowl victory."

Weidman recalled the decision process that the staff went through following the injury to Banos. They decided to move Doug Ullian to center (despite him never having snapped before) and brought sophomore Jon Roberto into the lineup. Weidman noted that Banos stayed with the team and worked with Ullian whenever he could.

Unfortunately for Lynnfield, the first game for the retooled line was a tough road game against the physical Wilmington Wildcats. The large Lynnfield crowd knew they were in for a tough night when Evan Butters returned the opening kick for a touchdown and then the Pioneers fumbled the first snap from center deep in their own territory. The Wildcats turned that into a score shortly after and Lynnfield was quickly in a 14-0 hole.

They recovered somewhat, battling back to 14-7 at the half, but in the second half they never could stop the Wildcats and suffered their only regular season loss, 28-7.

In a brilliant piece of scheduling, the Pi'09ers were able to try and rebound against Cathedral the following week, although at about 10:45, there was serious concern that the Panthers were going to show up at Pioneer Field. Apparently they had the wrong directions and ended up at the High School. Assistant Coach Pat Sheehan quickly retrieved them.  In a replay of the Matignon game, the Pi'09ers ravaged the Panthers 34-8 to get Lynnfield back on the winning track and improved their record to 3-1.

Then came the toughest four game stretch of the season, that would reveal how good the Pi'09ers really were. Two tough non league games against Danvers (Division 3) and Triton (Division 2A) followed by defending CAL Small and Division 3A Champ Amesbury and a potential winner take all showdown with Newburyport.

At the time, if you had said Lynnfield would sweep all four games by an aggregate 76-48, you wouldn't have gotten too many people to believe you. But that is exactly what they did.

Cohee nearly singled handedly shredded Danvers, picking up 192 rushing yards and a TD. In a steady rain, another common theme for the Pi'09ers,. Lynnfield built a 14-0 lead and then held on for dear life in a wild final few minutes. A last minute iinterception by Roberts finally sealed a huge confidence boosting win for Lynnfield.

They got another shot of confidence the next week when they took on undefeated Triton and super running back Brendan O'Neil. In a see saw game that saw the lead change six times, the Pi'09ers trailed 19-18 with 3:41 to play. From there, Lynnfield embarked on a 56 yard march with Cohee carrying seven times. As assistant coach Pat Sheehan described it at the banquet, there was nothing fancy about the drive. "It was quarterback power right and quarterback power left." With nine seconds left and the ball on the five yard line, record breaking kicker, and 2010 captain Steve Ullian calmly drilled a 22 yard field goal for the 21-19 win. The Pi'09ers moved to 5-1 and were perfectly set up for their league schedule which was to begin the following week.

Problem was, they came out against Amesbury and laid an egg in the middle of Pioneer Field.. Weidman acknowledged that his squad was outplayed, but they didn't lose. With the Pi'09ers trailing 10-7 midway in the fourth, Panzero and Lamusta combined for the play of the year. Panzero stripped Amesbury running back Jesse Burrill and Lamusta picked it up and ran it in for the score to give Lynnfield the 14-10 win.

That set up the huge showdown with Newburport at Pioneer field. The Pi'09ers set the tone on the very first drive. They won the toss, elected to receive and ran the ball right down the Clippers' throats on a 74 yard, four minute scoring drive. The Clippers really never recovered. Lynnfield built a 27-0 lead that showed how dominant they were. Newburyport scored two meaningless TD's to make it a 27-13 final, but it wasn't that close. Most impressive is that the Pi'09ers were riddled with injuries as Cohee played on a bad ankle, A. J. Roberto played with a broken hand and Grassi had a sore thumb. The Clippers, though, were the ones who left bruised and beaten.

With the tiebreaker advantage against Amesbury and Newburyport, the Pi'09ers had their fate in their own hands. They went to Ipswich and had to face a Tiger team with 17 seniors riding a 29 game losing streak. It was a game that was never in doubt, but one in which Lynnfield fans could never really feel comfortable. And also it was in the rain again. They got out of town with a 20-3 win.

The Pi'09ers only needed to beat either Hamilton Wenham or North Reading to secure the league title, but no one wanted it to come down to Thanksgiving Day. It was another lackluster effort against H-W, caused by sickness and an emotional trauma caused by the sudden death of Freddy Shove's sister in an auto accident.

But the Pi'09ers easily defeated the Generals 21-3 who were punchless without injured quarterback Andy Duval. For the first time in 23 years, Lynnfield celebrated a league championship and punched their ticket to the postseason.

Thanksgiving Day was simply icing on the cake as the Pi'09ers took care of business routing the shorthanded Hornets 35-14. Mike Pescione had a pair of touchdowns and the relentless defense harassed NR quarterback John Brooks all morning at the brand new $2 million field at North Reading High.

Five days later, the Pi'09ers travelled to Reading High and took on Austin Prep and as we are all so painfully aware, came up a couple of plays short of making the trip to Gillette. The 26-20 OT loss was a tough ending, but one which should not detract one iota from a tremdous season.

A final word about this coaching staff. I have covered high school football for more years than I care to think about, and I can tell you with assurance that coaching makes a HUGE difference in the success of a program. Yes you need players, but good coaching staffs put their players in position to win. From what I have observed over the past two years, this coaching staff does just that. It is obvious that Weidman, defensive coordinator Greg Haberland and assistant coaches Pat Sheehan, Mike Geary, John O'Brien, Gino Fodero, Fern Lavoie and Sean Roche put in ton of time getting the team ready. Not only do they know football, but they care about the kids and put an enormous amount of time which allows them to be successful. They are to be commended.

After years of struggling, Lynnfield football is back. With 13 seniors next year, the Pioneers will be looking to continue to build on the foundation laid by the Champion Pi'09ers. Next season can't come fast enough.

See you back here on January 9th.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

"Wing" Taking Off Shot Down Pioneers

They say some time has to pass before you can think rationally about a traumatic event. Well it's been two days and I wouldn't say I was quite rational yet, but we do have to go back and take a look at the Pioneers' tough playoff loss to Austin Prep.

In such a hard fought, back and forth contest, it is natural to look at the game with a "micro" perspective. From the opening squib onside kick to the final fumbled winning touchdown, there were any number of individual plays that had they bounced for the Pioneers, we would be previewing the Super Bowl right now.

However, I think we need to look at the game in "macro" context, and if you really analyze the game as a whole, it appears that the Cougars ability to throw the ball effectively is what ultimately did in the Pioneers. Keep in mind that AP quarterback JR Richard is not the Cougars starting signal caller. That job belonged to Ryan Havey. But Havey's was knocked out of the lineup in midseason with broken ribs, so Richard took over the spot. And although Ray Acciavatti was a beast, I believe it was really Richard's passing that was the difference.

"We were aware they were real efficient with their passing game," Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman said after the game. "They don't do it a ton but they bring you in and then make good plays in the passing game. We knew there was a chance of that. The coverage was actually pretty decent most of the time but the kids made nice throws and nice catches."

Richard was 10 for 17 for 126 yards and a score. It was not only the total yardage, but the timing of the plays that hurt the Pioneers. AP's first touchdown came on a Richard to Brendan Burket pass on a fourth and seven from the ten. Richard again stuck the knife in on the final Cougar go ahead drive in the fourth quarter. He was 3 for 3 on the march (which came in the middle of six straight completions for the lefty qb). The second pass of the drive was a 15 yarder to Acciavatti on third and eight from the 33. Then two plays later on a third and four from the 12, he completed a beautiful pop pass to Burke for nine yards and a first down at the three. Matt Mulcahy drove it in from there to give AP a shortlived 20-13 lead.

Then after Gino Cohee connected with Mike Pescione for 20 yards and Ty Surette for 30 yards for the tying score, Richard almost brought the Cougars back to win in regulation. With a minute and a half left, Richard hit Burke for 19 yards to the Pioneer 42, then three plays later he found Nick Dell'Anno for 12 yards and a first down at the 20 with less than a minute to play. Luckily, the potential winning field goal was short and wide to the right, but Richard's passing was key all game.

"We knew they could throw the ball," assistant coach Pat Sheehan told me after the game. "We knew they didn't want to. We made them go to their secondary option. Our defense played well all year long and they played well in this game. They just made one more play."

The Pioneers worked hard to break up the double wing running formation, which has gotten AP this far. Acciavatti was obviously the key for AP, running for 148 yards and a score and catching 6 passes for 76 yards. In total, the Cougars picked up 200 yards on the ground on 42 carries, but 75 of those came on the first two carries by Acciavatti to open the second half. Take those two away (don't we wish) and the Pioneers held AP to 125 yards on 40 carries, a 3.1 per carry average.

That looks healthy, but AP throwing 17 times was a clear indication that they knew they could not do it only on the ground against the solid Lynnfield defense.

"We wanted to take them out of the run, but (Burke) killed us with a couple of great catches," defensive coordinator Greg Haberland told me after the game. "They made that one pop pass down there that really killed us. The double wing does it. It wears you down. It gets you to overplay something and then they pop something."

Haberland agreed that quarterback Richard was not just another running back in a double wing offense. "He was a lot better than I thought he would be," Haberland said. "The kids played hard. We couldn't ask for anything more of them. We asked them before the game to give us 100% and they did."

The mark of a good team is when they can adjust on the fly. The Pioneers made the Cougars change from run only to an agressive passing game, and they did it successfully. Take nothing away from them, Austin Prep is a good team.

For those of you recovered enough emotionally to handle it, the Austin Prep/Holliston Division 3A Super Bowl from Gillette will be televised Saturday morning on Comcast Sports New England (Channell 52/852 in Lynnfield) at 9 am. It will be interesting to see how the Cougars due against the high powered Holliston team.

North Reading's Revenge?
The Pioneers beat up the Hornets pretty good on Thanksgiving Day, but there was a measure of revenge for Lynnfield's archrival in the playoff game. Acciavatti and Richard, who did most of the damage agiainst the Pioneers, are both North Reading residents. So is injured quarterback Havey.

True Warrior
If there were an award for the toughest player on the field Tuesday, it would have gone to Pioneer junior A. J. Roberto. Roberto broke his hand against Amesbury. The break, near the thumb on his right hand was casted and A. J. played a huge role the next week in the big win over Newburyport. He actually had a one handed interception and a boatload of tackles.

However, during the game, A. J. rebroke the hand and had to undergo surgery to have it reset. He missed the final three regular season games but received clearance on Monday to play in the playoff game, only a month after surgery. A. J. played a key role in slowing down the potent AP running game. The best news, according to coach Sheehan, is that A. J. did no further damage to the hand in the game.

Speaking of Roberto's, A.J. 's brother Jon came up with a big play against AP, blocking a punt early in the fourth period. Unfortunately, the Pioneers were not able to convert it into points.

Wrong Brother
And while we are on the topic of brothers, in the Boston Herald report on the game, they referred to Lynnfield's quarterback as "Tino" Cohee. Now Tino was at the game and the LHS alumn would have loved to get in, but unfortunately the UNH student is a few years beyond his Pioneer playing days.

As for younger brother Gino, he and captain George Hennessey were the only two players to carry the ball for the Pioneers on Tuesday. Cohee picked up 75 yards and a TD on 22 carries. Hennessey rushed 11 times for 47 yards.

The Pioneers were flagged only once all night and that was for an illegal substitution in the second period. AP had four penalties for 40 yards.

Final piece of useless information: If you skimmed through the playoff program they were selling at the game, you would have noticed there were 55 Eastern and Central Mass playoff teams listed. Three of them were the Pioneers.

We'll have a final look at the season next week.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


So close but yet so far.

It's a cliche, yes, but perfectly describes the Pioneers' heartbreaking 26-20 playoff loss to Austin Prep.

I'm still waiting to see the replay on the Cougar's TD in overtime. Quarterback JR Richard clearly fumbled the snap and when he came up out of the pile he looked like he was short of the goal line, but apparently the officials saw him recover the ball in the endzone for the score.

The Pioneers had one last chance, but the AP defense made a nice call blitzing on the fourth down play and Gino Cohee had no chance to get into the endzone. Even if he had, the play would have been called back due to an illegal formation call (which head coach Neal Weidman didn't agree with by the way). So it would have been fourth and goal from the six and a half, a much tougher assignment.

But now is not the time for sour grapes. Considering the stakes and the atmosphere, this was one of the best high school football games I have ever seen. Two evenly matched teams battling it out to the bitter end...and then some. The lead changed seven times and Ol' Momentum kept switching from a black to a white jersey

Ultimately, it came down to a few feet of artificial turf either way and the Cougars made one more big play than the Pioneers. That's the way it goes sometimes.

The loss in no way should take anything away from a dream season for these Pioneers. 2009 will go down as one of the best years in Pioneer football history and will be the measuring stick for many Lynnfield High teams for years to come. They won their league title and made it to the post season for the first time in 23 years. They are the first Pioneer team to win 10 games and they were a few short yards from making the trip to Foxboro.

Assistant Coach Pat Sheehan probably put it best after the game. "It was a great season all year long. The kids played their butts off today. That might be the toughest way to lose as far as emotions go. It's going to sting for the kids for a while but they should be proud of themselves."

All in all, a terrific year and congrats to all the players and coaches.

More on the AP game and the season as a whole later in the week.