Sunday, January 23, 2011

We are 2000 strong!

I know I said my next post would be February 4th and it will be. However, I wanted to take a moment to let you all know about the size of the group that tuned in to the Gridblog for the 2010 season.

I received a lot of positive feedback that many people were following the blog and for that I thank you. What I didn't know until I collected my official Google Analytics data was how big a group we really are!

From August 1, 2010 through December 31, 2010, almost 2000 unique visitors checked in on the blog. Those visitors resulted in 13,300 page views.

I have also been contacted directly by readers in Newburyport, Hamilton Wenham and Byfield, among other locations, so interest is growing from the Lynnfield town line and into more Cape Ann League territory and beyond. I have also heard from people in Maryland, New York and other parts of the country who are following along as well.

For all of that again, I thank you.

Although this is a labor of love, there are bills to pay, so I will be looking to add a few limited sponsorships of the blog for 2011. If you are interested in reaching an active, passionate, focused Lynnfield (and beyond) market base, please email me at and we can talk.

I'll also be adding a "Donation" button for anyone who would like to contribute to the blog.

Enough of the commercial break. Check back on February 4th when I'll take a first look at the new league the Pioneers will be playing in during the 2011 season.

Until then, keep shoveling and stay warm.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Top Plays of 2010

Happy New Year to everyone, and welcome back to the blog, 2011 version.

This is the time of year for Top Ten lists and Year in Review columns, so for the second year in a row, here is one man's opinion of the key plays of the Pioneers' successful 2010 season. My selection is purely subjective and the criteria I used includes the importance of the play to a particular game, player or season as a whole. Some are happy and unfortunately, some are sad, but still significant so I had to include them.

I tried to get the list down to ten, but I whittled it down to twelve and started having trouble cutting any further. Then I realized I have all the space I want and I'm my own editor, so why not go with an even dozen.

So here we go. In reverse order, the Top 12 Plays of the Year.

12 - Mike Thomas' 97 yard run TD run against Cathedral.
This touchdown was the final tally in a 40-0 blowout against the Panthers, so the play wasn't significant in determining the outcome of the game. However, it was the longest run from scrimmage this year, and the longest that I can remember. The run is even more significant for the way in which it unfolded. With less than a minute to play in the lopsided win, Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman was just trying to run out the clock so he called for a simple off tackle play.

However, the JV line made their blocks, Thomas picked the right seam and broke free. That was impressive enough, but the play became really eyepopping as Thomas accelerated and it became clear that no one on the speedy Panther defense was going to catch him as he dashed all the way to the endzone for the score.

"It was a great run but I felt a little bad about it," said Weidman. "I was trying to get a couple of yards to have some room to take a knee."

11 - Rick Berardino's touchdown run against Chelsea
On a dark and stormy night in Chelsea, Berardino's first period 29 yard TD run gave the Pioneers a 7-0 lead and actually turned out to be the game winning score in a 28-0 whitewash over the Red Devils.

More significantly, with the run, Berardino achieved both a team and individual milestone. First, the score was the 800th rushing touchdown in Lynnfield football history. Secondly, with the running TD, Berardino became the only Pioneer in the 53 year history of the program to score via running, pass receiving, kickoff return and punt return. No one had accomplished that feat in 52 years. He accomplished it in six games.

10- Steve Ullian's 100th point at Hamilton-Wenham
Actually it was his 100th, 101st and 102nd. Mid way in the second period of the Hamilton Wenham game, the greatest placekicker in Lynnfield High history booted through a 26 yard field goal. Ullian's sixth career field goal (Pioneer record) gave Lynnfield a 3-0 lead and vaulted Ullian into the 100 point club. He became only the 13th member of the Pioneer Century Scoring Club.

"Steve would practice every day after practice when most of the other players were in the locker room or gone home," said special teams coach Fern Lavoie in presenting Ullian with the Special Teams Player of the Year Award at last month's banquet. "He would work an average of four days a week, and kick around 10 times so that's 40 kicks a week. You do that for eleven weeks so that's 440 kicks a year. Then add in forty to sixty pregame kicks so that's over 500 kicks a year. So in a couple of years that's over a thousand kicks. That's a lot of work."

"He was a guy that made the most out of his natural size and ability," Weidman said of Ullian at the banquet. "He made the most of it mainly because he was tough player. He worked at it and it was important to him. As a junior we had to tell him to stop running down the field and smashing into people as a kicker because we needed him back there as a safety. After he kicked it, he'd run down the field and make the tackle too."

9 - Gino Cohee's Record Breaking TD Pass against Danvers
Early in the third period of the Danvers game, Cohee hooked up with Ullian for a 32 yard TD strike for his 24th career scoring pass. That lifted him past Steve Olsen (1971-73) who had held the record of 23 for 36 seasons. Cohee would go on to add six more TD passes to firmly establish the new record at 30.

"You don't have to say a lot about Gino Cohee," Weidman told those attending the banquet. "His success has been well documented. He made our offense go. When he was throwing it and running it we were virtually impossible to stop. His skill will be missed going forward."

8 -  Gino Cohee to A. J. Roberto TD pass against North Reading
The pesky North Reading Hornets were giving the Pioneers all they could handle on Thanksgiving Day. They came out on a deathlike, time eating opening drive TD march to take a 6-0 lead and the Pioneers needed something quick to quell the enthusiasm building on the visitors' sideline.

It took Cohee and CAL Small MVP A. J. Roberto only five plays to take care of that piece of business. On the second play of the second period, Cohee fired a pass over the middle to Roberto who leapt over a defender, hauled it in and sprinted 47 yards for the score. Ullian nailed the PAT and the Pioneers would never trail again. It was the perfect momentum changer at the perfect time.

"A. J. was one of the reasons the program has been able to achieve what it has the past four years," said defensive coordinator Greg Haberland at the banquet. "He's a quality person and a joy to coach."

7 - Rick Berardino's kick off TD against Bishop Fenwick
After easy wins over Manchester Essex and Georgetown, there was still some question about how good the Pioneers were really going to be. Although Bishop Fenwick came into the game 0-2, it was thought that the Crusaders, under the lights at home, might provide the first real test of the season.

Berardino put that theory to rest when he took the opening kickoff at his own seven yard line and exploded like he was shot out of a cannon. 93 yards later, the Pioneers were up 7-0 and another rout was on.

"Ricky hit it hard," Weidman said after the game. "He busted it up there. He hit it full speed which is the way I want to do it."

6 - Mike Thomas' Fumble Recovery against Ipswich
This play looked big at the time but as the weeks have passed and I tried put it in context of the game and the season, I feel it ranks as the sixth most important play of the year.

The Pioneers were coming off a devastating loss to Newburyport and needed a win against a dangerous Ipswich team badly to stay in the CAL Small race. Leading only 7-0 at the time, Lynnfield faced a second and nine from their own 34 yard line. They ran the option to the right side and co-captain Gino Cohee pitched to junior Mike Thomas.

The pitch was a little high and not handled cleanly and the ball fell to the ground with Thomas in hot pursuit. For a moment it looked like the Ipswich defender was about to recover it but Thomas quickly snatched it back, covered it up and the Pioneers kept possession.

It went into the game chart as a four yard loss, but it could have been a huge momentum swing if the Tigers recovered at the Lynnfield 30 yard line with a short field and a chance to go in for the tying score.

Instead, on third and 13, Cohee faded back and drilled A. J. Roberto for a 70 yard TD reception. So instead of facing a potentioal 7-7 tie, the Pioneers led 14-0, a huge 14 point swing. They would go on to rout the Tigers 41-0, but if Thomas doesn't recover that fumble, who knows where that game - and the season -  goes from there.

5 - Pete Foustoukas First Down Catch against Amesbury
After trailing 13-7 at the half in Amesbury, the Pioneers rallied back to tie it 13-13 in the third period. They got the ball back and had momentum building, but they faced a third and five from the Amesbury 42 needing a first down to keep the drive alive.

They got it when Cohee threw to Foustoukas who made a great grab for a six yard gain and a new set of downs. The Pioneers would continue to move and take the lead on a Steve Ullian field goal. Lynnfield then blew it open with two late TD's to take home the 30-13 romp, but they needed that key first down to kick start the game winning drive. Several coaches noted this specific play and how big it was during the banquet presentations.

4- Key Pass Breakup by Jonathan Roberto and Craig Cataldo against Amesbury
You need to remember how big the Amesbury game was. It was the first of five straight CAL Small games against the toughest opponent the Pioneers had faced up to that point in the season. For that reason, there were several huge plays.

In my mind, the fourth biggest of the season occurred with 6:39 left in the third period, with the Pioneers trailing the Indians 13-7. Amesbury faced a fourth and four from the Lynnfield 41 yard line. The Pioneers could not afford to fall two scores behind that late in the game and desperately needed a stop.

Indian quarterback Tyler Lay sprinted to the right looking for a receiver, but all he saw were the waving arms of junior lineman Jonathan Roberto who was closing fast. Lay had to hurry the pass giving linebacker Craig Cataldo enough time to get in and break it up for an incompletion.

The Pioneers took over on downs and would go on to score the tying touchdown four plays later. But if the Indians had converted on that fourth down play.....

3 and 2 - Hamilton-Wenham's Fourth Down Conversion and Game Winning Field Goal
These two plays didn't go the Pioneers' way, but it would be tough to argue that they weren't two of the top three important plays of the year.

To reopen the old wound, the Pioneers led 15-13 against Hamilton Wenham with 3:13 left in the game and were poised to lift themselves into a first place tie with Newburyport with a win. We know how this one unfolded. The Generals took over on their own 19 and marched 74 yards to the Lynnfield seven to set up the winning field goal.

The biggest play of the drive came with under two minutes remaining when the Generals faced a fourth and one at the Lynnfield 42. A stop there and the game would have been pretty much over. But Trevor Lyons, who burned the Pioneers all day with 84 yards on nine carries and a score, took another counter handoff and slashed for a five yard pickup and a first down to keep the chains moving.

It's always tough to pin everything on one play, but clearly if this had gone the way of the good guys, there could have been a very different ending to the game.

But unfortunately it didn't, and so we come up with the second most important play of the year, which was the 25 yard game winning field goal by James Brao that sealed a heartbreaking 16-15 Pioneer loss that eliminated the Pioneers from the championship race.

Drum roll please.............The top play of 2010!

1 - Jeff Gannon's Injury against Amesbury
It may be a little unorthodox but in my opinion, the most important play of the season came in the Amesbury game and the affects of it were most felt the following week against Newburyport.

On the final play of the first quarter, Amesbury running back Delante Castle went for a three yard run before being tackled by Pioneer co-captain Jeff Gannon and that's where the problem began. Gannon did not get up and as it turned out, suffered a serious knee injury that not only knocked him out of the Amesbury game but kept him on the sideline for the all important Newburyport game the next week.

For all the pain of plays number 2 and 3 above, as it turned out, the loss to Hamilton Wenham was not the reason the Pioneers failed to repeat as league championship. Even if they had beaten the Generals, they still would not have taken the crown, since Newburyport crushed Amesbury on Thanksgiving and that alone ended Lynnfield's title hopes.

No, what sunk the Pioneer championship dream was the devastating 24-7 loss against the Clippers two weeks earlier. The Clippers dominated in that game rushing for 224 yards, much of that right up the middle, and held the Pioneers to only 23 yards rushing. It may be putting too much on one player, but in losing Gannon, the Pioneers not only lost the talents of a key inside linebacker and starting running back, but also his emotional leadership as well. It may not have made all the difference, but I have to believe that the game could have unfolded quite differently with Gannon's presence on the field.

In my mind, that makes that simple three yard gain by Amesbury, the most important play of the 2010 Pioneer season.

"Probably the most impressive thing (about Gannon) was his ability to come back from that torn knee ligament and finish the season," Weidman said at the banquet. "That is a testament to what this season meant to him and what football means to him."

Assistant coach John O'Brien spoke highly of Gannon in presenting him the Coaches Award at the banquet.

"Each year we vote on the player that best exemplifies what we are trying to do at Lynnfield High," O'Brien said. "Offseason worker in the weight room, always on time for practice, great practice player, great teammate, great leader. Gannon fits all those categories. Probably the best pass blocker we've had since I've been here. He called all the defenses. Just a great kid."

So there you have it, my Top 12 Plays of 2011.

That's it for now. Check back in on February 4th when I will take a first look at the brand new CAL/NEC 4, which will be the Pioneers' new home league next season.

Until then, stay warm and keep thinking pigskin.