Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tough schedule awaits 2011 Pioneers

To say the 2011 Lynnfield Pioneers face a number of challenges is an understatement.

Topping the list would be replacing 15 seniors including a pair of two-time All-League players (quarterback Gino Cohee and LB/WR A. J. Roberto), the 2010 CAL Small Player of the Year (Roberto), three other 2010 All League performers (RB/LB Jeff Gannon, K/WR Steve Ullian, DB Rick Berardino) and two All League Honorable Mention winners (Lineman Craig Cataldo and DB Tim Shannon). They also have to replace the Pioneers' best placekicker ever (Ullian 6 FG's and 75 PAT's) and four other starters (DB Wes Sullivan, lineman Nick Burtman, WR Pete Foustoukas and lineman John Bossi).

The Pioneers also have to replace defensive coordinator Greg Haberland who has moved on to North Shore this season.

And they have to live up to the standard set by arguably the best two year performance in the history of the school that saw the Pioneers post the most wins in a two year span (19) including a league championship in 2009.

Add one more challenge to the pile.

A killer schedule.

Good bye Division 4A Cathedral and Chelsea. Hello powerhouses St. Mary's of Lynn and Pentucket. The Pioneers will play in the Division 3A Tier Four of the newly formed CAL/NEC. They face three teams from the CAL/NEC's Tier Three (Pentucket, Amesbury and Newburyport) and one from the league's Tier Two (Danvers). They also face two private schools from the always tough Catholic Central Large (Bishop Fenwick and St. Mary's) just moving down to Division 4 this year.

Clearly their non league slate is their toughest since playing a nearly full Cape Ann League Schedule in 2007.

"We'll be battle tested," said Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman. "We'll have a tough non league schedule."

Was the shift to a tougher schedule intentional or just a product of circumstance?

 "A little bit of both," Weidman said. "Last year the schedule didn't quite fall into place the way we thought it would."

The Pioneers bulldozed through their first six games last season - five non league and a league game against Georgetown. They were never tested as they steamrolled to a 6-0 record, outscoring the group 222-45 and posting three shutouts.

"Parts of the schedule didn't really help us out going into the later league schedule," Weidman admitted. "We didn't realize it was going to work out that way."

The soft early schedule for the Pioneers was a stark contrast to that of their top CAL Small rivals Newburyport and Hamilton Wenham. The Clippers went 3-4 but lost to CAL Large powers Masco, Wilmington and North Andover. They then upset the Pioneers enroute to reeling off four straight league wins to finish 7-4.

The Generals were 3-2 in the first half of their season but beat Pentucket and Triton and lost to Wilmington. They then won five straight league games including the 16-15 last second win over the Pioneers to clinch the league title.

The Pioneers will be looking to benefit from stiffer competition in the non-league portion of their 2011 season.

Lynnfield open with three straight home games, but there will be no easing into the season.

The past two years the focus has been on the two big league games with Amesbury and Newburyport at the start of the league schedule sometime in mid October. In 2009 the Pioneers won both enroute to the CAL Small crown. Last season, the Pioneers had a stirring comeback win over the Indians but stumbled against the Clippers in their first loss of the year that ultimately crippled their hopes for a repeat.

They'll not be waiting for the leaf-peeping season to face that pair this year.

The Pioneers will host those two rivals right out of the gate but this season they will be non league games. That probably won't have much of an affect on the intensity of the contests against the two teams the Pioneers have faced for nearly 40 years.

"They're teams we've always played and they've always had good teams," said Weidman. "We'll be starting off the season against Newburyport which is going to be very good and follow them up with Amesbury like we have the past few years which is a tough back to back."

The Pioneers will then play their third straight home game against Bishop Fenwick.

"They lost some players but so did we so I expect that to be a pretty good matchup," said Weidman.

Are three straight home games an advantage for the Pioneers?

"It really depends," said Weidman. "With the number of seniors we lost the last two years you never know how things will shake out. My guess is that it's going to take some time for some of our kids to get used to playing at varsity speed against varsity competition which is a good thing about having non league games before your league games. I'm hoping that by the time we get to our league schedule we're going to be a much improved team from the first week of the year.

"That's the important thing," Weidman continued. "It's great to win - obviously you want to win all of your games - for a lot of reasons including momentum and confidence, but it's also important to make sure you're playing your best when you get to your league games."
In Week Four, the Pioneers hit the road for their first away game of the year under the lights at Manning Field against St. Mary's.

"St. Mary's is good. They were 10-1 last year and didn't lose anyone," said Weidman. "They have two backs that fly and they are very aggressive. They are going to be very tough."

The Pioneers are on the road again in Week Five when they travel to Danvers for a Thursday night game against the Falcons.

"They are a bigger school but we've beaten them the last two years," said Weidman. "Two years ago up there it was a great game. They lost a lot of seniors that year. Last year wasn't quite as close a game but they'll be a good team and this year we lost a lot of seniors."

The Pioneers return home for their final non league game against traditional CAL Large power Pentucket. With the realignment, the Sachems are moving down two divisions and have to be considered the prohibitive favorite in the CAL/NEC Tier Three.

"The first six weeks are going to be real tough heading into our first league game against Ipswich," Weidman said.

The Pioneers will take on the Tigers in another Friday night game and despite losing a ton of seniors, Ipswich could surprise.

"They have a good young group coming in including the coach's son and there's a lot of them," said Weidman."They're going to be an up and coming team that you're going to have to watch out for."

The Pioneers return to Lynnfield to take on the defending and final CAL Small Champion Hamilton Wenham. They will be looking to avenge last year's heartbreaking one point, last second loss to the Generals.

It's back on the road the following week to take on Georgetown in a Saturday afternoon game. The Royals will be playing under a new coach with the departure of Matt Bouchard from the sidelines.

"It's always tough the first year for a coach," Weidman said. "If you're putting in a new offense and defense there's a learning curve there. But they return their quarterback which is always key. And he's a good player. He didn't play against us last year."

Then it's back to Pioneer Field for the final home game of the season against new league member Manchester-Essex.

The season wraps up with the 54th traditional rivalry game against North Reading.

Early reviews seem to point to H-W and the Hornets as preseason favorites in the new league so the holiday game could have huge post season consequences for either or both teams. For a complete early look at the new CAL/NEC Tier Four league, check out my February post.

Having a tough non league schedule does not necessarily mean a team's season is doomed, even if they struggle early.

In 2008, Newburyport started the year 0-5 but then beat the Pioneers 24-14 in their first league game. That was the start of a five game winning streak that lifted the Clippers to 5-5 and had them playing for the league title on Thanksgiving Day. They lost to Amesbury but finished with a 5-1 league mark.

Last year, Beverly started 0-5 in the non-league portion of their schedule, but ran off five straight to capture the NEC Small crown. The Panthers then beat Scituate 41-14 in the Division 2A playoff and then outlasted Somerset 28-20 to win the Super Bowl.

For all the dates and details, here is the link to the Pioneers' 2011 schedule.

That's it for now. Check back on June 3 for my next post.