Tuesday, November 24, 2015

North Reading Game Preview: Road Block

By Tom Condardo

When you talk about home field advantage in football, places like The Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan or Death Valley in Baton Rouge, Louisiana come to mind. You probably wouldn't think about Arthur Kenney Field or Pioneer Stadium/LMS Field. But for the Lynnfield Pioneers and North Reading Hornets, heading on the road into those hostile environments has proven just as perilous as stepping into those more famous venues.

The Pioneers dominated the early years of the rivalry which began in 1958, winning 15 of the first 19 meetings regardless of location, but since 1977, the visiting team is just 14-24 (.368). In the past 10 season, life on the road has gotten significantly more difficult with the home team winning eight of the last ten games. Both teams have won only once in that span (the Pioneers in 2009) and the Hornets currently ride a four game losing streak in Lynnfield. Their last Thanksgiving Day win on the road came in 2006.

Since Thanksgiving Day 2011, the Pioneers have gone 36-10. Of the 10 losses, four came in playoff games. Of the remaining six, only four came against CAL opponents. Of those four, two came at the hands of the Hornets in North Reading.

Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman doesn't place any particular significance on their rivals recent dominance at home.

"That's probably just a coincidence that they've had good teams for those games," he told me. "And they probably play well at home. A lot of teams do."

What he didn't mention was that there were extenuating circumstances in the Pioneers' last two visits
to Arthur Kenney Field.

In 2011, the Pioneers limped into North Reading missing seven of 22 starters including running back Mike Thomas and linebacker/PK/backup QB Alex Roper. Things got worse quickly when quarterback Mike Karavetsos, already nursing a bad ankle, suffered a game ending concussion.

Luckily for the Pioneers, they were able to bring in a record setting replacement who is in the discussion as best LHS quarterback of all time. Well not really. Danny Sullivan did come into the game, but as a 5'6" 135 lb. freshman, his resume was pretty much a blank slate. He would go on to lead the Pioneers to a couple of league championships and set a single season passing TD record, but on this bright Thanksgiving Day morning, he was a raw rookie.

Sullivan did throw the first of his 29 career TD passes - an 80 yard bomb to Alex Pascucci - on his first varsity pass, but to think he and sophomore Matt Kramich, who also took some snaps, could lead a hobbled Pioneer team was too much to ask. The result was a fairly predictable 37-18 loss and a merciful end to a forgettable 5-6 campaign.

Things weren't a whole lot better in 2013 when the Pioneers - CAL Small champs and Division Four North playoff semifinalist  - went into North Reading missing key pieces again. This time it was the linebacking corps that took the hit. The Pioneers were asked to stop the run heavy single wing Hornets with three of four starting linebackers lost to injury. David Adams, CJ Finn, and Kevin Lee all were unable to play.

As a result, C. J. McCarthy ran for 271 yards and four TD's and returned an interception for a fifth score to lead the Hornets to a 42-35 win. C. J.'s younger brother Matt will be hoping to pull off something similar Thursday morning.

Barring any last minute setbacks, the Pioneers will go into the game Thursday pretty much at full strength. They will be missing sophomore Nick Kinnon, the Pioneers second leading rushing who has dazzled on some long runs, is out with a fractured collarbone suffered against Pentucket. Other than that, the Pioneers are as healthy as can be.

"Everyone is banged up at this time of the year," Weidman told me. "But actually we're probably healthier than we were against Triton. Trevor Caswell and Brendan Rothwell were a little banged up (against Triton) so they didn't play as much as they normally do."

Both are expected back for full duty against the formidable Hornets.

When it comes to winning on the road, former NBA coach and player Don Nelson offered "I always preached to the team to take care of the details more on the road. You just can't expect any breaks on the road. You have to do everything more perfectly and more focused on the road."

Then he added, "The better your players are, of course, the easier it is to win anywhere."

The Pioneers and Hornets will decide which has the better players on Thursday morning.

The More Things Change...
With former Hornet Offensive Coordinator and single-wing guru Ed Melanson no longer in North Reading, you had to figure head coach Jeff Wall would be changing up his offense. However, the leopard didn't really change his spots that much since the Hornets are still a run first -and often - team now running out of a multiple I formation. They've attempted only 57 passes all season (compared to 155 for the Pioneers) and 317 runs (to 321 for Lynnfield).

"They're in the I formation most of the time and they do run some Power I out of it where they put a third back in," Weidman told me. "They also do a little single back set as well."

I asked the coach whether it was harder or easier to defend their new offense as opposed to the single wing.

"I don't know if it's either," Weidman responded. "It's different. The I is more of a regular based offense where the single wing is really something completely different than you don't run into at all. The I is easier to defend in the sense that you see it more often, but harder in the sense that they have the ability to do more out of it."

The Hornets returned their starting backfield pretty much intact in senior captains John Merullo and David Smith, and junior workhorse Matt McCarthy. Those three accounted for 36 of North Reading's 47 carries last year against Lynnfield and the Pioneers held the explosive trio to 114 yards on the snowy Pioneer Stadium turf. That's been the normal output for a half for McCarthy this season. The trio should be even more dangerous on what is expected to be a fast track in North Reading.

"He runs real hard and fast," Weidman said of McCarthy. "He's elusive and can make you miss. He's really good. So are Merullo and Smith. They're all real fast."

The coach also had high praise for the Hornet offensive line. "They are big and they block well. They do a great job of straight up blocking but they also cut block and they reach block and cut late and they're good at it."

Stinging Defense
The Hornets also feature a strong, active defense, in many ways similar to Watertown.

"They're really solid," said Weidman. "They don't give you much room to breath. They're big up front with good linebackers and a ton of speed in the back end. They play a lot of man to man and blitz out of that."

How does Weidman expect the Hornets to defend his high powered offense?

"They'll try to put a lot of pressure on us with man to man defense, I'm guessing" Weidman said. "That's what they've done all year and that't what they've done in the past. That's what they did against us last year and the year before. They have a good sound defensive scheme and they know how to run it and they're good at it."

Something's gotta give
The two teams are evenly matched and strong on both sides of the ball making it hard to predict which way the game will go. The Pioneers are averaging 32 points a game - 26 points in non-Baker League games - and the Hornets are putting up 25 points a game, so you could make a case for a fairly high scoring game.

On the other hand, the Pioneers are allowing only 10 points a game - 17 points in non-Baker games while the Hornets have held opponents to 12 points a game so you could foresee a low scoring battle as well.

You could also play the common matchup game to get a better handle on the contest..

Both teams easily routed Ipswich, Hamilton Wenham, and Newburyport so no difference there. The Hornets had a tough time with Pat Sheehan's Vikings, edging Triton 14-7 while the Pioneers beat the Vikes handily 36-7. That wasn't true comparison, however, since the Triton team that limped into Lynnfield was a shell of the Viking squad that battled the Hornets in Week 6.

Pioneer fans might take something out of the performance of the two teams against Watertown and Pentucket. Lynnfield led Watertown before losing late in a 25-17 game. The Hornets kept their game with the Raiders close for a half before Watertown's Deon Smith exploded leading them to a convincing 31-7 victory.

Similarly, the Pioneers had a shot to beat Pentucket on the final play of the game before falling by a single point 28-27. North Reading again stayed close for a half before the Sachems pulled away for a fairly easy 28-6 win.

However it might be unwise to take anything out of those games other than the fact that the Hornet offense is not really built to come from behind. Once the spread gets to a couple of touchdowns and they need to throw, they struggle. The key then is to get up on them early.

Of course as Weidman said to me after I morphed into Captain Obvious and made that statement to him, "Well that's what you want to do in every game." Luckily we were talking on the phone since I'm sure if we were in the same room, he would have lightly tapped me on the head like a good little reporter.

Coach's Corner
I asked Sheehan for his take on the game since he played both teams.

"This should be a great matchup," he told me. "North Reading's defense should match up well with Lynnfield's offense. They have good cover guys in the defensive backfield and the size to match up with Lynnfield's O line.

"On the defensive side of the ball, Lynnfield doesn't have to guess what's coming or deal with misdirection - like the Pentucket wing T," he said. "North Reading doesn't have much of an offensive playbook but they get the ball to their playmakers - McCarthy and Smith.

"McCarthy is the best player in the league," Sheehan went on. "He is explosive in the kicking game and can break a TD from anywhere on the field. One thing I like about him is how he gets better as the game goes on. He is at his best in the fourth quarter.

"North Reading runs the I offense," he continued. "They run inside with their traps/ISO/power game and outside with the toss sweep. They will hurt you with the pass if you honk up for the run, but they don't want to put the ball in the air.

"The players to watch are McCarthy (#25), Smith (#22), O'Donnell (#52) a beast, and Merullo (#33).

And stealing my thunder, he reiterated my thoughts at the beginning of this post.

"I also think home field will have an impact on this game," he concluded. "Don't ask me why. It's just a hunch."

Tasty Appetizer
The Pioneer Junior Varsity started the holiday week on a positive note with a 16-6 win over North Reading on Friday. JV Defensive Coordinator Pat Lamusta and Offensive Coordinator Vin Calderone
report that Harry Collins started things quickly by forcing a fumble on the opening kick and then returning it for the touchdown.

Sophomore quarterback Justin Ysalguez scored the Pioneers' second touchdown but was later injured and left the game. Fellow sophomore quarterback Jack Razzaboni came in and finished up the win.

The victory caps an impressive 6-2-1 record for the young Pioneers.

They opened the year with a 33-12 win over Newburyport then lost a tough 12-8 contest to Danvers. They bounced back with wins over Amesbury (27-12) and Ipswich (30-0).

They followed that up with the first of two battles with Masco, losing 6-0. They came back the next week to hammer Hamilton -Wenham 26-6 and then got another shot at Masco.

According to Lamusta, with under a minute to play, the Chieftains scored on a reverse pass to take a 12-6 lead. On the following kickoff, sophomore linebacker Zack Huynh caught a pooch kick and returned it for the tying score. Unfortunately, the point after sailed wide by a foot resulting in a 12-12 final.

The JV's finished strong with a 28-0 whitewash of Triton and the win over the Hornets.

Lamusta lauded players on both the defense and offense for a great season.

Cooper Marengi picked up a ton of tackles and sacks from his outside linebacker position which was a position of strength for the Pioneers with Huynh, Paul Barrera, Anthony Murphy, Cam Lilley, and Nick Contardo.

E. J. Umlah anchored the defensive line from the nose with Kenny Babine, and Collins, providing a solid front wall. Alex Boustris, Ty Murphy, and Jared Lemieux were standouts in the defensive backfield.

Offensively, Lemieux, Boustris, Murphy, Jason Ndansi, and Peter Look comprised a solid receiving corps. Andrew DePalma, Nathan Drislane, and Anthony Murphy - all of whom saw significant varsity action - provided a formidable running game. Ysalguez was the primary quarterback with Razzaboni making significant contributions as well.

Babine, Huynh, and Umlah were standouts on the offensive line.

Congrats to coaches Lamusta and Calderone and to the entire JV squad.

The Meaning of (Football) Life
I again brought up the question of "meaningfulness" when it comes to Thanksgiving Day games in the new playoff era. As I've said, I disagree with those who say the new format takes away from the holiday games. Weidman agrees.

"There were only a few games in the state every year where it came down to winning meant a team moved on," Weidman said. "So I don't know if that's an issue. (All the games) mean something to the people that are involved. Standing out in the cold for practices for two and a half hours means something."

Adding in the juice of a rivalry game only adds to it.

20 Years Ago: Lynnfield vs. North Reading 1995
To illustrate the point of how important these games are to the participants, I decided to dial up the Wayback Machine and head back to 1995 and the 38th reenactment of the the holiday clash.

The Wayback Machine
Both teams came into the 1995 season after struggling in 1994. The Pioneers suffered through its first ever winless season going 0-10. The Hornets didn't do much better finishing 2-8 with one of their wins a 47-20 pasting of the Pioneers. Playing a full CAL, behemoth-laded schedule that included North Andover, Masco, and Wilmington, more of the same was expected from both teams in '95.

Neither team had any shot at a league championship in those days - a fact that was fairly obvious from the first day of practice. But that didn't deter the coaches or players who gave it their all despite the deck being stacked against them.

First year Pioneer head coach Scott Brennan, now the assistant principal and freshman football coach at Triton, welcomed a squad of 24 players (4 seniors, 7 juniors, 4 sophomores, and 9 freshman) to start the 1995 season.

Brennan remembers trying to survive with such a limited roster

"I tell Pat (Sheehan) all the time, you run the spread offense? We started the spread offense because that's what we had to do," Brennan told me when we talked earlier this week. "We had to play tag football. Half the time at practices the coaches were the look team."

Unfortunately the results in 1995 were fairly predictable. After losing on opening day, the Pioneers snapped a 14 game losing streak with a 29-20 win over Amesbury. They would go on to lose the next seven games heading into the Thanksgiving Day game at Arthur Kenney Field in North Reading.

North Reading had their own struggles, managing to beat winless Amesbury and squeaking by a two-win Pentucket team.
This game was not going to decide a title or playoff spot. It was battle for eighth place in the 11 team CAL.

Brennan pulled out all the stops in an attempt to get his team ready. He dedicated the game to Bill Rodan, his long time mentor and the winningest coach in LHS history with a record of 101-52-2. He also had Rodan speak to the team before the game.

"Bill is old school football," Brennan said. "Just like me."

"I always told the kids, nobody is perfect," Brennan said. "But we strive for perfection and always try to make yourself better. And when you all work together good things can happen. That's what happened that game."

"Individual games are never easy to remember, but I remember this one," Charlie Shove, a freshmen who started on defense for the Pioneers and who I connected with this week told me. "It's never easy to strap up when there isn't much at stake, but this is football and we play because we love the game. You put the extra effort in because you love your town. I always took pride in defending Lynnfield's name. We have a reputation of being rich, little wussies. Not so!"

"I remember the locker room before that game," Shove went on. "There was a lot of yelling and motivation. It meant something to us. It was our Super Bowl. I was sick with pneumonia and slept through most of the holiday but I pushed through that game."

"We struggled that year and so did North Reading," says Woody Unger, one of four seniors on the squad and the team's only all star that year told me when we talked this week. "But this was it. This was our one game season right there."

"Before the game Scott told us we were playing for something bigger than our own record and our own season," Unger went on. "He told us to try and connect with some of the great Lynnfield teams of the past. Scott was trying to get us to deemphasize our record and push that you're not playing for the name on the back but for the name on the front. You're playing for the town. Toss the records out. This will be your last memory of high school football."

"I remember the game vividly," Brennan told me. "We kicked their butts. I was like, 'who is this team out there.' It was great. Talk about emotion."

The four Pioneer seniors, Co-Captains Shawn Egerton and Steve Rizzo, and Woody Unger and Mike Niarchos, led a fired-up Pioneer team that completely overpowered the Hornets. The 14-0 final score in no way reflected Lynnfield's dominance in the game. The Pioneers rolled to 254 yards on the ground, 100 more than their per game average in the previous nine contests.

Junior quarterback Jason Caggiano was 7 for 14 for 138 yards connecting with receivers Justin Haskell (5 for 59 yds), Egerton (1/67),  and Vinny Reed (1/12). Egerton led the ground attack with 78 yards.

"Our defense was solid," recalls Shove who along with Rizzo, Unger, Caggiano, Niarchos, Jamie Saccardo, Peter Feeley, Lance Brown and the rest of the defensive unit held North Reading to 70 yards enroute to Lynnfield's first shutout in three years. The Hornets ran only six plays in Lynnfield territory, none in the first half.

"I remember that day our defense was just incredible," Brennan said. "I think it was the first hit of the game and all of a sudden our kids took off. Sometimes you look in kids eyes and they have the deer in the headlights look. This day it was the opposite. All of a sudden we got this confidence. We had kids yelling and screaming. It was awesome."

"I remember the crowd," says Unger. "Even though it was quote-unquote meaningless, everyone was there. From last year's team and teams from twenty years ago. As a senior you have all your family
there. My uncle from Mansfield brought my three young nephews to the game. One of them told me that was the game that got him to play football. He went on to play on a Mansfield team that won back to back Super Bowls and he never lost a game."

The Pioneers dominated the first half but only took a 6-0 lead into the locker room at halftime. Their only score came on a five yard Reed run on their second possession of the game. The Pioneers drove inside the Hornet 15 yard line on their next two drives, but stalled on downs on the first one and had the second one end on an interception.

They put the game away in the third when Caggiano found Egerton behind the Hornet pass defense on a bomb. The co-captain was caught at the one yard line and Reed plowed in for the score. Caggiano hit Haskell for the two and the Pioneers had a 14-0 lead that appeared insurmountable the way the defense was playing.

"The feeling of that game was like none other," recalls Shove who would go on to play at UMass-Amherst. "And that's including my four years at UMass playing in front of 60,000 fans. This game meant more."

The win proved to be a catalyst for an explosive start for the 1996 team that won its first three games before loosing four of its last seven to finish 6-4. It was the first winning season since 1991 and would be the last plus .500 campaign for Lynnfield until 2003.

Despite the 2-8 record, Brennan remains staunchly proud of his '95 team.

"We have a lot of kids who went on to be very successful because they played their hardest, they did what they could, and they had the grit," Brennan says. "They never thought they were better than they were. We had high academic ratings. They were good kids . They worked in the community. They may have lost on the football field but in life is where a lot of these kids won."

Unger dismisses the idea that the playoff format takes away from the Thanksgiving Day games.

"I couldn't disagree more," he said. "Maybe because I never got to play in a playoff game. But it doesn't matter. For a lot of people it's the last time you put the uniform on. Some kids have been playing football since fifth grade so as a 12th grader for the vast majority, this is it. This is the last time you're going to be with the guys you've been with for four years and in some cases for a ton of years. If that doesn't give you any sort of meaning, what will?"

Brennan also has some opinions about people who say the Thanksgiving Day rivalry games have been devalued by the new playoff format.

"I'm 58 years old and I remember every single Thanksgiving game," he says. "I remember as a kid I did not miss a game. It brings everyone together. Even in today's society there are two hours on Thanksgiving when people get together. They may not all watch the game, but every single kid that went to that school comes back. Tradition is huge. I think football is all about tradition."

"There's something special about Thanksgiving in Massachusetts," Unger summed up. "I don't care if they change the playoffs around or not, it will never be a meaningless game."

The Pioneers and Hornets will add to the legacy of the Lynnfield-North Reading rivalry Thursday. It promises to be a whale of a game.

That's it for now. Check back Sunday night for some Leftovers.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Triton Leftovers/Baby Bump

by Tom Condardo

Okay where have I been? I know many of you have been waiting breathlessly for this post since Sunday night, but I've been kind of busy. And the reason is right there below. I've been celebrating the birth of my first grandchild - and newest Pioneer fan - Jackson Smith Condardo - who joined us this past Saturday morning. At 20", 7 lbs 5 oz, he's not quite ready to plug into the offensive line, but give him some time.

Jackson Smith Condardo
We actually thought he was coming Friday and my wife Noreen and I raced out to Greenfield, MA (north of Springfield) to be with my son Corey and daughter in law Skye for the blessed arrival. But anyone who has gone through these things knows, the little ones have a mind - and clock - of their own, and make their entrance when they see fit. Skye went into labor Thursday night/Friday morning but things stopped mid day on Friday. I think Jackson just wanted me to come back and cover the game against Triton, which I was able to do. He made his grand entrance on Saturday at 8:56 so it was back to Western Mass for my wife and me.

So to make a long story longer, that's why this post got put on the back burner for a bit, but here it is, better late than never.

Mentor vs. Student
It wasn't a totally fair fight, but the Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman (aka the Mentor) got the best of Triton head coach Pat Sheehan (aka the Student) Friday night in Lynnfield's 36-7 win at Pioneer Stadium.

The Pioneers had their way with the banged up Vikings who made it interesting for a time. They got to within a score early in the second quarter but were capsized when the Pioneers swamped them with two quick touchdowns in 2:46 of game time. Lynnfield added one more in the waning seconds of the half to put the game out of reach at 36-7.

When I talked to Weidman after the game, I could tell he wasn't comfortable playing against someone he has become quite close to. What was it like?

"Weird," Weidman replied. "I'm not exactly thrilled about it. It was bitter sweet."

Sheehan took it all in stride.

"It was a lot of fun," he said about the matchup against his former mentor. "During the game you're just worried about your kids, alignment, and scheme and that sort of thing but there were a couple of times I looked over and it was fun seeing the same things we did six or seven years ago."

Both teams had to adjust to the fact that they essential run the same offense with similar concepts and terminology.

At one point early in the game, Weidman had someone shield him from the Triton defense with a towel so they couldn't get the signals he was sending it to the offense.

"We tried to hide my calls and stuff like that just in case the defense was looking over trying to watch," Weidman explained. "We didn't change a lot."

Sheehan likewise had to resort to some trickery to throw the Pioneers off the trail.

"We're obviously doing a lot of the same things here," Sheehan said. "It was funny. I actually at one point was giving some dummy signals on the sidelines and I gave one play and all eleven Lynnfield players called out the exact play I called."

Sheehan was resigned to the fact that he was facing an uphill battle against the Pioneers since he was missing seven two-way starters from the team that started the season. I asked him if he would have liked to have a shot at Lynnfield with all his weapons.

"We're going to get another shot at some point," he said with a smile. "and they'll be a whole different team. High school football teams have a shelf life of one year. Next year's team for both him and me will be completely different. And we'll coach that team up as hard as we can and at some point we'll see each other. Hopefully it will be a playoff game next time."

Starters Finish
For the third week in a row, most of the starters played the whole way. That's probably a good thing heading into what will certainly be a tough, four quarter battle against North Reading. I asked Weidman if there was a reason he kept the first team in most of the way despite the score.

"We didn't take all the starters out," he answered. "We took out about half of them. (Triton) is a better than most (of the teams we played). If we had scored on the first drive of the second half, it would have been a different story."

Moving On Up
Captain Drew McCarthy and Dan Bronshvayg continue to move up on the all time Pioneer career scoring list.

Bronshvagy put together a quad offensive night, scoring on a running TD, receiving TD, kicking four PAT's, and tossing a two point conversion. He had a chance for a quinella but his 30 yard field goal attempt sailed wide left. His 16 points gives him 141 for his career, lifting him past Jake Rourke at 130 into ninth place all time.

McCarthy's TD gives him 78 points on the season and 120 for his career putting him in 11th place all time.

The Pioneers were without the services of their second leading rusher in Nick Kinnon, who suffered a fractured collarbone against Pentucket and is out for the rest of the season. Kinnon finishes a stellar sophomore campaign with 449 yards on 27 carries - an impressive 16.6 yards per carry average. His speed was particularly effective on the jet sweep.

Kinnon's five rushing TD's and kick return score gives him 36 points for the season, the most for a sophomore since Chris Grassi tallied 48 as a sophomore in 2007. For reference, here are the top five all time Pioneer scorers and their sophomore point totals. Frank Berardino (72), Kyle McGah (30), Joe DeBella (0), Gino Cohee (30), Eric Hansen (8). Berardino (12), McGah (6) and Cohee (8) also scored as freshmen.

First Time
I don't have the complete empirical evidence for this, but I'm fairly certain that the point after by Jessica Greaney was the first ever point scored against the Pioneers by a woman. Greaney, a senior, was a team manager last season for the Vikings and was joking around with Sheehan that she could kick. He called her out on it and invited her to try out in the preseason and she won the placekicker job.

The 300
The 36 point outburst against Triton gives the Pioneers 323 points heading into the Thanksgiving Day game and puts them in fifth place on the all time team scoring list. The 1960 team is tops at 410, followed by 2014 (400), 2013 (345), and 2010 (336). This marks the third straight year Lynnfield has topped the 300 point mark in scoring. This is the fourth time in the eight year Weidman era that the Pioneers have passed 300 points and only the fifth time it's been done.

After the 1960 team hit the 410, the Pioneers went 48 seasons (1961 to 2008) topping 200 points only seven times. Only Weidman's first squad in 2008 with 165 failed to top 200 points in a season in his eight years as head coach.

During the postgame interview, a reporter (not me) remarked that even though the games were "meaningless" Weidman still had to feel good for the seniors. The coach did not let that pass.

"They may be meaningless as far as the playoffs go obviously, but not meaningless to kids who practice six days a week," he replied.

I continue to be amused by the people who say the games don't mean anything once a team doesn't make it or gets knocked out of the playoffs. How is that any different than in years past in a 10 team Cape Ann League or Northeastern Conference when team lost two or three games in the first month of the season and had ZERO chance to win the league. Were the rest of those games "meaningless?"

The fact is that high school football is unique in that every game is meaningful for the players and coaches who want to win the battle THAT WEEK regardless of the impact or standings, playoffs or whatever. I love the playoff format, but I still consider the non playoff games important.

The kids and coaches on the field in the Pentucket game for example certainly didn't consider that game "meaningless." It was an exciting, well played high school football game. Isn't that what it's all about?

And don't tell the kids from Georgetown who finally got a win against West Roxbury last week that the game was meaningless. My guess is the Royals would say that was the most meaningful of the year for them.

Pentucket Redux
Speaking of the Pentucket game, Weidman still has that tough loss on his mind. Early in the Triton post game interview he switched gears back to that game.

"It was a great effort," Weidman said of the performance against Triton. "We had a great effort last week too (against Pentucket.) We played pretty well last week. I watched the film and we didn't play that poorly in the second half. We played as well as we did in the first half."

Danvers Redux
While we're in a retrospective mode, it might be time to revisit that Danvers game back in week two. The Pioneers were in control and the contest turned on a couple of controversial calls and some Lynnfield miscues leading to a 22-15 loss.

If you haven't been paying attention, Danvers has gone on to an 8-2 record and will be playing in the Division Three State Semi-finals against Melrose at Lynn's Manning Field with a trip to Gillette Stadium on the line.

And they barely squeaked by the Pioneers.

Correction Corner
In my Watertown Leftovers post I mentioned that Bronshvayg had hit his 100th PAT. Because of a brain cramp or technical glitch (take your pick), I didn't account for his seven PAT's against Georgetown. So he actually notched PAT 100 a week earlier against Hamilton Wenham. He now has 111 extra points with a week to go.

That's it for now. Check back Tuesday night for my preview post of the big Thanksgiving Day clash.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Triton Game Preview: Homecoming

by Tom Condardo

Who said you can never go home again? Sometimes you can. At least for a visit.

That's what Triton head coach Pat Sheehan will be doing this Friday night when he brings his Vikings to town for a clash with the Pioneers. A Lynnfield native, Sheehan captained the 1999 Pioneers and then cut his coaching teeth under Neal Weidman from 2005-2009. He was the offensive coordinator on the historic 2009 staff that won a league title and ended a 23 year championship drought. He left the next season to take the head coaching job in Triton, where he is also a math teacher.

Friday night will be the first matchup between mentor and student but the two have stayed close.

"Neal and I know each other very well," Sheehan told me. "We talk two or three times a week. He knows what we do and we know what they do. We do a lot of exchanging of films so we're very familiar with each other's teams. It was inevitable that we'd eventually meet both being in Division Four and both in the Cape Ann League and it finally happened six years into it."

The two have never scheduled a game with each other and it is only first round playoff losses to Stoneham (Triton) and Watertown (Pioneers) that put the two on a collision course.

How does the former Pioneer feel about returning to his old stomping grounds?

"Well it's a different field and a different location," Sheehan joked. "We're not playing at the middle school which is also a beautiful setting. It'll be fun. My parents and family go to every single game and my guess is that they'll be a lot of Sheehan's in attendance."

But who will they be rooting for?

"I would imagine their baby Patrick," he said with a wink.

Of course there may be more mixed loyalties than he thinks since younger brother Ryan, another former Pioneer, joined Weidman's staff this year as an assistant coach after spending a few years with Pat in Triton.

Looks like the Sheehan's can't lose either way.

Scrappy Vikings
Triton (4-5) comes into the game as decided underdogs, a position they've been in all year. The Vikes graduated everyone from last year's 7-4 squad, returning only one starter. Their 34 man roster includes only seven seniors so this was expected to be a rebuilding year for Sheehan.

"It's a seniors game," Sheehan said. "(Former Triton head coach) Mike Carey, who I talk to a lot and has been a good friend, told me you can mark it down on your calendar - for every sophomore you start, that's a loss. And I told him we're starting nine sophomores. So we've already beaten the odds."

Sheehan and his staff have done a tremendous job with the young squad, guiding them to a 4-3 regular season record, good enough for the fourth seed in the D4N playoffs.

They began the year with a wild 31-28 comeback win over Amesbury and followed that with another close 24-21 victory over Lynn Tech. The lost a tight one to eventual Kinney Division champ Pentucket 13-10 in week three, giving the Sachems their closest battle in an undefeated regular season.

The next week, in an act of near self immolation, the Vikings hosted Division One New Jersey powerhouse Northern Valley and fell 42-6. The Golden Knights are currently 9-0 having scored 40 or more points in eight of their games and head into this week's playoffs with the number one seed in Group 4 of Division 1in Northern New Jersey.

The Vikes bounced back with a solid 30-20 win over Newburyport then lost a tough 14-7 game to North Reading to fall to 3-3. They needed a win over Masco to make the playoffs and squeaked out an impressive 27-26 victory.

Hobbled by injuries, Triton fell to eventual D4N finalist Stoneham 35-14 in the first round of the playoffs. Last week they lost 21-20 in a bizarre contest with Ipswich that featured 13 turnovers - six by the Vikes. The two quarterbacks combined for 10 interceptions and no touchdowns. Triton had three TD's called back on penalties and were still in a position to win when quarterback Lewi L'heureux was forced out of bounds at the Tiger 15 as the game ended.

Attrition had taken a toll on the Vikings, who will come into Pioneer Stadium a shell of the team that started the season.

"I haven't totaled it but we're probably down seven two-way starters at this point," said Sheehan. "That's 14 positions that are being replaced by people that aren't starters. They're fighting just like the kids have all year long and I expect them to fight on Friday night regardless of the score and regardless of who they're going up against. I expect our team to come out and fight and try to execute and play tough, tough football. We'll see what happens."

Lewi, Lewi
Triton's key player on both sides of the ball is Lewi L'Heureux.

"We had him last year and actually we knew his athleticism," Sheehan told me. "We knew he was going to be on the field somewhere, some way. There was a real good quarterback battle at the beginning of the season between him and Tommy Lapham who was one of our starting wide receivers until he got hurt. L'Heureux has far exceeded our expectations at the quarterback position.

"We knew he was going to be a special athlete because he can do a lot with his feet," Sheehan continued. "He's done a good job throwing the ball and he's just going to get better. His decision making has improved week in and week and week out. That's the name of the game at that position. His athleticism is going to come out and you can't coach that. You're born with that. But his decision making is the key to our success.  He's leading our league in passing and he's up there in rushing. He's over 700 yards rushing and over a 1000 yards passing."

Mirror, Mirror
One thing you won't see Friday night is a huddle. Neither team bothers with one as they both run the up tempo spread offense that Sheehan learned under Weidman. He has made some changes over the years.

"I've definitely tweaked how we call it," Sheehan said as he watched the Pioneers play against Pentucket Saturday. "I've changed a lot but I'm watching here and hearing the calls that Lynnfield's making and there's definitely some similarities. I imagine we'll come up with something whether it's dummy signals on the sidelines or maybe we'll go Chip Kelly and put up some card pictures or something like that. We'll definitely tweak our communication to the field a little bit. But there's a lot of times when we play teams that huddle that we know what play's coming. You still have to stop it. High school teams only run so many offensive concepts and offensive plays. It comes down to the players making the plays and stopping it."

How does he view the Pioneers?

"Lynnfield is big and physical," he replied. "Lynnfield can run. Lynnfield can throw. I'm looking at them live for the first time and I don't see a weakness on this field. It's going to be a tall task for the Vikes."

Three's The Charm
Triton's final game win to gain a playoff berth makes then only one of three teams in the 16 team D4N to make the playoffs all three years in the current format. The other two? Lynnfield and Watertown. That's pretty good company.

"We had a real good team last year and a big line and those kids played two years in a row," Sheehan said. "If you want to run the spread offense it starts at the quarterback position. We've been blessed in my six years to have some pretty good quarterbacks between the Whitman brothers, Cashman who was Player of the Year last year and now L'Herueux.

Remembering '09
The Vikings and the Pioneers have a long history as both joined the Cape Ann League in 1973 and played 33 straight years until 2005 when the league split into large and small division. They renewed battle for two years in non league games in 2008 and 2009. It's been a close rivalry with the Pioneers holding a 18-17 edge.

One of the most memorable games in the series was played the last time these two teams met in 2009. Sheehan was on the Pioneer sidelines calling plays for Lynnfield when the 5-0 Vikings came to town to take on the 4-1 Pioneers. It was a crucial game for Lynnfield looking to establish itself in a final non-league game heading into its CAL Small schedule.

Triton broke on top early with a TD on their opening drive on a Statue of Liberty play. The PAT was no good but the Vikings led 6-0. The Pioneers took the lead on a 48 yard TD pass from Gino Cohee to Chris Grassi. Steve Ullian (remember that name) booted the PAT and Lynnfield led 7-6. Ullian added a 27 yard field goal on the first play of the second quarter to stretch the Pioneer lead to 10-6.

However Triton stunned the Pioneers in the final seconds of the half when star running back Brendan O'Neill returned a punt 66 yards for the score. Michael Pescione intercepted the two point conversion but the Vikes took a 12-10 lead into halftime.

It stayed that way until early in the fourth quarter when Cohee scored on a 4 yard run. He then hit Tyler Surrette for the two point conversion and Lynnfield led once again 18-12. But Triton answered back when O'Neill capped a long drive with a 15 yard run. They added the PAT and the Vikings led 19-18 with 3:41 left.

Starting from their own 39, Cohee led the Pioneers to the Viking five yard line where the drive stalled. With nine second left, Ullian trotted out and calmly booted a 22 yard field goal to put the Pioneers up for good 21-19. Pescione picked off a final Hail Mary and the Pioneers had their well earned victory.

It was a watershed win for the Pioneers who were looking for some confidence as Weidman was turning the program around. They would go on to run the table in the CAL Small, finishing 5-0 to take the league crown and earn their first post season berth since 1986. They would lose in OT to Austin Prep 26-20, but the win was an important start to the turnaround.

Party Like It's 1999
I often mention that Sheehan was a Pioneer captain in 1999 so I thought I'd go back and dig up some stats on the receiver, defensive back, and long snapper. He had two touchdown catches his senior year which doesn't sound like much until you realize that was 66% of the Pioneer TD receptions that year.

That's right, the Pioneers completed only three TD passes the entire season - two from Jimmy Motzkin and one from backup Luke Kimball. Motzkin ATTEMPTED only 11 passes the first four games that year. Head coach Scott Brennan - now the Assistant Principal and Freshman coach at Triton - opened up the offense later in the year and Motzkin finished the season 34/93 for 387 yards.

Sheehan caught both of his passes in a 28-20 loss to Hamilton Wenham. He finished the season with 12 catches for 184 yards, two off team leader running back Dan Veinot who had 12 for 186 yards. Sheehan was also 0 for 1 passing, attempting an option pass in the Amesbury win.

On defense, he had one interception and a fumble recovery.

The Pioneers went 2-9 that year playing a full monster CAL schedule. Despite the record, they were competitive in many games. They beat Chelsea 12-6 and Amesbury 19-16. They lost to North Andover 20-14, Newburyport 8-0, Triton 16-0, and North Reading 28-12.

Just to show how different the times were, the Pioneers scored only 97 points that season

That's it for now. Check back Sunday night for some Leftovers.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pentucket Leftovers

By Tom Condardo

The past two weeks have probably taught the Pioneers a valuable lesson: against good teams, you have to play two halves. They took leads into halftime in both games, 17-12 over Watertown and 21-0 over Pentucket only to see those leads slip away in the final two quarters.

There's a reason Watertown is heading for the Division Four North final next week and Pentucket won the Kinney Division and is 8-1: they're both really good teams. And when you have a team down, you have to step on their throats and keep them down. The Pioneers weren't able to do that and as a result were outscored 41-7 combined in the two games in the second half.

Of course you might say it's understandable for them to struggle in the final two quarters since in six of their nine games the Pioneer starters have basically only played the first half. Standing on the sidelines for blowout wins didn't do much to help teach the Pioneers how to close out games.

Head coach Neal Weidman doesn't necessarily buy that.

"I don't think today (against Pentucket) was an issue," Weidman told me after the game. "It might have been an issue last week. I don't think it was an issue this week because there weren't a lot of plays run. It was a fast game. The third quarter was over in a flash."

Weidman pointed to a few key plays that led to the Pentucket second half surge.

"We missed a couple of tackles (on the second half kick return) and gave them a short field and they got a big chunk on the second (touchdown drive) which gave them momentum," the coach said. "The bad snap on the extra point (that kept the score at 27-20) hurt but what are you going to do."

In the disappointment of the heartbreaking loss, it's easy to dismiss the final, furious drive by the Pioneers that almost pulled out the win. All the momentum was going the Sachems' way after they took a 28-27 lead with 3:28 left. It would have been easy for the Pioneers to pack it in but instead they put together their best drive of the second half moving 65 yards in 10 plays. They showed a lot of heart on the march and the fact that Dan Bronshvayg's 24 yard kick from a bad angle was wide left doesn't take away from that.

Yipes Stripes
You never want to blame the officials for a loss and I'm not about to do that. However, there were a number of head scratching decisions in that second half, and most of them went against the Pioneers. As a coach, player, or fan all you really want is consistency. For the teams on the field, once they can determine how a particular group of officials is going to call a game, they can adjust. The problem with the game on Saturday is that this group was pretty inconsistent. To wit:

Slow whistle/quick whistle? - During the runback on the key second half kick, Robert Porter appeared to be down around midfield but no whistle was heard. He smartly just got up and kept running and got the ball down to the Lynnfield 36 yard line. Okay, the officials are going to let the boys play. Fast forward to Pentucket's second possession in the third period. Second and nine from the Lynnfield 21. Liam Sheehy pounds into the line and the Pioneers almost immediately strip him and recover the fumble. But wait. The play was whistled dead. On the next play Finn Graham hit Sheehy with a waggle pass and he ran it in to cut the lead to 21-14.

Horse collar/No Horse collar? - On Pentucket's go ahead touchdown drive, Kiernan Haley broke loose on a 60 yard run. Esaie Philantrope ran him down and tackled him at the one yard line. During the tackle, Philantrope appeared to grab for the back of Haley's shoulder pad then his hand slipped down onto his jersey just above the number 9 which is how he was eventually taken down. Flag. Horse collar tackle. Ball moved from the one yard line to the half yard line. Okay, we're going to be calling horse collar tackles pretty closely. Sheehy pounded in from the there to make it 27-26 and then the Sachems converted the two pointer to give them the 28-27 lead.

Fast forward to the Pioneers' last ditch drive. Drew McCarthy broke loose on a 25 yard run heading for the endzone. Travis Bounsy ran him down at the nine yard line, grabbed him by the back of his shoulder pad, and threw him down roundup style. No flag. Instead of a half the distance penalty that would have given the Pioneers a first down at the four yard line, they were back at the nine. As the clock was melting away, those five yards were huge.

Old School
I have to tell you I really miss Saturday afternoon games. A big reason is I can take much better pictures for my Villager articles. But there is something about a crisp, fall afternoon that screams high school football.

What I don't miss is natural "grass" fields that are more dirt than grass. I don't want to sound like a "turf field snob" but the field at Pentucket High School was a joke. It looked like the old LHS field that was worn to a nub in the middle and quickly resembled a dust bowl. I thought the Pioneers lost McCarthy early in the game after his face was pounded - literally - into the ground at midfield. My guess is he got a nice mouthful of dirt for his effort. He had to come out of the game for a play to clear his esophagus.

The field conditions also didn't do Bronshvayg any favors. He appeared to slip on the dirt on the first missed PAT and the final field goal attempt was from the dirt as well. Weidman didn't go there when I suggested the condition of the field played into the troubles in the kicking game.

"Both teams had to kick on it," he told me.

Even Steven
A look at the statistics shows how really close this one was and not just because of the one point scoring differential.  In the running game, Lynnfield had 32 carries for 226 yard and 2 TDs. Pentucket carried 32 times for 222 yards and 2 TDs. Each team had one sack. The Pioneers won the time of possession battle by 18 seconds 22:09-21:51.

On the other side of the ledger, there were two big discrepancies. In the passing game, Jake McHugh was 18/25 for 199 yards and two TD's. Finn Graham was 6/9 for 59 yards and two TDs. And once again, the Pioneers came out on the short end of the penalty tally getting flagged nine times for 65 yards. The Sachems were called for four penalties for 35 yards.

Everyone knows that Pentucket is a Wing T run heavy offense, but they throw the ball just enough to keep the defense off balance. Such was the case Saturday. Graham threw the ball only ten times, completing six. He was 1 for 4 for four yards in the first half. But he was selective and surgical in the second half going 5 for 5 and getting a pass interference call on his sixth throw of the half. And he made his completions count. Two went for touchdowns, two were third down conversions, and one was the winning two point conversion.

One Is the Loneliest Number
The one point loss was the first for the Pioneers since a 7-6 setback to Newburyport in 2012. Overall Lynnfield is 10-16 in one point games, 2-5 in the Weidman era.

Rare Conversion
McHugh's two point conversion on the Pioneers' second touchdown was Lynnfield's first two point rush since last season when Jake Rourke pounded one in against Amesbury in game three. It was only the seventh time the Pioneers have tallied a rushing two point conversion following the 331 touchdowns scored in the Weidman era.

Name Game
I enjoy perusing opponent rosters for interesting or unusual first names. In reading down the roster for Pentucket, you get the feeling the Pioneers were playing Dublin High School. Here is a sampling of Sachem first names with Irish roots: Brennan, Kiernan, Finn, Brendan, Liam, and Conner.

That's it for now. Check back Thursday night for my preview of the Pioneers' final home game of the season against Triton.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Pentucket Game Preview: The Too Soon Bowl

by Tom Condardo

You just know both Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman and Pentucket head coach Steve Hayden have been looking forward to this game all season. Unfortunately for the fans of both squads, it's coming two weeks too soon. As both teams rolled through undefeated league schedules, they were likely eyeing each other, hoping for the inevitable showdown for the division championship.

Then Watertown and Bedford happened.

The top seeded Kinney champion Sachems and #3 Baker winning Pioneers were both unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs last week and now must settle for an Unofficial CAL Championship game. That should have served as incentive for both teams as they attempted to pull themselves out of the doldrums of disappointment this week.

Undefeated Champs
We all know what the Pioneers did in the Baker, running roughshod over all five league opponents. The Sachems didn't have quite as easy a time of it, but they ended up in the same place - undefeated in league play.

The Sachems started off with two easy non-league wins over Whittier (35-6) and Amesbury (28-0). Things got tougher once they got into their Kinney schedule. They squeaked by Pat Sheehan's Triton Vikings 13-10 then handled Newburyport 27-14 setting the stage for a big showdown with undefeated North Reading for undisputed possession of first place.

The Sachems made a huge statement with a relatively easy 28-6 defeat of the Hornets and then edged D3 Masco to remain perfect in league play. Pentucket tuned up for the playoffs by tuning up Coyle Cassidy 47-7 to cement their #1 D4N seed.

Then last week, in a rematch of the 2013 division final, Bedford shut down the Sachem offense and used some offensive trickeration to bounce Pentucket out of the playoffs 21-6.

Sizable Sachems
Pentucket has a new look this season, and it's much bigger than usual. I remember former Pioneer head coach Bill Adams always telling me how amazed he was when the Sachems would roll out a defensive line with player numbers in the 30's and 40's. They were small, but they were tough, fast, and aggressive.

They are all that this year as well, but add some size to the mix. The front four has been menacing all season. They will be one of the few teams that can match the Pioneers' size with defensive tackles James Lussier (6'1" 248) and Ben Thorton (6'3" 235). The Sachem defensive ends have been sack machines, harassing opposing quarterbacks all year. Noah Malhi (6'4" 187) and Joe Raimondi (6'0", 195) are fast and set the edge well.

They are tough to run on as run-first North Reading found out when the Sachems held the Hornets to 119 yards rushing. Even stud running back Matt McCarthy, who seems to start every game with 100 yards rushing, was "held" to 82 yards. I was at that game and the Sachems controlled the Hornets and forced them into throwing, something they do not want to do.

The Sachems wing-T running offense has been effective with Liam Sheehy (678 yards) and Kiernan Haley (593 yards) leading the way. They are not a big passing team but quarterback Finn Graham can be dangerous when he's looking for elusive receiver Travis Bouncy. Haley is also electric in the return game as evidenced by the 61 yard punt return he uncorked against North Reading.

The Sachems certainly don't lack confidence. In speaking about the Pioneers, Haley told Dan Harrison of the Newburyport Daily News today that "they have some really big kids. It's not going to stop us. We're working really hard and making sure we follow our rules and play to the best of our abilities."

Earlier this year in describing the pass rushing technique of him and Raimondi, Mahli told Harrison, "Basically, for both of us, it's our speed, being on the outside, being aggressive, using our hands and beating the guy on us. I've definitely been feeling it."

Sheehan's Take
I asked Sheehan for his take on the matchup since the Vikings will be playing the Sachems for the second time on Thanksgiving and he's probably more familiar with them than he cares to be.

"This should be a physical game," he said. "Pentucket has size and speed and are very tough defensively. They play a 3-4 and dare you to throw it. (Haley and Sheehy) are very dangerous - fast with good vision.

"I would say they don't have a great passing game but when they do Bounsy is their top weapon," he continued. "Their passing game is dangerous if you sell out on the run, but if you know when they are throwing the ball they don't have a ton of options.

"Their offense is the good ole fashioned wing-T and they are running it well this year," Sheehan went on. "I haven't seen much of Lynnfield but it sounds like they have the size to matchup. Pentucket will have problems with what I would guess is a very balanced Lynnfield pass/run offensive attack.

"In our game, we were able to throw the ball with pretty good effectiveness, but they completely took away our run game and we became one dimensional," he summed up. "Lynnfield will probably have better luck than we did on the ground with the big guys up front."

Sheehan also warned about their special teams. "Pentucket's punt/kick return game is very, very dangerous. That could be a factor."

Long History
This will be the 37th meeting between the schools. The Sachems and Pioneers met every year from 1973 when the CAL was formed until 2003. As Pentucket became one of the bigger schools in the league and the Pioneers became one of the smallest, they didn't meet for a couple of years. They reengaged in 2006 and 2007, both lopsided Sachem wins, and then took three more years off.

They renewed the series in 2011 and 2012, skipped 2013 and played again last season. The Pioneers won all of those matchups and head into West Newbury with a three game winning streak. Overall, Lynnfield leads the series 19-16-1.

Hayden, who celebrated his 200th win against Triton and comes into the game with 204 victories, is 13-14 against Lynnfield. Weidman is 3-0 vs. the Sachems.

Daylight Savings
This will be the Pioneers's first game in daylight and only the second they will play all year (Thanksgiving Day being the second). Because of SAT's, this Saturday's game won't start until 2 pm. So if the game runs long or goes into overtime, darkness could be an issue. To paraphrase the late, great Yogi Berra, it gets late early this time of year. You may want to bring your flashlights.

That's it for now. Check back Sunday night for some Leftovers.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Watertown Leftovers

by Tom Condardo

It's natural to be down following a tough defeat like the one Friday night. But you have to admit it was an exciting game, much like the Danvers contest. Yes the Pioneers came out on the wrong end on both but those two games were much more interesting than the six other blowout games the Pioneers played. 

Be proud and happy with the hard work the team and coaches put in to get them the opportunity. At the end of the day, that's the most anyone can expect. As Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Preacher Roe once said after being taken out in the second inning, sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear eats you.

So time to shake off the loss and look forward. The season is far from over and the Pioneers have three super matchups on tap to come to close so there's reason to be excited. 

This weekend they take on an equally disappointed Pentucket team in West Newbury in a match between two teams that would like to atone for their early playoff exit. The Sachems are considered the best team in the CAL so it will be a great measuring stick for the Pioneers.

They follow that up with a home matchup against Pat Sheehan's Triton Vikings. Sheehan was a Pioneer captain and Offensive Coordinator under Weidman so it will be an interesting battle of wits between mentor and student. Here's hoping the Vikes can get healthy in the next couple of weeks so Sheehan can come in with his full arsenal.

Then comes the annual rivalry game with North Reading, a team that will either be smarting from playoff elimination themselves, or getting ready for the D4 Super Bowl. Either way it will provide the Pioneers with even more incentive to knock off the Hornets.

Heading into the playoff game, everyone, including me, felt that the key to the game was containing Deon Smith. Well the Pioneers did that, keeping the dynamic quarterback out of the endzone and holding him to 41 yards on 17 carries, a pedestrian 2.4 yards per carry. 

Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman knew better (no surprise there). When I asked him about Smith, he agreed he was a terrific athlete, but immediately began talking about the toughness and speed of fullback Zac Rimsa. He even called him "under rated." Unfortunately the coach turned out to be prescient.

Rimsa ended up being the key to the offense, lugging the ball 30 times and picking up 152 yards and a touchdown. No run was bigger than the backbreaking 40 yard fake punt that ultimately led to the game winning touchdown.

And as often the case in big games, an unknown popped up to help carry the day. With all the focus on Smith and Rimsa, who had accounted for 15 of the Raiders 18 points coming in, junior Vasken Kebabjian picked this game to score his first two touchdowns of the year. He score the go ahead and insurance TDs from two and three yards out.

Red Flags
Penalties have been an issue for the Pioneers nearly all season and they came back to bite them Friday night. They were flagged eight times for 63 yards and several of them extended Watertown drives or scuttled the Pioneer offensive momentum. The Raiders were called for only two penalties for 15 yards and one of those was a 5 yarder for an out of bounds kickoff.

For the year, the Pioneers have been flagged 35 times for 313 yards compared to opponents 19 penalties for 133 yards. To be fair, officials tend to keep their flags in their pocked when teams are getting blown out, which was the case in six of the Pioneers' eight games.

Another key stat often looked at in big games is third and fourth down conversions. The ability to sustain drives or get your defense off the field can impact the outcome of a close game. The numbers in this game bear that out again.

Watertown was 6 for 13 on third down and 3 for 5 on fourth down for a total of 9 for 18 or 50% on those crucial downs. The Pioneers were 3 for 9 on third down and 0 for 2 on fourth down for a total of 3 for 11 or 27%.

First Time
It took almost two years and ten games, but the Pioneers finally suffered defeat in their new home Friday night. Lynnfield had won nine straight at Pioneer Stadium heading into the playoff game. Their last home loss was at the Middle School Field in the 14-7 setback against Bedford in the 2013 D4N semi-finals.   

Streaking Soph
Sophomore Nick Kinnon has quietly put together a five game scoring streak. He has made the long distance strike his signature, sprinting for touchdowns against Ipswich (63 yds), Manchester-Essex (31 yard run, 82 yard kick return), Georgetown (25 yds), Hamilton-Wenham (63 yds), and Watertown (67 yards).

The streak has made him the leading Pioneer rusher with 445 yards topping captain Drew McCarthy's 420. Kinnon has done it on only 26 carries giving him an eye-popping 17.1 yards per carry average.

Another Milestone
Dan Bronshvayg reached another milestone Friday night. His second PAT was the 25th of the season and 100th of his career. The senior, who holds the single season and career PAT records, is closing in on the field goal marks as well. The 30 yarder against Watertown gives him three for the year tying him with Steve Ullian for most in a single season. It was his fourth of his career, two behind Ullian's career record of six.   

CAL Downer
It was a bad weekend for the Cape Ann League. The excitement of seeing the league capture five of the eight seeds in the Division Four North playoffs including the top four, wore off quickly when the four squads that took on non-CAL teams fell. 

In addition to the Pioneers (#3), top seeded Pentucket was stunned by Bedford 21-6 and and injury riddled Triton team was beaten by Stoneham 35-14. Only #2 seed North Reading, who as expected had an easy time of it with fellow CALer Ipswich 41-3, remain to care the league standard. The Hornets host Watertown Friday and will have their hands full with the tough, athletic Raiders.

The non-qualifying CAL teams didn't fare much better as Amesbury, Hamilton-Wenham, Newburyport, and Georgetown all went down to non league opponents. Only Manchester-Essex who beat 2-5 Lowell Catholic and Masco who drubbed 1-7 Somerville came away with non league wins.

This week's results mirror the season long pattern of CAL teams struggling outside the friendly league confines. The 11 team league has a 7-16 record against non-CAL teams with Lynnfield, Amesbury, Newburyport, Hamilton-Wenham, Georgetown, and Ipswich going a combined 0-9 outside the league. 

Part of the reason is a number of teams being in a down cycle, and also overall roster sizes are down. 

The playoff struggle is easier to explain. The teams that sprung the "upsets" - Watertown, Stoneham, and Bedford - may have been seeded lower then their CAL opponents, but a big reason is that all three teams play in leagues dominated by teams in higher divisions. 

Watertown came into Pioneer Stadium with a 4-3 record, but their losses came in Middlesex Freedom League games against Division Three Melrose, Wilmington, and Burlington. One of their wins was against D3 Wilmington.

Stoneham also plays in the Freedom League and they came into their contest with Triton 3-4. However they play basically a D3 schedule with their only D4 game against Watertown. They beat D3 Belmont, Arlington, and Belmont before losing three straight against D3 Burlington, Wakefield, and Melrose. The Spartans lost their fourth straight to Watertown but playing such a challenging schedule, they still accumulated enough points to finish with the fourth seed. 

Bedford plays in the Dual County League, another league made up of mostly D3 schools. The Buccaneers went into Pentucket with a 4-3 mark, but three of their wins came against D3 schools North Quincy, Medford, and Boston Latin, and two of their losses were against D3 schools Canton and Wayland. 

By contrast, the Pioneers played only one D3 team (Danvers), Pentucket played one (Masco), Triton played one (Masco) along with New Jersey Division I powerhouse Northern Valley. North Reading played two D3 schools (Masco and Somerville). It's clear that the teams that went through the fire of playing higher division teams were more battle tested and it showed in their playoff wins.

"But over the last two years we've actually done well," Weidman said of the CAL playoff performance as a whole. "Nothing was made of it. But now that we didn't do well this year something will be made of it."

Weidman is correct that this is the first year the CAL has struggled under the new playoff format. The league went 4-2 in each of the past two years against non-league opponents winning the division last year with the Pioneers and getting a team to the finals with Pentucket in 2013. And of the three teams that have made the playoffs all three seasons, two of them - Triton and Lynnfield - are CAL teams. These things go in cycles and 2015 just happens to be a tough year for the CAL

Things will change next year if the MIAA accepts the proposal to expand from six divisions to eight. Under that proposal, made to even out the enrollments between the schools, the Pioneers would likely be placed in the 12 team Division 3A. Moving up and out of the current D4 into a new Division 3 would be current D4 foes Watertown, Bedford, Triton, Pentucket, Saugus, and Weston. They would be replaced in the new D3A with Greater Lawrence and Matignon. 

The hope is that by spreading the enrollments, the divisions would be more equal both in the North and in the South.

That's it for now. Check back Thursday for my preview of the Pentucket game.