Sunday, December 23, 2012

Merry Christmas to All!

At the Awards Dinner last Tuesday, head coach Neal Weidman asked me how many states the blog has reached. I hadn't checked in a while so I threw out "30 or 40."

It turns out I was a little short.

This season, the Gridblog had over 6,000 visits from 43 states plus the District of Columbia. I had visits not only from Lynnfield but from locales that reached from Skowhegan, Maine to Thonotossa, Florida to El Paso, Texas to Monterey, California to Poulsbo, Washington.

I also had hits from around the world including visits from Russia, Spain,  France, Germany, Ukraine, Brazil, China, United Kingdom, Canada, Philipines, Sweden and Japan.

It's a little mind-boggling actually.

Thanks to all who tune in regularly and especially to those who have made donations. I truly appreciate it. I also want to thank specifically North Reading offensive coordinator Ed Melanson and Triton head coach and Lynnfield native Pat Sheehan for their input. They are always there for me when I need expert football commentary and updates from around the league. I truly appreciate it.

And thanks to the 2012 Pioneers for providing exciting material.  I'm already looking forward to the 2013 season which starts in about eight months.

Stocking Stuffers
Ipswich head coach Ted Flaherty has resigned so the search will begin shortly for a new coach for the Tigers.

Flaherty coached for eight years at his Alma Mater compiling a 26-60 record. His high water mark came in 2006 when he took a 9-2 CAL Small Champion Tiger squad to the Divison 3A Super Bowl and defeated Cape Cod Tech 7-0.

Flaherty has always been a class, totally cooperative win or lose and he will be missed.

The other big news is that Saugus has been admitted to the Cape Ann League beginning with the 2013 season. They requested to be released from the Northeast Conference citing the significant differences in size between Saugus High and the other schools in the NEC.

Saugus' male enrollment of 350 is slightly less than Triton (384) and Pentucket (383) and just above Newburyport (349) and North Reading (342). The Pioneers male enrollment was 305 last year.

With the Sachems' move, Winthrop has now applied to move into the CAL as well. At 241 male enrollment, the Vikings are the smallest school in the NEC by far, although they have always been highly competitive in that league.

Should the Vikes be admitted, the 12 teams that comprised the bottom two tiers of the now defunct combined NEC/CAL would become the new Cape Ann League. There will still be two divisions in the CAL, but according to Weidman, the exactly breakdown of the two is still to be determined. That will all be sorted out in the next few months as the league wrestles with all the ramifications of the new playoff system.

Just for fun, here is one man's opinion of how the league could break down (not that anyone would listen to me). Male enrollments are included.

Pentucket (383)
Newburyport (349)
North Reading (342)
Hamilton-Wenham (307)
Winthrop (241)
Manchester Essex (227)

Triton (384)
Saugus (350)
Amesbury (328)
Ipswich (314)
Lynnfield (305)
Georgetown (210)

The key to this alignment is that it splits up all the Thanksgiving Day rivalries so it avoids having to play your rival during the league season. The balance of the schedule, both pre playoff (prior to week 7) and post playoffs (Week 8-10) could be filled with games from the other division. And the season would end (for all but two teams in the entire division that would be heading to the Super Bowl) with the traditional Thanksgiving Day game.

And the reason I would put Winthrop in the CAL 1 is more due to the strength of their program. They have proven to be competitive in the NEC where schools like Lynn Classical, Salem and Beverly have literally three times the male enrollment as the Vikings.

Anyway, just a thought. I will be passing on the real info in future posts as it becomes a available.

Speaking of posts, I am now in my offseason schedule and will be posting on the first Friday of each month. My next entry will be on January 4th, when I'll be doing my annual Top Plays of the season post.

Also, don't forget to pick up a copy of the Villager this week for my article on the Awards Dinner including all award winners and photos.

So once again, thanks to all for reading and I wish you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The 1973 CAL Champion Pioneers: Capturing the Crown

Due to unforeseen circumstances - an awesome Super Bowl run by the 2012 Pioneers! - I put off this last post on the 1973 team. But never fear, here is is.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first Pioneer team to play in the Cape Ann League, I am taking a week by week look back at the 1973 season.

Wayback Wednesday: The 1973
CAL Champion Pioneers
November 28, 1973 - The Lynnfield Pioneers capped a highly successful debut into the Cape Ann League by dropping North Reading 30-14 to earn a piece of the league title.

As expected, Newburyport routed Amesbury 32-8 and Pentucket pounded North Andover 49-7 resulting in the crowning of CAL TriChampions.

The Pioneers, however, didn't have as easy a time as their fellow champions. The visitors fell behind by two scores and trailed 14-8 at the half. But they settled down after the break and dominated the final two quarters to take home their fifth straight win over North Reading and their 12th in the 16 game series.

The Hornets, buoyed by the home crowd, played the Pioneers even in a scoreless first quarter then drew first blood. North Reading's "All Everything" Greg Stewart got things started by picking off a Steve Olsen pass. The Hornets drove to the Lynnfield 25 after the turnover and appeared to be stopped facing a fourth and 20, but according to Villager reporter Geof Simons, Lynnfield "drew a penalty on a disputed call and somehow it was first and ten for North Reading."

Hornet Peter Mastro plowed in from the one, Stewart added the PAT and North Reading led 7-0.

The Pioneers appeared shaken up by the score and fumbled on their next possession, setting up the Hornets on the Lynnfield 35 yard line. Three plays later, Stewart sliced in from the ten yard line, added the point after and the Hornets led the stunned Pioneers 14-0.

Lynnfield regrouped and mounted a 55 yard scoring drive, with Olsen taking it in from the six. Lindsay Ross took in the two point conversion to cut the Hornets' lead to 14-8.

North Reading nearly scored again before the half on a bizarre play.

"North Reading quarterback Steve Hartery threw under great pressure by Lynnfield's defense and the pass was nowhere near its mark," Simons wrote. "Two Pioneer defenders were just waiting for the ball to drop into their arms but the ball popped out and into the hands of the intended receiver who was brought down on the one yard line."

The Hornets had a first and goal from the one, but "it would have been easier for the North Reading offense to penetrate a stone wall" according to Simons as the Lynnfield defense held the Hornets three times and the clock ran out to end the threat.

The goal line stand seemed to energize the Pioneers who came out for the second half as a different team.

The Pioneers took the lead for good on their first possession with a 52 yard march. Olsen snuck it in from the one and Ross converted the two pointer as Lynnfield took a 16-14 lead.

Two series later, the Pioneers recovered a fumbled Hornet punt on the North Reading 25 yard line. They cashed in six plays later on a Brian Rea four yard run to put the Pioneers up 22-14. Ross recoved another Hornet fumble on the next North Reading possession and again Rea made the home team pay, this time from three yards out. Olsen ran in the conversion to make it 30-14 Lynnfield and it was all over but the celebrating.

Olsen and Ross didn't connect on any touchdown passes in the game but their 1973 season stamped an indelible mark on the Pioneer record book. Olsen's 13 touchdown passes in 1973 stood as a Lynnfield record for 38 years until Gino Cohee broke it with 17 TD's in 2010. Olsen's 23 career TD throws also stood for the same length of time until Cohee broke it with 30 touchdown passes from 2007-10.

Ross' nine TD catches in 1973 still stands as a Pioneer record after 40 seasons. Rick Berardino came close with seven in 2010 but no one has been able to top Ross' single season performance. His 11 career TD receptions also still stands with only Justin Haskell (1994-96) coming close with 10.

Three members of the 1973 Pioneers were named to the CAL All League team - quarterback Olsen, kicker Allan Harrington and Ross. Harrington was one of only three juniors selected to the team. Ross was also named to the Boston Globe's first string All Scholastic team.

At a banquet at St. Maria Goretti Hall held in honor of the 1973 champs, varsity letters were awarded to Greg Anderson, John Callahan, James Carabello, Steve Celata, David DiFillippo, Paul Fitzgerald, Craig Franklin, Allan Harrington, John Imbrescia, Frank McHugh, Brian McMahon, Paul Millen, Steve Millen, Larry Mitkus, Jim Neumann, Robert Olsen, Steve Olsen, Jim Peterson, Brian Rea, Rick Rosenthal, Brian Robinson, Lindsay Ross, Jeff Silva, Mark Stone and Gary Wolfe.

JV certificates were given to Ed Andrews, Mike Carmody, John Carlson, Nick Costas, Jim Cronin, Dave Dodwell, Glen Dolbeare, John Fusto, Jim Gaffney, Fran Guarino, Steve Hansen, John Kerber, Steve Klimowicz, Richard McMahon, Dan Moore, Jim Nelson, Mark O'Hearn, Dave Pevear, Steve Reinstein, Steve Rosenthal, John Shea, Steve Stickney, Brian Voke, John Wallace and Bill Wind.

Congrats to the 1973 CAL Champion Pioneers. Happy Fortieth.

If you played on or were involved with the 1973 Pioneers and would like to share a memory, please pass it on to me at

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Bishop Feehan Super Bowl Leftovers

So this year the Pioneers have played a quarterback as dangerous as Bishop Feehan's Nick Romero (HW's Trevor Lyons). They have contained a running back nearly as good as Matt Allen (NR's Carl Lipani). They've handled a running back almost as quick as Isaiah Douglas (Pentucket's Cody Rothwell). They stopped a fullback as bruising as Matt Glebus (Amesbury's Perry Mroz). They played toe to toe against a fast aggressive defense nearly as good as Feehan's (Newburyport). They beat back a tough offensive line a cut below the Shamrocks (North Reading.)

But they never had to take them all on in one game.

That turned out to be the challenge for the Pioneers in the the Super Bowl at Gillette. Or to frame it a different way, the Shamrocks were the equivalent of a CAL/NEC All Star team. The Pioneers held their own overall, but ultimately the Shamrocks simply had too many weapons, too much speed and too much power in their offensive and defensive lines and the result was a 21-7 Feehan win.

And to cap it off by paraphrasing a certain head coach who plays his home games at Gillette, the Shamrocks just made more plays than the Pioneers.

Despite all that, and in spite of a quick Feehan start, the Pioneers clawed their way back into the game. They nearly tied it on the first play of the second half with the halfback option pass that missed and twice in the fourth quarter they were close to making it a one score game. They just couldn't punch it in from the 11or the two against an outstanding Shamrock defense.

That tough defense was no surprise to Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman.

"All you had to do was watch one film and you could tell their team speed was fantastic," the coach said. "That defensively was their m.o. all year. Yards were hard to come by. They were all over the place defensively."

To that point, seven of quarterback captain Mike Karavetsos' 19 pass attempts were tipped by Shamrock defenders. Six were incomplete and one captain Alex Pascucci was able to juggle into a reception. Pascucci had a fantastic game with four catches for 73 yards, an interception that prevented a sure touchdown at the end of the first half and running down Matt Allen to prevent a touchdown on the 47 yard screen pass on the third play of the game.

The first oh-oh of the game came on that screen pass. The Pioneer defense stuffed the Shamrocks on their first two plays forcing a 3rd and seven, but the screen pass, the only pass Romero completed in the game, was the perfect call and vividly showed the speed the Shamrocks would be utilizing in the game. Douglas reinforced it on the next play when he zoomed in for the score.

Leading up to the game, Feehan's coaches and offensive linemen were pretty confident about their ability to play man on man, be "tougher" and just beat their opponents to the punch. I didn't think a team could do that to the Pioneers, but on the blood-draining, 80 yard, 19 play, 9:49 minute second TD march, they did exactly that. Not that they were ever able to break one, but they continued to win the tough battle in the trenches.

"You never want to have those types of drives when you're on defense," Weidman said. "Obviously it shortens the game and chewed up a lot of time."

The Pioneers thus found themselves down 14-0 to a team that gave up only an average of 6.5 points per game. But Weidman didn't feel the slow start was caused by Pioneer nerves on being on the big stage.

"I think it was a case of playing against a good team," the coach replied.

Give the Pioneers credit though. They didn't get this far by packing it in, and they didn't Saturday night. They put together some plays and drove 72 yards in 14 plays, cutting the lead to 14-7 late in the half.

"We ran the ball fairly well on that drive," Weidman said. "Their team speed is fantastic so it was tough to pick up big chunks of yards but we were able to pick up first downs. And we did what we wanted to do which was to mix in passes with runs. We didn't want to get caught up in running on first and second down and then having to throw on third. Their defensive backs are way too fast. You have to keep them off balance. We tried to mix it up a little bit."

Coming out for the second half, the Pioneers nearly tied it up with the option pass but Kyle McGah's throw was out of the reach of a wide open A. J. Gallo.

"The first play to open the second half would have turned the thing around," Weidman said.

The backbreaker was the naked bootleg by Romero on the Shamrocks next drive on fourth and short that made it a 21-7 game.

"He ran the ball during the season too," Weidman said of Romero who scored two of the Shamrocks' three TD's. "But they have a ton of speed overall. (Allen), (Douglas) and then they go to the full house backfield and put in their power backs. It's one of those things where when you spread the ball around that much and they have that many good players, you can't focus on one guy."

Again the Pioneers kept plugging away and nearly cut it to a one score game.

"We had a chance to get it back to a one score game," Weidman said. "But we were running out of time there late with a chance to punch one in. We had our chances toward the end a little bit. The kids gave themselves a chance."

Despite the loss, the coach recognized that the 2012 season was special.

"In order to get to this point you have to have communication and chemistry," he said. "The kids have to have some sort of camaraderie and have to want to play for each other.

"I hope next year we have a crew like we had this year," the coach summed up. "Not just the seniors but nine through 12, they were a really good, nice group of kids that were great to be around."

Record Breaker
With his two yard TD blast against Feehan, junior Kyle McGah set a new single season rushing TD record with 18. That tops Eric Hansen who ran for 17 TD's in 1978. McGah now has 24 rushing TD's for his career, placing him fourth all time behind Frank Berardino's 31 rushing TD's from 1958-61.

That final TD gave McGah 108 points for the season thus becoming only the third Pioneer in history to crack the 100 point mark in one season. The others were Hansen (128 in 1978) and Berardino (120 in 1960). For his career, McGah has 144 career points, placing him in eighth place behind Berardino who heads the list with 262.

McGah, who was named TV38's player of the game for Lynnfield, finished the season with 1,197 yards rushing and a 6.7 yard per carry average. He is only the second Pioneer to run for more than a 1000 yards since 1989. Dan Veinot had 1,363 in 2000. McGah now has 1,594 career yards.

Happy Returns
Junior Matt Kramich had a couple of catches in the game but was also strong on kickoff returns. He took back three for a total of 78 yards or a 26 yard average. On a couple he was close to breaking it all the way.

Final Touches
Karavetsos finished an outstanding career Saturday night. He ended the season with 963 rushing yards, third best for a single season since 1989. He finished his career with a total of 1,766 yards rushing and 16 touchdowns and an even 100 points, placing him 15th all time.

He also ended up 148/307 for 2,198 yards passing. His 19 career TD passes ties him with Chris Grassi (2006-09) for fourth place all time.

Holy Moly
With the loss to Bishop Feehan, the Pioneers have now lost three games in a row to Catholic schools. Earlier this year they fell to Bishop Fenwick 14-7 and last year they lost to St. Mary's 40-16 a week after beating Fenwick.

All time, Lynnfield has a 9-6 record against Catholic schools. The breakdown is Matignon 3-1,  Fenwick 2-1, Cathedral 2-0, St. Mary's/Brookline 1-0, St. Mary's/Lynn 1-1, Bishop Feehan 0-1 and Austin Prep 0-2.

Quick Picks
With Pascucci's interception in the Super Bowl, the 2012 Pioneers finished with 20 picks, the most in a season since I've been keeping stats (since 1989). Nine players had at least one interception with captain Tyler Palumbo, sophomore Cam Rondeau and Pascucci tying for the team lead with four each. Kramich had three while McGah, Anthony Costa, Guilio Pellegrini, Gallo and Connor Lordan each had one.

The previous high in the last 24 seasons was the 1996 team which had 17 led by Tony Reed's six. The 2010 team had 14 led by Rick Berardino's  five. The 2003 team had 11 led by Andy Poor and Rick Parziale who each had three.

For the fashion conscious, you may have noticed that the Pioneers sported a different uniform look in the Super Bowl. For the first time all year, Lynnfield wore white jerseys and blue pants. For the rest of the season they wore all blue at home and also as the home team in the playoff against Amesbury. They were 5-0 in those games. On the road they wore all white and were 4-2.

Even Dozen
With the two game trip to the post season, the Pioneers played 12 games for only the second time in their history. The first was in 2009 when they played 11 regular season games and then the playoff game with Austin Prep.

In the 55 years of the program, Lynnfield has played 12 - 11 game seasons, 25 - 10 games seasons, 14 - 9 game seasons and 2 - 8 game seasons.

Overall, the Pioneers are 275-262-11. The 13 games over .500 is the most since 2005. They dipped to eight games under .500 in 2008 , the lowest point in the history of the program. Since then under Weidman, the Pioneers have gone 34-13. At their peak, the Pioneers were 88 games over .500 in 1987 when they sported a 180-92-10 mark.

Of the 55 seasons, the Pioneers have been above .500 27 years, below .500 23 years and right at .500 three years.

Kickin' In
With his PAT Saturday night, seniorAlex Roper ended the season on a high note, successfully making his final eight tries in the three most crucial games of the season. He was 2 for 2 against North Reading, 5 for 5 in the playoff game against Amesbury and 1 for 1 against Feehan. For the season, he made 30 of 38 and for his two year career he hit on 51 of 63 attempts.

His 30 PAT's this season ties him for second place for a single season with Steve Ullian's 2009 season. Ullian holds the single season record with 34 PAT's in 2010.

Roper's 51 career extra points places him second all time behind Ullian's 75 PAT's from 2008-10.

Roper also holds the distinction of being the only Pioneer to hit 5 or more PAT's in a game four times. He was 5 for 5 twice last season and twice this year. Ullian hit 5 twice and 6 once. No other Lynnfield kicker has done it more than once.

Wrapping up 2012
The 2012 Pioneers ended the season with 276 points, fourth best all time behind only 1960 (410), 2010 (336) and 2009 (279). Weidman-coached teams hold three of the top four spots in all time single season scoring.

The 33 rushing TD's this year's team scored is second best all time only to the 1960 juggernaut which tallied 42 touchdowns on the ground. The six passing TD's are the fewest in the Weidman era and the lowest total since 2005.

The 129 points allowed by this year's Pioneers was a 10.8 ppg average, which places them tied for 18th place all time.

The 9-3 record and winning percentage of .750 was 14th best all time.

After this year, Weidman now has a 36-21 record as head coach. His winning percentage of .632 lifts him past Steve Sobieck (49-23, .620) into second place for all time winning percentage. Bill Rodan heads the list at 101-52-2, .652.

The 2010's continue as the winningest decade percentage-wise with a 23-11, .676 mark. The 1970's at 62-33, .646 is in second.

That's it for now. I will resume the final few posts for the Wayback Wednesday feature on the 1973 champion Pioneers later in the week. I apologize for the delay, but the current Pioneers have kept me kinda busy.

Next up will be a post on the banquet with a full report on all the awards and festivities.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Super Season

My partner photographer Jack Schnelle described it perfectly right after the game: Sometimes it's about the journey, not the destination.

Yes the team and coaches are disappointed tonight with the 21-7 loss and they will be for a while and that is understandable. They are competitors and they lost a football game they desperately wanted to win. After putting everything they had into that type of effort and coming up short, there is little to console them.

At least not yet.

But understand there were no losers tonight. The Pioneers lost to a better team in Bishop Feehan and sometimes that happens. There is much to be proud of in being the second best team in the division as 24 other schools could readily attest.

With time will come perspective, even for head coach Neal Weidman and his squad.

That perspective will reveal that the 2012 Pioneers played one of the most successful seasons in the history of the program.

The won a league championship, as eight other Pioneer teams have done.

They made it to the post season as only two other Lynnfield teams did.

They went to a Super Bowl as only the 1986 team did.

And they won a post season game, something none of the others managed to do.

Would a Super Bowl championship have been the cherry on top? Of course. But simply being unable to reach that final goal does nothing to diminish the outstanding season this group of young men put together.

Yes the 2012 Pioneers may not have reached their final destination. But they certainly enjoyed a spectacular journey. And I'm sure I speak for all followers of Lynnfield football in thanking them for taking us along.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Super Bowl Preview: The Final Step

If the Pioneers are able to take the final step and earn the first ever Lynnfield High state football championship, they are going to have to get past a determined Bishop Feehan squad that has been on a mission for a year.

On the floor of Gillette Stadium: (l to r) Andrew Kibarian, Alex Pascucci,
head coach Neal Weidman, Tyler Palumbo and Mike Karavetos
The Shamrocks, repeat champions of the Eastern Athletic Conference, made the playoffs last year but lost to Bourne 22-14 in the Tuesday game. Bourne went on to win the Division 3A Super Bowl by defeating a Hamilton Wenham team that lost Trevor Lyons to injury in the first half.

BF believes they were a better team than Bourne and has been stewing ever since. They have made 2012 their "redemption" season and are determined to claim the Super Bowl championship they feel they should have won last year.

The Shamrocks season followed a similar path as the Pioneers, losing two of their first three games and then reeling off eight straight wins including a blowout 49-7 win over Dighton-Rehoboth in the semi final last Tuesday night.

They have one obstacle left. And it's a big one in the form of the equally hot Pioneers.

The Pioneers and Shamrocks are both veteran teams with BF having 21 seniors to 17 for Lynnfield.

Both teams come in 9-2, undefeated in their respective leagues, both showing explosive offenses but dominating on the defensive side of the ball. The Shamrocks are allowing an average of only 6.5 points per game and have posted five shutouts. In their other wins, only one team has scored more than a touchdown.

The Pioneers come in allowing an average 9.8 points per game, but only 7.5 in their last six games.

Both offenses have been able to score with BF tallying 310 points (28.2 pga) while the Pioneers have scored 269 points (24.5 ppt).

Given that it will be a championship game at chilly Gillette Stadium, the bet is that this will turn into a defensive struggle, with the team making the most breaks coming away with the championship.

I asked Shamrocks head coach Curt Smith how he would describe his team to someone who has never seen them play.

"A total team," he said, issuing a refrain similar to that of the Pioneers. "We don't have just one superstar on our team. We're a group of kids who are hard working, blue collar kids that work hard together for one another."

I asked Smith if he has seen the Pioneers on film and what his impressions of them were.

"They look very big," Smith said. "Very physical and well coached. It's going to be a tough fight. I'd be very, very surprised if one team or the other has an easy time of it. This will be a battle and the best team will win."

Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman had a similar view of his Super Bowl opponent.

"They are very good," the coach said. "They are fast and aggressive all over the field. But at this point of the season, you're going to be playing a good team. That's just the way it is."

And they never stray from the message that winning this Saturday is their destiny.

"We're ready to capitalize," lineman Mitch Martin told David Carty of the Attleboro Sun Chronicle, "and go do what we're meant to do."

Been There, Done That
One place the Shamrocks may have an advantage is in big game experience.

Bishop Feehan has won 19 league championships and seven Super Bowls. Since 1994, they have played in 16 post season games, going 13-3 in those contests and have gone to nine Super Bowls, losing only twice. Their SB victims include familiar North Shore teams as Pentucket, Masco and Marblehead.

They have been in seven of the last 12 Super Bowls, winning six of them including five straight from 2000 to 2004.

"They've been here a lot," admitted Weidman. "They win their league a lot. Obviously there's a tradition there."

I asked Smith if it ever gets old.

"It doesn't get old," he replied. "It's exciting. Derek Jeter was asked once which of his baseball championships was his favorite and his answer is much the same as mine would be and that is the next one. But they're all special

"We're excited to be here," he went on. "This one is special for me since this is my second tour of duty here at Bishop Feehan. We're excited to have the opportunity to play a good football team for a state championship."

Running Offense
The Shamrocks potent offense relies mostly on the run. Quarterback Nick Romero has completed only 22 passes all year for 282 yards. That compares to Pioneer captain quarterback Mike Karavetsos who has connected on 66 passes for 856 yards.

BF began the season running out of a tight-split wing offense similar to North Reading, but have shifted to a power I with dangerous running back Matt Allen (1137 yards and 17 touchdowns) the primary weapon. Also getting carries is Isaiah Douglas (571 yards, 8 TD's) and fullback Matt Glebus (407 yards, 5 TD's) who is usually the up back in the Shamrock I.

That prolific backfield operates behind a powerful offensive line of center Seamus Cuddy (210 lbs), guards Connor Paine and Eric Beissner and two big 275 lb tackles in Chris Barthe and Mitch Martin and tight end Zach Forget.

Smith told the Sun Chronicle that the O line does nothing fancy, but just focuses on man blocking with little reliance on zone blocking.

"We block the guy in front of us, simple as it gets," Smith told the Sun Chronicle

Or as Martin explained to Carty, "We do a lot of work staying low and driving. Just being tougher than the other guy."

Defense the Calling Card
Despite the high scoring offense, the Shamrocks are even more impressive on the defensive side of the ball where they have stifled their opposition. Smith explains his defense as a 4-2-5. The BF front four of Forget, Barthe, Cuddy and Martin plays in front of an athletic linebacking corps of Glebus, Desmond Cornetta, Tom Salmon, Matt Pisano and Mike Agnello with Douglas and Allen at defensive back.

The defense focuses on stopping the run then forcing the opposition to pass. The strategy has worked as the BF defense has smothered opposing passing games, holding them to 30% completion and picking off 12 interceptions. Smith uses combination coverages of both man and zone.

I asked him for the key to the great success of his defense and Smith replied, "Eleven men to the ball. That's our motto. We get people to the ball. We rally to the football. How we get to the ball is something we're very proud of."

Breakfast of Champions
I was able to attend the Super Bowl Breakfast of Champions at Gillette Stadium this morning held in the Putnam Club overlooking the field. Pretty heady stuff.

Prime Time Pioneers get interviewed for the Big Game
The first thing that Peter Smith, MIAA assistant director and emcee for the breakfast noted was how exclusive a group it was. He said that 300 MIAA teams started the season and only 74 played after Thanksgiving. That became 38 after the playoff games Tuesday and only 12 were playing at Gillette.

Attending from the Pioneers were principal Bob Cleary, Weidman, Athletic Director Sean Roach and captains Andrew Kibarian, D. J. DeGeorge, Alex Pascucci, Mike Karavetsos and Tyler Palumbo.

The breakfast was held to disseminate much of the logistical information which is immense considering there will be six games played in one day at Gillette.

Fans attending the game can enter through any of the stadium entrances and should then proceed to the Patriot Place Plaza, where the ticket office is located. Once inside the office, stadium personnel will direct you to the Lynnfield section of the stands behind the Pioneer bench.

They also stressed that the game will start EXACTLY 15 minutes after game five is completed, so if the games run fast, the Pioneers could kick off earlier than 8 pm, so it would be wise to get there early just in case.

The other key event of the day was the coin flips to determine the home team for the four eastern mass games. (The home teams for the two western games are predetermined by power ratings.) The flip for the first three games all game up tails, so when the Pioneer captains went up for their flip, they called tails. Unfortunately, it came up heads, so Lynnfield will be the visiting team wearing white and will be on the East sideline.

One of the perks of playing the final game of the day is that the Awards Ceremony will be held on the Gillette Stadium field following the game. All other ceremonies will be held on a stage set up in the stadium concourse.

The highlight of the breakfast was the appearance of two guest speakers, the first of which was unscheduled. But when you own the place, you don't need to be scheduled.

Patriots' owner Robert Kraft made a surprise visit and spoke to the captains, coaches and administrators for a few minutes, stressing that he always wanted to hold the high school Super Bowls at the stadium but he couldn't do it until fieldturf was installed in 2006.

He told the players to "cherish and enjoy this special time of your lives."

He also reminded them that the winning team gets to have a jersey hanging in The Hall at Patriot Place for a year and will also be listed in the Hall for ever.

The main speaker was East Boston's own Jermaine Wiggins, former Patriot Super Bowl winner and current talk show host on 98.5 The Sports Hub. He will be doing color commentary along side play-by-play man Dan Roche on the coverage of the game on TV38.

Wiggy, D. J. and Tyler discuss the Super Bowl
Wiggy told the group that he never got to play in a high school Super Bowl. He also stressed the importance of the high school coaches and their effect on players' lives.

He said high school coaches "were far more important than any coaches you'll have in college or the pros."

He also said that "the opportunity to play on this field is something you'll never forget."

He then talked about the importance of a college degree. "I have a Super Bowl ring, but I'm more proud of my college degree. Not many can play in the NFL, but everyone here can get a degree."

He concluded by reminding everyone that they were "part of the same brotherhood. You play the same game, bleed the same color blood and sweat the same sweat" and that regardless of the outcome of the game, they should "win or lose with pride."

The group then got to tour the stadium complex including a visit to the Dana Farber Fieldhouse where the teams will warm up prior to the game. The tour concluded on the floor of Gillette Stadium where players and coaches could soak in the atmosphere and were made available for print and electronic interviews.

"This has been a great experience," Weidman said following the event. "The MIAA's done a great job. The fact that the Patriots do this is unbelievable."

That's it for now. Check back Saturday night (late!) for my first take on the big game.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Amesbury Playoff Leftovers

As the visiting team, Amesbury was introduced first last night at Cawley Stadium. The team formed two lines and the Indian seniors were announced as they ran the gauntlet to the 50 yard line. It was a nice touch especially for this group of Amesbury seniors which include head coach Thom Connnors' son Tommy.

The senior Connors has spoken many times this year about how special this group of seniors is to him, understandably since he watched them grow up and coached them through the ranks. It was a perfectly acceptable and appropriate way for the Indians to be introduced.

Pioneers are introduced as a team before the playoff game
But as it was happening, I just knew the Pioneers would not be following suit.

Sure enough, the Pioneers formed one long line from sideline to sideline with captains D. J. DeGeorge, Tyler Palumbo, Mike Karavetsos, Alex Pascucci and Andrew Kibarian out front. As they marched as a unit to the 50 yard line, the PA system boomed that the Pioneers had elected to be introduced as a team.

Also an appropriate and acceptable gesture. And one that is also understandable if you have ever spoken to head coach Neal Weidman or participated in one of his post game press conferences.

Weidman turns almost Belichickean when asked to comment on individual performances. If you ask about a great performance from a Pioneer running back, he will talk about the offensive line. If you try to get a comment on an interception or two, he will tell you that a defensive lineman was probably in the quarterback's face. He is all about "team" and it has obviously taken root with his champion Pioneers and is also one of the reasons this team has made it as far as it has.

The team gets its attitude and fundamental principles from its head coach and coaching staff. The 2012 Champion Pioneers get the message.

It's all about team.

Stifling Defense
The Pioneer defense has been stingy all year and has gotten even better as the season has gone on. But the ruthless way they dismantled a high-powered Amesbury offense was truly impressive.

Lynnfield had 14 points on the board before the Indians had their initial first down. It was obvious from the start that the Pioneers were keying on quarterback Matt Talbot, the triggerman for the Indian offense. As is the case when facing Trevor Lyons of Hamilton-Wenham, job one is containing a dangerous and athletic signal caller who can run, pass and many times make something out of nothing. That is Matt Talbot.

Against the Pioneers, he was never able to do much of anything. The Indians couldn't run and as has been the pattern with most Lynnfield opponents this year, when the run is stopped they go to the air. When that happens, passes start finding defensive Pioneers. Such was the case again last night as the Lynnfield defense picked off three more passes (two by Matt Kramich and one by Anthony Costa).

That give the Pioneers 19 interceptions on the season or an average of nearly two per game.

"Four turnovers was huge," Weidman said. "Mistakes and turnovers go into that category and we did a good job of forcing those turnovers. It's tough to win when you turn the ball over. You only get so many possessions especially with ten minute quarters where the possessions are even fewer."

Another key part of smothering the Amesbury offense was keeping them off the field and the Pioneer offense did its part there.

"We knew going into it that our goal would have to be to keep their offense off the field and I think we did that pretty well," said Weidman.

That was particularly the case early in the game when Lynnfield set the tone. While the defense was forcing three and outs on the first two Amesbury possessions, the Pioneer offense was reeling off  17 plays, seven first downs and two touchdowns in amassing a 14-0 lead.

"Obviously defensively getting three and outs and being able to hold the ball at times picking up a lot of first downs helped," Weidman said.

Early Sign
One of the first signals that this would be a good night for the Pioneers came on the coin toss. Lynnfield won and elected to defer, which is their custom. They capitalized on the decision by scoring on the opening drive of the second half and taking a 21-7 lead that the Indians could never overcome.

Jump Start
That quick two TD lead jump started the Pioneer effort.

"That was huge," Weidman said of the two first quarter scores. "When they scored to make it 14-7 it was obviously touch and go. We knew we had the ball coming out for the second half. To be able to get down the field and have a good drive there and put a little distance between us was big. I think the kids were really able to settle in and go forward from that point."

Two Way Man
Speaking of Kramich, the junior had a standout game on both sides of the ball. The two interceptions and fumble recovery were huge, but he also made a key play on offense.

Matt Kramich picks up big yardage on a kickoff return
On the Pioneers' opening drive of the second half, Lynnfield moved nicely down the field but nearly stalled at the Indian 18 yard line. Faced with a fourth and eight, Karavetsos drilled a pass to Kramich at the ten yard line and he pulled it in with Connors all over him. He drove forward to the six yard line for the first down. Two plays later Kyle McGah cruised in for the score to make it 21-7.

If Karavetsos and Kramich don't complete that hookup, Amesbury takes over on their own 18, down only one score and it could have been a very different game.

Fool Me Twice
Weidman and the Pioneers dug deep into their bag of tricks on the their final scoring drive pulling out a successful fake punt. Facing a fourth and seven from their own 42, the Pioneers lined up in punt formation, but the snap went directly to the up man Alex Roper who calmly tossed one to Palumbo over the middle who motored 40 yards for a first down to the Amesbury 18. Four McGah runs later, the Pioneers scored their fifth touchdown of the night to go up 35-7 and end any feeble comeback hopes the Indians might have had.

It was the second season in a row the Pioneers used the play. Last year against Pentucket, Lynnfield was tied 14-14 facing a fourth and five from their own 35 midway in the fourth quarter. The same play was called and again Roper hit Palumbo, this time for 15 yards and a first down. On the next play, Karavetsos found Steve Yobaccio down the left sideline with a 50 yard bomb for the eventual winning score in a 21-14 win.

Making His Point
Speaking of Roper, the senior continues to bang through his extra points, connecting on 5 of 5 again last night. It's the third time this year he has pulled off that trick. In the two biggest games of the year against North Reading and Amesbury, Roper is 7 for 7.

That gives Roper 50 PAT's for his career, second only to Steve Ullian's 75 and 14 more than third place David Frontero who booted 36 in 1986-87. Roper now has 29 this season, third behind Ullian's 34 in 2010 and 30 in 2009.

Climbing the Charts
While we are talking records, McGah's four TD's gives him 17 on the season which ties the LHS record for most rushing touchdowns in a single season with Eric Hansen who did it in 1978. The junior also now has 102 points on the season, only the third Pioneer to break the 100 point mark for the season since Hansen in 1978 who tops the single season scoring list with 128. Frank Berardino is in second place with his 120 points scored in 1960.

McGah now has 138 career points, placing him in 8th place on the all time Pioneer scoring list.

Joining the Century Club
McGah joined the 100 career point club earlier this season, and Karavetsos entered that elite group last night when his TD run lifted him to an even 100 points for his career. That is good enough for 13th on the all time LHS scoring list.

Pioneer coaches celebrate win over Amesbury
Another Step
Last night was the third post season appearance for Lynnfield High football and it's first win. This will be the Pioneers' second trip to the Super Bowl. The first appearance in 1986 resulted in a 19-0 loss to Lincoln Sudbury. It would be 23 years until the Pioneers played after Thanksgiving again. In 2009, Lynnfield fell to Austin Prep 22-20 in overtime in the Division 3A playoffs.

That's it for now. Check back tomorrow night for my preview of the Super Bowl.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Super Tuesday

In one of the most impressive performances I have ever seen from a Lynnfield squad, the Pioneers overpowered Amesbury 35-14 tonight to earn a trip to Gillette Stadium Saturday night.

You can get all the stats and details in my game story in the Villager which will be out late tomorrow. For those who braved the persistent drizzle, you saw the Pioneers take apart a VERY good Amesbury team. The Pioneers were just that much better.

And you can bet the Indians have seen just about enough of the Pioneers in general and Kyle McGah in particular. The junior scored four more TD's giving him eight against Amesbury for the season.

Also, kudos to Matt Kramich, who was a one man turnover machine, picking off two interceptions and recovering a fumble. Anthony Costa picked off the fourth Amesbury turnover.

Next up is Bishop Feehan in what is shaping up to be a defensive battle. The Shamrocks have allowed only 53 points all season and have posted five shutdowns. With the Pioneer defense playing as well as it has, there may not be a lot of points being scored at Gillette on Saturday night.

I don't know much about BF, but looking at their roster, it appears that the Pioneers will have a significant size advantage. The Shamrocks list only three linemen over 200 lbs - one at 208, one at 6'4" 276 and an end at 5'9, 235. But if their defense is as good as it looks, then they must have some hellacious speed and hitting ability.

Check back later in the week for more on the Amesbury game and a preview of the Super Bowl.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Amesbury Playoff Preview: Take Two

For the first time in the 55 year history of the LHS football program, the Pioneers will play an opponent for the second time in the same season when they face Amesbury for the right to go to Gillette Stadium on Saturday and play in the EMass Division 3A Super Bowl.

This will be the second trip to the post season for the Pioneers in four years. In 2009, the Pioneers took on the Austin Prep Cougars and came up a yard and a half short in Reading, falling 26-20 in overtime. The Pioneers will be hoping to take the next step this time.

The two foes that square off at Cawley Stadium in Lowell at 5:15 pm on Tuesday night are very familiar with each other. They have faced each other every year since Lynnfield joined the CAL in 1973. The Pioneers hold a 24-15-1 edge in the series and have won four straight, although every one required a dramatic comeback by the Pioneers to escape with the win.

For my post on the recent history of these Lynnfield/Amesbury nailbiters click here. This year's game, played in September, added another chapter to the cliffhanger-like series. Three turnovers dumped the Pioneers into an early 21-0 hole. They climbed back to 21-12 at the half, then fell behind 27-12 in the third period. But Kyle McGah's scored three second half TD's to lift the Pioneers to a dramatic 31-27 win.

Similar Paths
The Pioneers and Indians followed similar arcs after that game. They both played their worst game of the year the following week to drop to 1-2 on the season. The Pioneers played their poorest game of the season in a 14-7 loss to Bishop Fenwich while Amesbury was dominated by North Reading 21-7.

That was the low point of the season for both squads. Neither has lost since.

The Pioneers rattled off seven straight wins including a perfect 5-0 league mark, outscoring their opponents 190-46 in that stretch. The Indians won eight straight including a spotless 5-0 CAL/NEC 3 record of their own, outscoring those foes 235-119.

The Pioneers have done it with a smothering defense that has held opponents to and average of 6.5 points per game during the win streak. The Indians unleashed an overpowering offense during their last eight wins, averaging 29.3 points per game.

Not to be redundant, but as in the North Reading game, something's got to give.

"They're hot, there's no doubt about that," said Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman. "They've been playing great. Ever since we've played them they've been fantastic. They have a long winning streak going and they've been scoring a ton of points. We're happy to be there to play them."

Amesbury earned its ticket to the playoffs with a hard fought 13-10 win over Newburyport on the foot of Mac Short who nailed two field goals. The Indian defense shut down Newburyport, while producing enough offense to win.

Something Looks Familiar
In trying to think of the best way to describe the Indians, I keep coming up with the 2011 Hamilton Wenham Generals. They have Matt Talbot at quarterback who like the Generals' Trevor Lyons is dangerous both as a runner and a passer. He has rushed for 10 touchdowns and is Amesbury's leading scorer with 66 points. Talbot has also thrown for 15 scores which ties him for second in Division 3A.In the earlier meeting with the Pioneers, Talbot ran for 124 yards and a score and was 10 of 20 for 168 yards and a TD.

Continuing the H-W analogy, playing the part of last year's bruising General running back Elliot Burr is  rough and tumble Perry Mroz. Mroz has scored eight touchdowns and is second in scoring for the Indians with 50 points.

And where the Generals had a flock of good receivers in Matt Putur, Pete Duval and Luke Wendt, this year's Indian squad has Thom Connors (5 TD catches), Devlin Gobeil (3 TD's), Pat Scanlon (3 TD's) and Shawn Bannon (3 TD's).

The only real difference between 2011 H-W and 2012 Amesbury is that the Generals ran from the spread and pro set while the Indians line up in a modified Wing T. But the personnel is eerily similar and equally dangerous.

Comparing the Teams
When trying to compare Lynnfield and Amesbury, one measuring stick are the results against seven common opponents. Both teams played H-W, North Reading, Ipswich, Manchester Essex, Georgetown, Pentucket and Newburyport.

Amesbury went 6-1 against those teams outscoring them 184-108. Their only loss was to North Reading. The Indians allowed double digit points to all of them except M/E who they held to 7 points.

The Pioneers also went 6-1 against that group, outscoring them 175-47. Their only loss was the one point defeat to Newburyport. The Pioneers shut out Georgetown while holding four others to one score. Only Hamilton Wenham (14) and M/E (13) scored more than once against Lynnfield.

Fittingly, the only team to score more than twice against the Pioneers was Amesbury, whose 27 points is the most anyone has scored against them this season and represents almost 30% of the points scored on the Pioneer defense all year.

The Pioneers' 31 points against Amesbury is also the most the Indians have allowed all year.

Effective Spread
Most big games come down to defense, but it's hard to see either team shutting down the other with the weapons they both employ. Amesbury was able to shut down Newburyport, but there was an interesting subplot in that game.

The Clippers ran two thirds of their plays against Amesbury out of a pro set offense with Connor Wile under center. They averaged about 4 yards per carry rushing out of that formation. They ran about a third of their plays out of the Pioneer-like spread with Colton Fontaine taking the snaps and averaged almost 7 yards per carry against Amesbury out of that set. The Indians seemed to have more trouble with the pull and go play that is a staple of the Lynnfield offense operated by captain quarterback Mike Karavetsos and McGah.

In the first game, the Indians clearly keyed on Karavetsos, limiting him to 52 yards, but McGah ran wild for 148 yards and four touchdowns.

The game will come down to which defense can slow down the other's offense. The Indians have scored 317 points on the year while the Pioneers have scored 234. That's a lot of offense to try and contain.

The other key factor is that both teams have outstanding coaches in Weidman for the Pioneers and Thom Connors for Amesbury. Those two will be playing chess on the sidelines while the boys are battling it out on the field.

"When it comes to this time of the year, you are going to be playing a good team," said Weidman. "It comes down to who plays well and who gets the breaks."

Final Word
So where does that leave us.

Click here for a preview from the Newburyport News and here for a preview from the Boston Herald.

For my final word on the subject, I called on a couple of objective third parties in North Reading offensive coordinator Ed Melanson (an appreciated and valuable contributor to the blog all season) and Triton head coach Pat Sheehan (as objective as a former Pioneer captain and offensive coordinator could be).

"This game is very interesting," said Sheehan, whose young Viking squad fell to the Indians 42-13 in October. "I think Amesbury has the edge in skill while Lynnfield is definitely stronger up front. Both teams are considerably better than they were when they played early in the year so that game should have no bearing except for the fact that it is extremely difficult to beat a good football team once. Lynnfield now has to beat them twice. Hamilton-Wenham did it to Newburyport last year though.

"Amesbury is very difficult to defend, (more so than any team we faced this year)," Sheehan went on. "They run so many different plays and do it all well. They throw the ball vertically, in the underneath zones and screen well. They run the ball very well and have many different weapons. Gobeil may be the best receiver in the league and Talbot is getting my vote for Tier 3 Player of the year. I think that the tough Thanksgiving matchups for both teams was good for the game as well, as neither team's last game was an easy one and they had to work for them."

"We played Amesbury very early in the season, as did Lynnfield," Melanson said. "Amesbury has some really nice weapons, #7 Talbot at quarterback is very quick and throws well, #31 Mroz is a big fullback and middle linebacker, #12 Gobeil is an excellent receiver along with the coaches son #2 Connors who is a back/receiver. They have a big line and really spread the field very well."

"They have been on a roll for a while and even when things are tough they manage to pull out the win," Melanson went on. "Like Lynnfield they are senior loaded. I believe where they are suspect is on the other side of the ball where they have given up close to twice the number of points that Lynnfield has. I'm by no means saying they are a bad defensive team, I just wouldn't put them on par with Lynnfield.

"I think at the point of the season Amesbury and Lynnfield played the Pioneers were still figuring things out and after the Bishop Fenwick game really settled down, focused and have gotten better each week," he went on. "I think it should be another great game but I think Lynnfield is a better team. May not be as flashy but it's playoff time and defense is what wins, not flash. I would put Lynnfield and Newburyport's defenses on the same level but Lynnfield has a better offense right now and should be able to throw up a few touchdowns and keep Amesbury in check."

The forecast as of 4:45 pm Monday calls for light snow showers mid day Tuesday ending by around game time. Hopefully that is the case. You hate to have a game of this magnitude affected by the weather, but both teams have to play in it regardless.

All that's left is to play the game.

That's it for now. Check back after the game for some of my initial thoughts on the game.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

North Reading Leftovers

Surrounded by a bevy of reporters after Thursday's game, Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman was asked what the difference was in the Lynnfield victory over the Hornets.

The coach hesitated for a second, glanced over to the scoreboard and replied: "Oh I don't know. Seven points?"

The line got a chuckle from the ink stained wretches but the statement was true.

Head Coach Neal Weidman takes a Gatorade bath
"Seriously it could have gone either way," Weidman went on. "On our second touchdown drive we busted a long run. It could have been them that busted a long run. We got that one big play that set us up for a touchdown but it could have very easily been them doing it too."

All true and the Lynnfield fans that packed Pioneer Field could never relax and the many North Reading fans never had to give up hope.

Yes, this was a great game between two evenly matched teams that resulted in a one score win by the Pioneers. And yes, with the explosive Hornet offense, they were always one Carl Lipani or C. J. McCarthy TD sprint away from tying it up.


If you look at the final numbers, they show that the Pioneers really had the upper hand for most of the day.

Start with the top level numbers.

The Pioneers rolled for 319 yards. The Hornets were held to 145, only 40 in the second half. That was their third lowest output of the year. Only Ipswich (118) and Newburyport (140) held them to fewer yards.

The Hornets gained 59 yards and earned four first downs on their lone scoring drive. They managed 86 yards and four first downs the rest of the game.

The first down edge went to the Pioneers 13-8.

Lynnfield made it into North Reading territory six of their nine possessions, scoring twice and reaching the NR 18, 37, 25 and 13. They never had a three and out.

The Hornets made it into Lynnfield territory on only three of their eight possessions, scoring once and reaching the Pioneer 47 and 30. They had four three and outs.

The Pioneers averaged 6.1 yards per play. The Hornets managed only 3.4 yards per play.

North Reading had only two plays of over ten yards and six plays over five yards compared to 10 over ten yards and 18 over five yards for Lynnfield

The Pioneers were 5/8 on third down and 0/2 on fourth down for a combined 5/10 (50%). The Hornets were 3/10 on third down and 1/3 on fourth down for a combined 4/13 (30%).

Most of those stats are reinforced by the teams' opening two possessions. The Pioneers ran 18 plays for 107 yards, five first downs and a touchdown. The Hornets ran six plays for 11 yards and no first downs.

Now all that said, what I have just outlined reinforces the old adage that there are lies, damned lies and statistics. Because anyone that was at the field Thursday morning knows that this was a nip and tuck game that was going to be decided by a few key plays. The Pioneers happened to make them but they could easily have been made by the Hornets as well.

Bottom line is that the game lived up to its billing, something that is rarely the case.

And the best part was that the teams played a hard hitting football game that decided the outcome. There was one fumble by each team (the Pioneers recovered by Lipani and the Hornets' covered by Connor Lordan) within five plays of each other that basically cancelled each other out. There was one Cam Rondeau interception that helped seal the win at the end. And there were only three penalties called all game, one on a kickoff and one at the very end when the Pioneers were running out the clock.

The players decided it between the whistles.

"I thought it was a really well played game," North Reading offensive coordinator Ed Melanson told me. "The refs did a fantastic job of staying out of it and letting the boys play. It was hard hitting and fast moving game and except for the final score I couldn't have asked for anything else."

"We couldn't have asked for anything better," Weidman said. "It was a beautiful day and really the teams had a chance to decide it. Great atmosphere. Really fun. Of course it's really easy for me to say now, but it was fun."

Then and Now
Lipani is one of the best backs the Hornets have ever had and proved he was one of the best on the North Shore for the past two years. But the difference in his numbers against Lynnfield from last year to this year is a pretty big indicator of the final outcome.

Last year, the classy back torched the Pioneers for 217 yards and four touchdowns and a two point conversion on 40 carries for a 5.4 yard per carry average. This year he was "held" to 101 yards and one touchdown on 29 carries for a 3.5 ypc average.

"Holding (Lipani) to (101) yards is an unbelievable task for any defense with what they do," Weidman said. "We felt good about the fact that our defense would at least play well."

Running It Up
Because I had to take photos for my Villager article, I needed to be on the North Reading sideline so as not to shoot into the sun. That gave me the opportunity to listen to the comments of the Hornet fans as they rooted their team on.

As junior running back Kyle McGah kept pounding through the North Reading defense on the final clock-killing drive, one Hornet fan said with obvious admiration, "That kid is tough."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

It's not that he gained 112 yards in the game, the fifth time he has cracked the century yard mark in ten games this year, but the way in which he gets them. As Kevin Doyle of the Daily Item pointed out to Weidman in the post game interview, we need to start counting yards after hit for the way McGah continues to gain yards after initial contact.

"He gets it done," said Weidman. "The line does a great job blocking for him but you can't always block everybody and he picks up the rest on his own. He does a good job. He's got that low center of gravity and he's big from the waist down which is good for a running back."

McGah now sits at 972 yards on the year, which is second best for a single season since I've been keeping stats which goes back to 1989. He'll need a really big game against Amesbury Tuesday night to reach Dan Veinot who rushed for 1363 yards in 2000.

McGah's TD now gives him 114 career points and moves him past Todd Coviello (110 points, 1985-86) and Bruce Rothman (112 points, 1969-70) into ninth place on the all time Pioneer scoring list.

Catching Up
Junior Matt Kramich had a big day on Thanksgiving, hauling in three more passes for 49 yards giving him 22 catches for 322 yards for the year. Two of his three catches were third down receptions for first downs.

More Picks
Sophomore Cam Rondeau picked off his fourth interception of the year, tying him with captain Tyler Palumbo for the team lead. The Pioneers now have 16 picks for the season, surpassing the 14 by the 2010 team which is the most in the past ten years.

Third Time the Charm
The Pioneer win snaps a two game losing streak in championship games between the two rivals. The Hornets took the 1978 and 1980 games in Lynnfield when a title was on the line for both teams.

Battle Tested
Weidman has been looking to toughen up the Pioneers in recent years with a strong non-league schedule and it certainly was the case this year. The combined record of the five non league Lynnfield opponents was 34-21. Newburyport (6-5), Amesbury (9-2), Pentucket (6-5) and Bishop Fenwick (8-3) all had winning records and Danvers had the only losing record at 5-6. The Pioneers went 3-2 in non league play.

Nice Touch
Tom Waisnor, Voice of the Pioneers, had a classy finish at the end of Thursday's game by announcing the names of the seniors for both teams as they left the field.

They'll Be Back
To paraphrase the Terminator, the Hornets will be back. And with a vengeance next season. North Reading graduates only 10 seniors including Lipani, but they get most of their starters back.

"With Carl gone it's a huge whole to fill but CJ (McCarthy) (#30) is ready to step in," said Melanson. "We also return five of our front seven, we lose (John) Fortes (#77) at tackle and (Mike) Jannino (#85) at tight end but everyone else is back. We also return half our backfield with our blocking back, (Mike) Cresta (#21) and of course CJ . On defense I believe coach (Jeff Wall) said we have eight starters returning and some more kids that have contributed so hopefully there shouldn't be too much of a drop over there. I hope our kids use this tough lose as motivation and move forward, I believe they will."

Party Like It's 2009
In the post game celebration, I sidled up to volunteer assistant coach Jeff Gannon who was a captain on the 2010 team and a junior on the 2009 championship team. I asked him to compare the two title teams.

"It's different years," Gannon said. "The 2009 team did their thing and I was part of that. It was a great year this year and I'm so proud of these guys to watch them grow and become the players they are today. And to see them come from week one all the way to now and champions on the last day and their last time on their home field is unbelievable. Let's go get that Superbowl."

Senior Sendoff
As has become the team's custom, the team all joined hands and spread across the field and walked from endzone to endzone. For the seniors, it was the last time they would do that as Pioneer football players.

Weidman talked about the seniors moving on.

"A parent said to me 'I don't want it to end. I've had such a good time. The kid's a senior and we appreciate everything you've done' which was great to hear," Weidman said. "I told her how do you think I feel. I have to go through it every single year. I have to lose a bunch of kids that were with me for four years. Every senior class is different in their own way. Some times you have better football players in a senior class but I have a ton of respect for any player that plays for four years, sticks it out, practices six days a week. When you start the season it's a hundred degrees and when you finish the season it's twenty. So every year you have respect for all those seniors that will leave."

That's it for now. Check back Monday night for my Amesbury playoff preview post.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Championship Feast!

The turkey will taste great today as the Pioneers captured their second league championship in four years 14-7 in an outstanding high school football game at Pioneer Field.

Both teams played strong, disciplined football, but the Pioneers made the keys plays in the second half to take a lead and hold off a valiant NR squad.

Congrats to head Coach Neal Weidman and his staff and kudos to NR head coach Jeff Wall and Offensive Coordinator Ed Melanson on a great 8-2 season.

Now on to the playoffs Tuesday night in Reading at 5:15 in a rematch with the Amesbury Fighting Indians.

Check back in the next few days and I"ll have more on the NR game in my Leftovers post.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

North Reading Game Preview: Winner Take All

In 1978, eight year old Jeff Wall, future North Reading football coach "was probably at home playing with his army men," according to the coach. Future Lynnfield head coach Neal Weidman's three year old self "wasn't doing much."

Neither was aware what was happening on Thankgiving morning that year, when the Pioneers and Hornets engaged in a winner-take-all CAL Championship game at Pioneer Field. That monumental game played 34 years ago was the last time the archrivals squared off with a guarantee that one of them would leave the field with the title.

It was the Hornets who prevailed 21-8 to capture their first ever CAL title. In 1979, the Hornets came into the game with the league crown already sewed up and was playing for a trip to the Division Three Superbowl, which they earned with a 13-6 win. In 1980, the two teams returned to Lynnfield and again they both had a shot at the title. But this time, the Pioneers needed help to take the crown while the Hornets only needed to beat Lynnfield. North Reading won a 7-6 squeaker in the final seconds to win their third straight CAL Championship. They haven't won another since.

In this week's Villager, I take a look at the 1978 and 1980 games along with my pregame preview article of this year's big game along with two pages of stats for both teams. You should definitely check that out

Championship Banners

The Pioneers couldn't beat those juggernaut Hornets of the late '70's, but they still managed to raise title banners of their own. Lynnfield captured Dual County championships in 1960, 1961 and 1962 and took a piece of the crown in their inaugural CAL season of 1973 (check out my season long review of that year in my Wayback Wednesday posts).

After the NR losses, the Pioneers bounced back for CAL Titles in 1983, 1985 and 1986 (including a trip to the Superbowl) and most recently in 2009.

But Thursday morning, it will be back to 1978 for the arch rivals when the CAL/NEC 4 Title and a trip to the Division 3A playoffs against the winner of the Amesbury/Newburyport game will be on the line.

One team will go home a champion. The other will go home disappointed.

Formidable Foes

Weidman and Wall were nowhere near Lynnfield in 1978, but there is no question where they will be on Thanksgiving morning: on opposite sidelines playing a high level game of football chess trying to outwit each other to capture the crown.

They each have their work cut out for them.

Weidman has to figure out a way to stop Carl Lipani, C. J. McCarthy and the Hornets' steamrolling single wing steamroller while attempting to score points against an aggressive North Reading defense that has allowed one touchdown or less in five of their nine games.

Wall meanwhile has to defend a multi-faceted Pioneer attack that can inflict damage on the ground with Kyle McGah and captain quarterback Mike Karavetsos or with an efficient pass game with Karavetsos throwing to captain Alex Pascucci and Matt Kramich, A. J. Gallo and Tony Mancini.

He also has to hope that his run-heavy offense, which has attempted only 13 passes all season completing three, one for a touchdown, can penetrate the imposing Pioneer front seven led by captains Andrew Kibarian and D. J. DeGeorge in the line and captain linebacker Tyler Palumbo.

There is no question the teams are as evenly matched as they can be, so what eventually will turn the tide?

Wall certainly has a great deal of respect for the Pioneers and knows what he faces Thursday morning.

"You can't really pick your poison," the NR coach says of Lynnfield. "If you stop the run, they're going to pass and if you stop pass, they're going to run. They spread you out and then run you. You have to pick which one you want to try to stop. But then they can hurt you with the other.

"One of the things about their offense," Wall continued "Is how explosive they are. Against Georgetown they scored the first two times they touched the ball. They're never out of a game where we would have a little trouble catching up. We try to grind it out with a slow paced offense so if we fall behind, we're in trouble. We're hoping not to get into that situation.

"At least with our line this year we have a little bit of size," Wall said, acknowledging the size advantage the Pioneers enjoy. "But they are just huge. I don't know what they are putting in the water in Lynnfield, but we're going to have to pipe some over here."

Wall also spoke about his team's "all-in" philosophy on the run game.

"The fear is that everyone says we're one dimensional," Wall said. "We've thrown the ball 13 times all year, so I guess we're a little one dimensional."

Can The Wing Be Stopped?

I asked him if there was a way to stop the Hornet offense if they were executing properly.

"If you're disciplined and you're big up front and you have linebackers flying around, it's very difficult for us to get going. It comes down to footing as well. At Georgetown (14-0 NR win), we didn't have our footing and we struggled the entire game. We feel better playing at home on turf. We're hoping Lynnfield's field is holding up this week."

With above average temperatures this week and no storms in sight, the field shouldn't be an issue although a freeze Wednesday night followed by a thaw during the game could make things a little messy.

North Reading offensive coordinator Ed Melanson, the architect of the single wing offense is certainly concerned about the Pioneers.

"Lynnfield is big, talented, senior loaded and on a roll," Melanson said.

But can they stop the wing?

"Heck yes they can stop us," Melanson said. "They stopped everyone else. Even the two games they lost were awful tight and low scoring."

And it's not like the Hornet offense has never run into trouble. Ipswich held Lipani to 63 yards and no points and nearly upset North Reading in last week's 15-13 Hornet win. I asked Wall what the Tigers were doing that was so effective.

"We were dissapointed in the way we played," Wall said. "But credit Ipswich. They came out and said they were going to stop the run and they did. They're better than a two win team. They're very aggressive on defense and they were in most of their games on teams that ran the ball. They struggled with teams that threw the ball. Unfortunately, we only put one or two passes up.

"At some point they took their corners out and put more linebackers on the field," Wall said in explaining the Ipswich strategy for stopping the wing. "They had 11 guys within three or four yards of the ball. It's tough to run on that."

I asked Melanson if he thought the Pioneer coaching staff would use the Ipswich game as a blueprint to stop the Hornets.

"I don't think they will put a whole lot of stock in that one game," he replied. "Don't get me wrong Ipswich played very well but our kids were looking past them and we came out flat, etc. The Ipswich defense is not the Lynnfield defense and I can't see Coach Weidman just copying another teams' defense. He's too good of a coach and I'm not that lucky.

"It would be like us copying what Bishop Fenwick did against Lynnfield," Melanson went on.  "Two different teams, players and philosophies. It's a lot like teams that tried to copy the way Newburyport played us early on and it hurt them."

So then how will the Pioneers play the wing?

"I don't think they'll tell me," Melanson responded. "I expect them to do what they have done all year, if it ain't broke don't fix it. They have a huge line and their linebackers are nasty and their defensive backs are just as good. I don't see a weakness over there."

Weidman didn't put a lot of stock in the Ipswich game either.

"I think there was definitely some sort of a chance that (North Reading) was looking ahead," the coach replied. "Knowing that it wasn't a super meaningful game for them and that it was all coming down to the Thanksgiving game. I really didn't matter what was going to happen in that game. They're still going to give their best effort on Thanksgiving."

Keys to Victory

So what does Weidman see as the keys to a Pioneer win?

"The kids know what it's all about," the coach said. "They're excited to play. They just have to realize that all they can do is do what they've been coached to do and play as hard as they can."

"We have to come out and hopefully execute and play well," Wall responded when asked what the Hornets have to do to win. "If we do get opportunities, we can't waste them. If we get a turnover we've got to capitalize on it every time. And we've got to take time off the clock. When we have the ball, we have to keep their offense off the field and hopefully we'll be alright."

Both coaches agreed that the two rivals playing for the title was a special event.

"They've struggled and we've struggled and the idea of both of us doing very well in a season seemed like a pipe dream," Wall said. "We told the kids it's been 32 years since this has really meant something. We told them to enjoy it, but to stay focused. We'll have plenty of time to look back on it later, but we don't want to have regrets. They're taking it in stride. I don't think they fully get the magnitude of it yet."

"It's exciting for the kids and coaches," Weidman said. "We had the Rotary Luncheon and talked a lot about the fact that it will be exciting for the kids to have that experience."

"I was hoping this would be our year," Wall summed up. "But we can't catch a break. We're kind of up but can't catch it when they're down. But it's great. If anything I respect Lynnfield. I respect Neal a ton for what he's been able to do over there. He does a great job as well as the other coaches. I've seen a lot of their games this year and I'm amazed at how well disciplined they are and they bring it every game. That's a credit to Neal. If we can't win it, I hope it would be them."

Stellar Coaching

Speaking of coaches, I've been covering high school football for 36 years and I can't emphasize enough how crucial and what an impact coaching has at this level. I've had the fortune to watch many good coaches and coaching staffs in action, and this years' Pioneer staff of Weidman, John O'Brien, Jon DeMarco, Gino Fodera, Chris Sakelakos, Fern Lavoie, Peter Marinelli, Vincent Calderone, Jeff Gannon and John Bossi is as good as any I've seen. They have the players buying in and in terms of strategy and tactics, they have the players in the right position to make plays nearly every game. That is what a winning program is all about - kids that play hard and coaches who put them in a position to win. Check on both accounts.

"I've been really lucky," Weidman said. "We had some really good coaches and we replaced them with some other real good ones. People ask what do you attribute any success you may have to and really the first thing is good players. We've been lucky that we've had good players. The other thing is that we've had really good assistant coaches. There are a lot of head coaches out there looking for guys to put on their staff, so I've been really fortunate to get the guys that I've had."

One final note. Tom Waisnor, Voice of the Pioneers, told me he is challenging the Lynnfield student body to show up and give the Pioneers a true home field advantage. I told him I would pass it on.

That's it for now. All that's left is to kick it off and play the game. It should be something special.

Check back Thanksgiving Day after the game for my first take on it. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone and see you at Pioneer Field Thursday morning.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The 1973 CAL Champion Pioneers: Title on the Line in North Reading

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first Pioneer team to play in the Cape Ann League, I am taking a week by week look back at the 1973 season.

Wayback Wednesday: The 1973
CAL Champion Pioneers
November 21, 1973 - The Pioneers and Hornets were well acquainted with each other over the years.

They had met 15 times since the Lynnfield program began in 1958 and the Pioneers had eaten Thanksgiving Day dinner as winners 11 times. The only four times the Hornets had been able to enjoy the holiday was in 1966, 1967 and 1968. They also beat the Pioneers in the first meeting between the schools in 1958, but that game was not played on the holiday. Going into the game in 1973, the Pioneers were riding a four game Tday winning streak.

But this time more than bragging rights were on the line for Lynnfield. Locked in a three way tie with Pentucket and Newburyport, the Pioneers could earn at least a share of the Cape Ann League title in their first year in the league with a win over the 4-4 Hornets. The Clippers were expected to easily take care of 4-4 Amesbury and as Villager reporter Geof Simons put it "Pentucket would have to report to the wrong field to lose to winless North Andover." So if the Pioneers had any hope of taking home a piece of the title, they would have to take care of business against North Reading.

The Pioneers came into the game with the dangerouse tandem of quarterback Steve Olsen and the league's leading receiver in Lindsay Ross. The Hornets countered with two way receiving and running threat Greg Stewart, who along with Paul Proudy provided most of the offense for North Reading. Quarterback Steve Hartery manned the controls at quarterback for the Hornets.

The two teams came in evenly matched offensively, with the Hornets 162 points just shy of the 180 scored by the Pioneers. But the big edge for Lynnfield was on defense where their 87 points allowed was half of the 176 points the Hornets gave up. Only Newburyport was able to score more than 14 points against the tough Pioneer D which posted three shutouts in eight games. The Hornets, on the other hand, surrendered more than 40 points twice and more than 20 points two other times. They hadn't shut out a team all season, even allowing North Andover to score a pair of touchdowns.

Simons summed up the situation for Lynnfield:

"But all the stats and all the past games boil down to one inescapable fact," Simons wrote. "North Reading must be beaten, and as always the Hornets are upset-minded. But chances are, when it's over, after the long months of exhausting practices and weekly trials, every Pioneer will share a piece of glory to carry back to Lynnfield and savor like a delicious meal."

Next: Title Time

1973 Flashback
In November, the town was in the midst of the first "Energy Crisis" as a result of the Arab oil embargo in response to the United States support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War in October. In response the to the spiraling energy costs, the School Committee approved a series of energy conservatioin measures. The elementary and junior high school thermostats were set at 68 degrees during the day and 62 degrees at night. At the high school, it was set to 58 degrees at night.

In addition, "shades will be closed at night and teachers will turn off the lights in rooms not in use." Also, "principals are studying traffic patterns in an effort to reduce opening and closing of outside doors."

The extension of the Christmas vacation was also under consideration.

Meanwhile, the senior Powerpuff football team beat the juniors 14-0 at Pioneer Field. Entertainment was provided by the male cheerleaders, made up of many of the football team.

If you played on or were involved with the 1973 Pioneers and would like to share a memory, please pass it on to me at