Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Pioneers, Vikings Tangle in Working Scrimmage

Wednesday's working scrimmage against Triton may not have been very exciting for the group of Lynnfield rooters who lined the field to take it in, but it provided a much needed vehicle for the Pioneers to work on some important game components against a live opponent.

Instead of a game-like scrimmage, the Pioneers and Vikings broke into several groups to work on some key details.

They started with  some 7 v 7 passing at one end of the field while the linemen did some one on one drills at the other end. They moved to some live punting and punt coverage work and then went into 7 v 7 running work.

They finished up with a controlled full team scrimmage with each team alternating 10 offensive and defensive plays.

Viking coach and Lynnfield native Pat Sheehan, brought his Vikings to town along with a coaching staff that sports a heavy shade of blue and gold. Should the Lynnfield Football Alumni ever want to put together a reunion, they would do well to start with the Viking staff.

Helping out Sheehan, a former Pioneer captain and assistant coach, are former Pioneer players Mike Geary (also former assistant coach), Rob LeGrow (now a lawyer in Byfield), Andy Poor and Pat's younger brother Ryan Sheehan.

The Vikings rode their two stud offensive players - quarterback Blaise Whitman and running back Derek Paquette to three touchdowns. Whitman ran one in from 12 yards out and threw a 15 yard scoring strike. Paquette, a bull of a running back, exploded in for a 20 yard score.

The Pioneers' only score came on a 3 yard run by Tyler Palumbo.

Sheehan was impressed with the Pioneers.

"They have a good club," Sheehan told me. "Their defensive front is good. I know they were missing A.K (Andrew Kibarian) today and he will be a big addition when he gets back. They have a good team."

He did see some differences from 2009 when he was the offensive coordinator of the CAL Small champs.

"They're doing a lot of the same things but they're doing some new things that I like that they weren't doing when I was here," Sheehan continued. "They're running a lot outside and they're running some two back stuff that we never ran. That causes some problems. Where do we put our extra guy in the box? Where do we put our extra linebacker? They're running a lot more power game out of that. They're looking pretty good."

Sheehan will be looking to pick up his first win as head coach when the season starts after going through a rough 0-11 season last year despite being in most of those games. How are things going so far?

"It's going good," said Sheehan. "We're excited. We came out a little flat today but this is our third scrimmage already. We played North Reading yesterday (Tuesday) and our starters played about 35-40 plays. I think they may have been a little tired or bored of the scrimmages. We have to find a way to motivate them.  But it's been great."

With Whitman and Paquette, the Vikes appear to be ready to contend in their new league.

"They are good players," Sheehan said. "We just need to keep them healthy."

The Pioneers wrap up their preseason with a meeting against Northeast Regional Vocational on Saturday morning at 10 am in Wakefield. The Knights are two time defending Division 4A champs and coming off an 11-2 record last year and 8-5 mark in 2009. They will provide a nice final test for the Pioneers prior to their opener against Newburyport on September 10.

That's it for now.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Vikings Set to Invade

Before I get into some highlights of the Masco scrimmage and talk about the Pioneers' game-like scrimmage against the Triton Vikings on Wednesday afternoon at 3:45, I wanted to note another way that you can get to the Gridblog.

Instead of constantly checking back here to see if I've posted, you can fill in your email address at the left and have the blog delivered by email. That way you will always have the latest post sent to your iPhone, Blackberry or Android or just waiting in your inbox when you log in to check email.

Masco Scrimmage
So let's take a look back at Saturday's Chieftains scrimmage. My full account is in Wednesday's Villager, but here are a couple of additional observations.

Despite the fact that they were playing a bit over their heads taking on a Masco team that has been a perennial CAL Large power, the Pioneers did learn some things from the matchup.

"It was good," head coach Neal Weidman said afterwards. "In the beginning we had to adjust to the speed of playing somebody else. But just working against a good team was positive."

The Pioneers also played without a couple of key pieces, especially on defense. Tri-captain Jon Roberto was ill and did not play and junior Andrew Kibarian played a little center on offense but did not play defensively. The strength of the Pioneers this season will be their experienced offensive and defensive lines, so playing shorthanded there was definitely a disadvantage.

Some other notes from the scrimmage.
- Junior Mike Karavetsos handled the quarterbacking duties with the first team but was under some heavy pressure from the Masco defense and the Pioneer offense struggled as a result. He had one pass picked off by Masco's first defense.  He did combine with tri-captain Mike Thomas on a nice 20 yard screen pass.

- Sophomore Kyle McGah showed some good running sense in tallying the Pioneers' first TD. He knifed inside on a run to the right side and hit a wall of Masco defenders, but he bounced right and cruised in untouched for the three yard score.

- Alex Roper came in to quarterback the second team. He completed a nice 60 yard TD pass to Alex Pascucci who shook off a hit as he caught the ball at midfield then outraced the Masco defense to the endzone. Senior Dan Ashwell helped spring him by chipping the only defender who had a chance to catch him. Roper also threw a couple of picks.

- Ashwell combined with Roper on a nifty 50 yard catch and run. He made a nifty move after the reception to get to the outside and picked up a big gain before being knocked out at the 20.

- Nick Varano made a nice play to pick off an interception.

- Roper had his first PAT attempt blocked, but drilled through a low liner after the Pioneers' second TD.

Other than that, it was good for the Pioneers to take on someone other than their teammates after a week of beating each other up.

Triton Coming to Town
The practice contest against the Vikings represents a homecoming for Lynnfield native Pat Sheehan who is beginning his second year as head coach of the Vikings. Sheehan, a receiver, defensive back and long snapper, was captain of the Pioneers in 1999, and was an assistant coach at Lynnfield in 2005 and 2006, and again in 2008 and 2009. He was the Offensive Coordinator of the 2009 CAL Small Champion Pioneers.

He took over the Triton program last year in the late spring, with very little time to build his program. He brought former Pioneer teammate and fellow assistant coach with Lynnfield and captain (2000) Mike Geary along with him to Byfield. But playing in the tough CAL Large, the Vikings struggled through a winless 0-11 season.

Despite not notching a victory, Sheehan kept Triton competitive throughout. Seven of their 11 losses came by a TOTAL of 30 points. In five of the losses, the Vikes were tied or ahead going into the final quarter. They lost two in the final minute of play (one with 10 seconds left) and one in four overtimes.

"It was unbelievable to tell you the truth," Sheehan told me in an inteview earlier this year." Each week was the same old story. It was one thing or another. You think you have it. We were tied. We were up. We were driving. Then came a costly turnover or just a fluke thing."

Triton should experience a resurgence this year as they no longer have to battle the giants of the CAL Large.  They will be playing in the CAL/NEC Tier 3 league, which like the Pioneers' CAL/NEC 4 will be Division 3A. Triton's other league foes will be Pentucket, Newburyport, Amesbury, Saugus and Winthrop

The Vikings will provide a good test for the Pioneers. Sheehan returns 15 seniors including standout skill players in quarterback Blaise Whitman and running back Derek Paquette. 

"Blaise has a year with the offense under his belt and understanding it. I think Paquette is going to be the best back or one of the top backs in the league. We have some receivers  and offensive linemen coming back. We are losing a lot of our defense but we're excited about the guys we have coming back and the commitment they've shown this offseason."

Whitman threw nine touchdown passes as a junior last season and ran for five more. Paquette had eight rushing TD's and caught another in amassing 54 points for the Vikes last season.

In an interview with Dan Gutteplan of the Newburyport News last week, Sheehan expressed cautious optimism. 

"I don't want to say we're in better shape than any other team," Sheehan told Gutteplan. "A lot of these guys went through an 0-11 season. We are one of the more veteran teams in the league, but we need to find ways to win."

The game will be played at the high school practice field because the field at the Middle School is being reseeded.

That's it for now. Check back soon (or fill out your email subscription!)

Thursday, August 25, 2011

And They're Off...

If you read my article in the Villager on Wednesday - and I certainly hope you did - you know that the Pioneers are up and running for the 2011 season. 

Head coach Neal Weidman greeted 63 players to his first practices on Monday and Tuesday. Let that number sink in for a minute. 63. Sixty Three.

For many of you that number may not mean much. But for those of us who have been following Lynnfield football for a while, that number is staggering. It tops the 56 that turned out last season and is clearly the largest number since at least the mid eighties.

For reference, I dug out the reporting numbers for the 23 years I've been covering the team.

From 1989 to 1994 the turnout ranged from 34 to 37. From 1995 to 2000 the range was 30 to 35. Here are the number since 2000.

2000- 35
2001 - 39
2002 - 32
2003 - 33
2004 - 50
2005 - 40
2006 - 49
2007 - 51
2008 - 45
2009 - 53
2010 - 56
2011 - 63

The program hit its nadir in terms of numbers in 1995 when 22 sophomores, juniors and seniors turned out for Scott Brennan's initial campaign. There were several games that year when the Pioneers suited up only 19 players and played only 12 including freshmen. Not surprisingly that hardy group struggled through a 2-8 season.

Using that as a barometer, the five dozen plus that came out this year is astounding.

The driving influence behind the numbers is clearly the rising school population and the continued growth and success of the town's youth football program. Another factor is the addition each year of seniors that come out to play for their last year. That tends to happen when the team wins, which it has done 19 times in 23 games over the past two seasons.

"We picked up a bunch of seniors this year," Weidman told me. Other than that there are no significant additions or subtractions for this season. "Pretty much everyone we thought would be here is here."

We talked about having to fill the holes created by the graduation of 15 seniors.

"We have a bunch of kids that have been waiting for their chance and they're going to get it now," Weidman said. "We ended up with a lot of seniors but some of them are new. There are only a small group of seniors that have been here as four year players. The bulk of our varsity players that have been here throughout are juniors."

The turnover will definitely give this year's Pioneers a different look.

"We're going to end up with a little different identity than we had last year, especially offensively," Weidman said. "Once we have our Masco scrimmage (this Saturday at 10 am in Boxford) and we sit down at our Sunday meeting, that's when we're really going to say 'alright, what is our identity? Who are we going to be this year?' We think we might know what direction we're going in but we won't know until we put the pads on and play someone else."

The Pioneers will be playing in a new league this year, the CAL/NEC Tier Four with North Reading, Ipswich, Hamilton-Wenham, Manchester-Essex and Georgetown. Weidman doesn't see much of a difference from the old CAL Small.

"The league is not totally different for us because all the teams are CAL teams," he said. "Manchester-Essex is CAL for the first year, but we played them last year. Obviously Newburyport and Amesbury are out but we have to give it a couple of years and see how it evolves."

"The only team that is smaller than us is Georgetown," the coach continued. "Manchester-Essex is smaller but when you add in Rockport, they are bigger. But they only get a few kids from there. North Reading, Hamilton-Wenham and Ipswich are bigger, so we're kind of right in the middle of the pack."

Masco will provide a good early test since the Chieftains are playing in the CAL/NEC Tier One league, which is Division 1A. The Pioneers are 3A so they will be stepping up four divisions in this one.

The Pioneers' next scrimmage will be the "Return of the Natives Bowl" against Triton on Wednesday, August 31. The Vikings are coached by former Pioneer captain and offensive coordinator Pat Sheehan. Another former Pioneer captain and assistant coach Mike Geary is on Sheehan's staff.

The scrimmage was scheduled for the Middle School Field, but the field is being reseeded so the game might be shifted to Triton. Game time for that one is 3:45.

Summer Reviews
The Pioneers played in number of a 7 v 7 passing games this summer and were coached by Pat Lamusta, former Pioneer captain currently playing for the Framingham State Rams.

"I loved it!" Pat said about his work with the team. "It was great experience, and a foot in the door for future opportunities. Also, the guys were great to work with and well-disciplined."

Some of Pat's observations:

"On defense, watch out for Tyler Palumbo (LB) and Dan Ashwell (FS)," Lamusta wrote. "They both fly around like mad men and really have a nose for the ball. Steven Yobaccio (DB), Kyle McGah (LB) and Alex Pascucci (LB) are all great leaders for the defense."

"On offense," Pat went on, "Mike Karavetsos can throw the football. He will have a solid supporting cast. McGah stood out in the slot position, making all his touches count. Yobaccio and Pascucci run great routes and will really stretch out CAL defenses. Also, look for Nick Varano and Anthony Mancini to fill in nicely as athletic targets. I didn't get to see much from MikeThomas in the 7on7's, but he is in shape and was very physical on defense at cornerback." 

"In general, there are many spots wide open making preseason a very exciting time for Pioneer country," Lamusta summed up.
Don't miss the action
I will be referring here often to my articles in the Villager so if you don't want to miss my game stories and photos now is the time to subscribe. Just click on the link at the left, fill out the form and mail it in. It's only $19 for the year and well worth it.

Also, you can also follow me on Twitter by clicking on the link at the top left. I tweet "in game" updates starting with this week's scrimmages, so if you can't make it for some reason and want to stay up to date, that would be an easy way to do it.

Now that we are into the season, I will posting more frequently so check back often. 

As always, your comments are welcome. Just send them to

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Contagion of Winning

How about an unscheduled post while waiting for the season to start?

With preseason practice ready to begin next Monday, my conversations with folks in town naturally turn to the Pioneers' upcoming 2011 campaign. Invariably, most everyone I've spoken to comes up with some variation of this analysis:

"Looks like they're going to struggle this year."

For the casual fan, that might be a normal reaction. After all, the Pioneers are coming off the most wins in a two season stretch in the history of the program (19-4). And clearly a ton of talent has exited the program thanks to the 2010 and 2011 graduations.

Gone from the rosters of the 2009 CAL Small Championship team and last season's 9-2 squad are two League Players of the Year and a League Lineman of the year. Also graduating was a pair of two time All League players and 14 other All League performers. And to top it off gone from the two year juggernaut are three of the school's top 11 all time scorers: (Gino Cohee, third 182 points, Chris Grassi, seventh 146 points and Steve Ullian, eleventh 105 points).

 That's an impressive array of talent to backfill, so looking at 2011 as a rebuilding year might not be unreasonable.

But let's hold off a minute.

Super Bowl winning coach Mike Ditka once said "Confidence is infectious, doubt is contagious."

Those following the Pioneer football program in the pre 2009 era can attest to the second half of that statement. For 2011, we might want to focus on the front half of Ditka's remark.

In response to the "2011 will be a struggle" statement, I usually respond with my retelling of the story of the 1980 North Reading Hornets.

I covered the Hornets from 1976 to 1986 for the North Reading Transcript and the arc of their rebuilding and success of that period is uncannily similar to that of the Pioneers of the past few years.

Like the Pioneers of the 90's and 2000's, the Hornets of the 60's and early 70's struggled. In 1976, an enthusiastic young coach named Ed Sapienza took over a North Reading team that went 1-9 in 1975 and hadn't posted a winning season since 1967. The Hornets managed a 3-6 season in 1976 and finished 5-5 under Sapienza in 1977. The big turning point came on Thanksgiving Day in North Reading that season when the Hornets routed the Pioneers 30-0.

That catapulted the Hornets to a pair of historic seasons. In 1978, the Hornets beat the second place Pioneers 21-8 on Thanksgiving Day to finish 8-1-1 and capture their first ever Cape Ann League championship.

In 1979, the Hornets returned a huge talent pool and again took the CAL crown, beating the Pioneers 13-6 and finishing 9-0-1. This time the win earned them a trip to the Division Three Super Bowl where they fell to a powerful Canton team 28-6.

Their two year record was 17-1-2.

The Pioneers have followed a similar pattern.

An energetic young coach in Neal Weidman took over the Lynnfield program in 2008 and struggled through a 3-8 season. Like the Hornets, the turnaround came on Thanksgiving day when the Pioneers whitewashed the Hornets 21-0. That propelled Lynnfield to a 10-2 mark in 2009, a CAL Small championship and a trip to the playoffs.

The 2010 team returned a stellar group of seniors who had been instrumental in the 09 run and they mowed down their first seven opponents by a 252-58 margin and appeared poised to defend their crown. Unfortunately they hit a bump in the road at Newburyport and suffered a last second heartbreaking loss to Hamilton Wenham to deny their repeat bid. However the Pioneers still finished an impressive 9-2.

Their two year record was 19-4.

Like the Pioneers coming into 2011, the 1980 Hornets were looking at filling some major holes as graduation from their two championship teams hit them hard.

One intrepid reporter (okay me) previewed the Hornets this way: "Hurt badly by graduation...Inexperience will make title defense difficult."

Graduation took 28 Hornets and they entered the 1980 season with only 12 seniors.

But Sapienza would not give in to the idea of rebuilding. "Like I tell my players," he said to me, "we're the CAL Champions until someone takes it away from us."

So how did the young "rebuilding" Hornets make out in 1980?

Not bad.

They opened with an impressive 21-0 non-league win over a weak Medfield team. The following week they were outplayed by Pentucket but returned a punt 55 yards for the winning score with five minutes left to escape with a 14-10 win.

The Hornets then traveled to Byfield where Triton snapped their 13 game regular season winning streak in a 14-7 loss. North Reading then ran off wins against Amesbury, North Andover, Hamilton-Wenham, Ipswich, Masco and Newburyport setting up another Thanksgiving Day contest with the CAL title on the line.

The Hornets completed their improbable season by scoring the winning touchdown against the Pioneers with 23 seconds left in the game to take a 7-6 win. They finished 9-1 and earned a piece of the CAL championship along with Newburyport. It was the Hornets' third straight CAL crown, something that was totally unexpected given the talent drain of the prior two years.

So does that mean we can expect a championship season from Pioneers who find themselves in a similar position as that 1980 Hornet team?

Not necessarily. But what it does remind you is that this is high school football and you simply can't underestimate the power of what the Pioneers have accomplished over the past two years. Winning begets winning and although the Pioneers still have to do it on the field, it is clear that the Lynnfield football program has developed a winning attitude. Oh and by the way, the Pioneers have a good deal of talent left in the cupboard so it's way too early to write off the season.

And if they need any further inspiration, they need only look back at the example of their archrivals' 1980 team.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Right Around the Corner

Not only is the NFL strike now over, but the local football scene is heating up as well. Preseason practice for the Pioneers is just over two weeks away while opening day against Newburyport comes in only five weeks.

Time to ramp it back up.

As the season gets underway, I will be increasing my posts. My next entry will be on Friday, August 26 followed by another on Friday, September 2 to keep you updated on the latest as the Pioneers swing into action.

Preseason Schedule
And speaking of getting started, let's do just that and take a look at the the Pioneers preseason schedule.

Head coach Neal Weidman will be welcoming his 2011 edition on Monday, August 22. After single practices on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, dreaded double sessions hit on Thursday and Friday.

The Pioneers head to Boxford on Saturday, August 27 for a scrimmage against Masco at 10 am. Former Pioneer captain and assistant coach Pat Sheehan brings his Triton Vikings to the Middle School field for a scrimmage on Wednesday, August 31 at 3:45. The Pioneers wrap up their preseason with the traditional clash with Northeast Regional on Saturday, September 3 at 10 am.

Lynnfield kicks off the season on Saturday, September 10 when they will host Newburyport at 11 am. The Pioneers' full schedule and my first look preview can be found here.

Weidman is looking forward to a "tough but good" season.

"We have a tough non league schedule," Weidman said. "And some of the teams in our league have looked really good in the 7 on 7's. That doesn't always translate to real football though so we'll see."

Cohee Agganis MVP
Catching up on some summer happenings, 2010 captain Gino Cohee ended his outstanding high school career with a stellar performance in the 50th Annual Harry Agganis football classic July 14.

The quarterback led the North squad to its lone score in a 20-8 victory by the South team. With the North trailing 12-0, Cohee came into the game and completed passes of 35 and 30 yards, the latter for the TD to Will Herbert of Winchester that cut the South lead to 12-6. He made it 12-8 with a two point conversion pass to Austin Prep's Joe Diaz.

Cohee, who will be playing for Pace University in New York this fall, finished four of seven for 75 yards and one interception. That accounted for the bulk of the 106 total yardage gained by the North and earned Cohee the North MVP honors.

A. J. Roberto, another Pioneer captain, also played in the game and not surprisingly found himself in the middle of the action as well. The hard nosed linebacker caused one fumble and recovered another.

"He played really well," said Weidman.

Roberto will be playing for Merrimack College this fall.

Summer 7 v 7
The Pioneers have been active this summer participating in the Reading High 7 on 7 Passing league and also playing in the Northeast 7 v 7 tournament at Bishop Fenwick.

Former captain Pat Lamusta has been leading the Pioneers in the 7 v 7 activity and has done a solid job. He is heading back to Framingham State to play for the Rams again this fall.

In the tournament, the Pioneers finished 2-2 as they found themselves in a tough division. They beat Central Catholic 20-14 and Winchester 25-7 but lost to Gloucester 19-0 and Marshfield 18-0 and did not advance to the playoffs.

In the Reading league, the Pioneers beat Fenwick by a touchdown and lost to Methuen by a score in the first week, then split with Reading in week two.  They finish up the summer season this Sunday with a 9 am meeting against Reading and a matchup with Methuen at 10 am.

That's it for now. Check back later in the month for more.