Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Here's wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Thanks for reading and for all your kind words of support.

Now that the season is over, I will be reverting to my off season schedule which will be the first Friday of every month. My first post will be on January 6th when I'll take a look at the Top Plays of the 2011 season.

Check back then and again Happy Holidays!


Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The 1986 Super Pioneers: Valiant Ending

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the only Pioneer team to make it to the Super Bowl, I am taking a week by week look back at the Super 1986 season.

LHS Football Wayback Machine
December 6, 1986
If you had happened to wander by the Lynnfield High weight room the week before the Pioneers' first ever Super Bowl appearance, you would have heard a familiar tune blasting away from inside.

Preparing for the big game, the squad did their final prep work to the blaring sound of "Eye of the Tiger" by the group Survivor. The song was the theme for Rocky III in which everyone's favorite underdog took on the invincible Clubber Lang in a fight no one thought Rocky Balboa could win.

It was appropriate that the Pioneers were pumping iron to that song since they went into the Division III Super Bowl as nearly as decided an underdog as Rocky. Playing the role of Clubber Lang was the Lincoln Sudbury Warriors, who came into the game undefeated, winners of 24 straight including a 35-21 win over New Bedford in the 1985 Super Bowl.

"I remember Chris Miele blaring "Eye of the Tiger" in the weight room every day that week leading up to the game," Jason Mochi recalled recently. "He pulled a few of us aside and told us that it was our destiny to make it this far. It was pretty inspirational."

The Pioneers certainly needed that inspiration facing such a dominating team.

Head Coach Bill Adams recently told me about a dinner he attended several nights before the game.

"I was talking to someone from Lincoln Sudbury and they asked how many students we had at Lynnfield High," Adams recalled. "When I told him it was about 600 he told me 'We have about 1900. What are we doing playing you?"

The Warriors were indeed stacked. They featured two players who would go on to play pro ball and featured one of the best backs ever to go to the school in Brendan Mahoney. Mahoney led Division Three in scoring coming into the game with 106 points (17 touchdowns and a pair of two point conversions.) Quarterback Craig Berkel tossed 13 TD's in the regular season.

"It was the perfect mismatch," Adams told me in 1996 when I did a story on the '86 team. "We were the smallest school in the smallest league in the division playing one of the largest schools in the largest league."

No one thought the Pioneers could win.

In the movie, Rocky takes Lang's best punches and eventually knocks out Clubber in a rematch to regain the Heavyweight Championship. Unfortunately for the Pioneers, their Super Bowl was played at Boston University Field and not on a Hollywood backlot. The result was a 19-0 defeat, but the game was much closer than that and if not for a couple of bad breaks, the Pioneers too might have sprung the upset.

Things started badly for the underdog Pioneers even before the opening kickoff.

"(Co-captain Todd) Coviello, (co-captain Darrell) Carty and (Chris) Loomos all were suffering from the flu that day," Adams recalled.

In spite of all the odds being against them, the gutsy Pioneers gave the Warriors all they could handle.

L/S opened the game with a seven play, 64 yard drive capped by Rodney Chance's 11 yard run to give the Warriors a quick 7-0 lead. According to the game account by Villager reporters David Angelini and Rob Irion, it would be the only sustained drive the heavily favored Warriors would mount the entire game.

"The kids were nervous and a little bit tight," Adams told the Villager. "But we found out that we could play against them and we improved after that."

The Lynnfield offense went out quickly after four plays, but the Pioneer defense made the first big play of the game when Mike Pascucci leveled Berkel forcing a fumble. Coviello recovered on the Warrior 38 giving the Pioneers a golden opportunity.

Lynnfield could not convert, however, as Dave Frontero was intercepted at the 10 yard line on third down.

The Pioneer defense held again giving Lynnfield the ball back at midfield. They then mounted an impressive 10 play drive, all on the ground, to get to the L/S three yard line after a two yard gain on fourth and two by Coviello.

The next play would be the first key turning point of the game.

Coviello took the handoff and plowed toward the goal line looking for the tying touchdown. As he reached the endzone, he fumbled the ball forward and the Warriors recovered to end the threat.

Whether it truly was a fumble or not still remains controversial to this day.

Glenn Listernick (LHS '74) who was an assistant coach for Amesbury at the time was at the game and saw the play very differently.

"I was standing with many Amesbury coaches and players at that end of the field," Listernick remembers. "Coviello did score the touchdown but fumbled AFTER crossing the goal line. We all cheered when we thought he had scored, but the refs ruled it a fumble."

"I was pretty close to scoring," Coviello told the Villager after the game. "I saw the line and I tried real hard to lean in. The ball just popped out."

"I think Todd was showing good sportsmanship by saying he almost scored," Listernick insisted when I told him about Coviello's quote. "He really did cross the goal line!"

Mochi, Coviello's running mate, agreed with Listernick's assessment.

"I was on the sideline since Todd and I rotated at tailback," Mochi recalled recently, "but yes I think he did cross the plane. I think he was partially tackled and then reached over with the ball."

The call against the Pioneers was obviously huge and preserved the Warriors' slim lead.

Another key play later in the half was almost as big.

The Pioneer defense continued to bottle up the Warriors forcing them to punt again. Lynnfield got the ball back on their own 39 and on third down, Coviello took the handoff on an apparent run play.

"He paused and lofted an option pass to a wide open Ron Grasso downfield for what looked like a sure touchdown," according to the Villager report. "But fate had something else in mind. In an unbelievable play, the ball glanced off Grasso's hands and shoulder pads, popped into the air a little bit, and settled into the hands of - who else - Brendan Mahoney. The ubiquitous senior raced the ball 39 yards back to the Pioneer 31."

The Warriors got as close as the Lynnfield 12 but stalled and missed a field goal attempt. The Pioneers went in at the half down 7-0 but they could just as easily have been up 14-7.

Unfortunately, the Pioneers would get no more chances. Lynnfield took the second half kickoff and moved to midfield, but on third and 11, Frontero was picked off by Mahoney and this time the L/S rocket returned it 66 yards for the score. The PAT was no good but the Warriors led 13-0.

L/S drove the final nail into the Pioneers' coffin late in the third when Mahoney got around the Lynnfield defense on a sweep for a 55 yard TD run to make it 19-0. The Pioneers could never recover.

"We made the big mistakes," Adams told the Villager after the game.

"We said before the game that we had to prevent the big play," Adams told me ten years later. "But they scored all three touchdowns on big plays."

"We played well but couldn't score," Kevin Murphy, the team's center told me in 1996. "It was almost a case of things coming due. All year long we got the breaks, but we got only the bad breaks in that game."

"It was a great season and memorable time for everyone involved," Mochi said recently. "Some of us still hang on to the glory days. Scott Yerardi can still be seen wearing his Super Bowl jacket!"

"From a coaching standpoint it was a dissapointment," Adams said of the loss. "But it shouldn't be that way for the kids who got there. They worked hard, gave a great showing and made the game interesting."

Following the season, the honors rolled in for the Super Pioneers. The Boston Globe named Adams Division 3 Coach of the Year and Coviello to the All Scholastic defensive team. Carty, Loomos, Frontero and Mark Sutera each earned All CAL honors.

The 1986 team remains the high water mark for Lynnfield High School football. For the next 22 years, only four Pioneer teams would post winning records and none would win a league championship. Adams' 1991 team came closest with a 9-1-1 mark, but came in second to Ipswich.

The league championship and post season drought ended in 2009 when Neal Weidman's squad became the first Lynnfield team to win 10 games and the first since the '86 team to make the postseason. However the '09ers fell to Austin Prep in the playoffs leaving the 1986 Pioneers as the only Lynnfield team to make it to the Super Bowl.

The members of the 1986 Lynnfield Pioneers were Co-captains Darrell Carty and Todd Coviello, Maurice Twomey, Chris Loomos, Stan Zaremba, Bill Aldenberg, Jay Kelleher, Brian Corbett, Pete Blasidell, Charlie Moore, Andrew Sanborn, David Cox, Dan Madden, Paul Booras, Scott Yerardi, Jason Mochi, Ron Grasso, Mark Sutera, David Callahan, Doug McLaughlin, Mike Pascucci, Steve Bucci, Steve Vaccaro, Mike Connor, John Wilson, Tom McDonald, Charles Loomos, David Donohoe, John Funches, Steve Walsh, David Frontero, John Dean, Scott Shafner, Dan Kelleher, Dan Fanikos, Mark Guido, Michael Gwynne, Rob McGee, Steve Saggese, Eric Malerba, Pete Raftopoulos, Eric Keller, Mark Spychalski, Kevin Murphy, Bill Dalton, Chris Miele and Kevin Dunham.

Adams summed up that team best in an interview with the Villager's Rob Irion a week after the season ended.

"I hope the kids feel really good about the whole year and don't lose sight of the great season because of (the loss in the Super Bowl)," he told Irion. "We answered a lot of challenges, got there and did OK. They should be proud."

As should all Lynnfield Pioneer football fans. Congrats to the Super Pioneers of 1986. Happy 25th Anniversary.