Tuesday, December 1, 2015

North Reading Leftovers

by Tom Condardo

In a big game between two evenly matched teams, there are usually three things that can decide the outcome: turnovers, weather conditions, and coaching.

2015 Seniors
In the Thanksgiving Day game between North Reading and Lynnfield, there was only one turnover: a Pioneer fumble that led to a Hornet field goal that gave them their only lead of the day at 10-8. So no real effect on the final outcome there.

The weather couldn't have been better and the game was played in perfect conditions on artificial turf. No advantage either way there either.

So how to account for the convincing 28-10 Lynnfield victory? If you picked door number three - coaching - you win.

Both teams had a week and a half to prepare for the matchup between the number two and three teams in the CAL, but it was Neal Weidman and his staff that got the big checkmark when it came to coaching edge.

North Reading came out and basically did what they always do: hand the ball to outstanding running back Matt McCarthy inside and out. You can't blame them. It worked all year long as McCarthy rushed for over 1300 yards and 22 touchdowns while the Hornets piled up eight wins. The only times it didn't work was in their two losses - to Watertown and Pentucket.

You can now make that three times.

Pioneer coaches (l to r) Pat Lamusta, Neal Weidman, John O'Brien,
Chris Sakelakos, Gino Fodera. Missing from photo Fern Lavoie,
Vin Calderone, Ryan Sheehan, Jeff Gannon (Tracy Karavetsos photo)
Both the Raiders and Sachems shut down McCarthy and won by three touchdowns. The Pioneers did the same thing.

Meanwhile, Weidman and his staff, realizing they were up against a formidable foe that matched up well with them, burned some serious midnight oil to come up with an imaginative, agressive game plan that gave them a significant edge. A couple of superb in-game adjustments just added to the Pioneer's advantage on the sideline.

Let's look at some of the pregame planning that led to the Pioneer victory.

Surprise two pointer. Weidman served early notice that he was pulling out all the stops after Jake McHugh scored on the Pioneers' opening drive. Instead of playing it safe and letting Dan Bronshvayg bang through an extra point, the Pioneers opted for a direct snap to captain Drew Balestrieri who plowed in for the two point conversion.

The onside kick. The Pioneers lost the opening toss so received the kick to start the game. That meant they had to kick off to start the second half. Again, playing to win, Weidman tried an onside kick where Bronshvavg popped it up as the Pioneers attempted to race to catch it.

"Coach (Chris Sakelakos) thought their second line played pretty deep," explained Weidman. "So we put our speed on one side - (Drew) McCarthy and Esaie (Philantrope) and tried to pop it up. Danny kicked it about three or four yards further than he had been doing in practice. I thought it was going to go out of bounds at first but then Drew got there. He gave every effort he could. He laid out and it just went through his arms. That would have been a good start but we got the ball right back with a really good defensive series after that."

The blocked punt. After missing on the onside kick, the Pioneer defense completely rattled the Hornet offense, dropping McCarthy for consecutive losses of three and six yards then allowing a three yard pass to set up fourth and 16 from the North Reading 36. Senior Pat Garrity broke through and blocked the punt giving the Pioneers the ball on the Hornet 13 yard line. Four plays later Balestrieri barreled in from the one to give Lynnfield a 21-10 lead.

The block was another play resulting from extensive pre game prep. "That was something we were really hoping we could get and Pat Garrity was the guy who got it," Weidman explained. "We told them if we couldn't get it on the front side to keep coming on the backside because (North Reading) has those guys that shift over when they punt and there was a chance that when those guys slide to the left, you can get there if their timing is off at all. That happens on a lot of punts. It's not easy to snap it and have the exact timing every single time in high school."

The halfback option pass. The Pioneers put the final nail in the coffin late in the third quarter when Alex Soden took a handoff, headed around the right side, pulled up and drilled a pass to captain CJ Finn for a 28 yƄrd touchdown. That made it 28-10 and put a serious crimp in any Hornet comeback hopes.

"We had quite a few trick plays in and the halfback option was the one I decided to go with," Weidman explained. "We had had some success on that running play up to that point in the game. Coach John O'Brien, our running backs coach, drew that one up. He said 'why don't we toss it to Soden who doesn't get very many carries and throw it to CJ who doesn't catch very many passes.' He's a small genius."

"We had some extra time to prepare so we were able to put some additional stuff in," Weidman said.

But it wasn't just the preplanned plays that carried the day. The Pioneer staff also made several in-game adjustments - two in particular - that led to the Pioneer win.

The toss adjustment. The Hornets had success in the first half on the toss sweep to McCarthy, picking up big chunks of yardage. McCarthy gained 45 yards on the Hornets' first scoring drive, consistently getting to the edge of the Pioneer defense.

Senior Defense. Front Row (l to r) Alex Soden, Dan Bronshvayg. Back row 
(l to r) Ricky Johnson, Evan Battaglia, Drew Balestrieri, Cam DeGeorge,
Coach John O'Brien, CJ Finn, Spencer Balian, Trevor Caswell, Max Robert,
Coach Chris Sakelakos, Esaie Philantrope. (Tom Waisnor photo)
"They were hurting us early on with the toss," Weidman said. "We knew they were good at it and we gave them a chance to do a great job of blocking, cutting late, and cutting right away. They get on you and block you and then cut late - legally - with just one man, not a chop block but with one guy, they block, block, block, they they cut late and the next thing you know you're down and they're running around the end. With our base defense we couldn't get off the blocks on the end and couldn't get anyone inside out to help so we had to come up with Plan B for the toss."

"We had to make an adjustment," he went on. "We didn't sit back with our outside backers and instead we had them attack it right away and take on that first lead blocker in the backfield to slow it down. Because we were getting no pursuit to the ball, in part because they were getting to the corner too fast. We needed to slow it down in the backfield a little bit to give us a chance to get there."

The adjustment worked perfectly. In the second half, McCarthy was held to minus-4 yards on four carries. Their other backs had no luck either, as the Pioneers held McCarthy, David Smith, John Merullo, and quarterback Kyle Bythrow to four yards on 10 carries.

Once their bread and butter play was shut down, the Hornets tried to go to the air, with little success. Bythrow was 2 for 3 for one total yard.

The Jumbo Effect. Another in-game adjustment that paid big dividends was the Pioneers' decision to use their Jumbo package with Drew Balestrieri at fullback more extensively. Weidman had been using the formation on short yardage situations to great effect the second half of the season and intended to use it the same way in this game. Balestrieri scored on the two point conversion from the Jumbo, but it was working so well, he ended up with 13 carries for 47 yards and a touchdown. He had 14 carries for 62 yards in the previous ten games combined.

"We used the Jumbo package to get a first down and had some good success on it," Weidman said. "(Balestrieri) was running hard and we were picking up yards so we went back to it. Coach (Gino) Fodera loves that stuff. He kept telling me 'we can go back to that' so we did."

Pre game planning and in-game adjustments. If you want to know the importance of coaching in high school football, you can use this win as exhibit A.

Weidman has been blessed with an outstanding staff over the years. John O'Brien, Chris Sakelakos, Gino Fodera, Pat Lamusta, Fern Lavoie, Vin Calderone, Ryan Sheehan, and Jeff Gannon  have been instrumental in the team's success.

"They want to do well too," Weidman said. "It's a lot of time on them. A lot of time away from their families. We've had the same core group for quite a while. I've been lucky."

So have the Pioneer players who have had the privilege to be coached by that group.

Match Game Confirmed
In my preview post last week I mentioned that you couldn't take much comparing the matchups between the Pioneers and Hornets against Pentucket and Watertown. Well, it turns out you could.

The Pioneers lost to Watertown by eight points and Pentucket by one for a total of nine points or an average of 4.5. The Hornets lost to Watertown by 24 and Pentucket by 22 for a total of 46 or an average of 23. The would mean the Pioneers were 18.5 points better than the Hornets (23-4.5). Final point differential in the game? 18 points.

The 28 points scored against North Reading was the second most let up by the Hornets this season matching Pentucket's 28 and three less than Watertown's 31.

Stellar Season for McHugh
Lost in all the hoopla surrounding the ending of the year is the outstanding season McHugh put together. Playing his first season as the starting quarterback, McHugh had arguably one of the best passing seasons in the past 27 years. (That's as far back as I go with passing records).

Jake McHugh
McHugh completed 59.5% of his passes (94/158) third best to Danny Sullivan's 69.1% in 2013 and his 62.6% last year. McHugh threw 15 touchdown passes, third best all time behind only Gino Cohee's 17 in 2010, and Sullivan's record setting 21 last season.

His 1389 passing yards was third best in the past 27 years behind only Chris Grassi's 1493 in 2007 and Sullivan's 1741 last season.

He threw only two interceptions, lowest for a full season quarterback since  at least 1989. His NFL passer rating was 114.66 second only to Sullivan's amazing 128.98 last year. It was truly a stellar performance.

Milky Way
The Pioneers rarely pay attention to the clock and in fact came out on the short end of the time of possession statistic by just over 38 minutes on the season, but that doesn't mean they don't know how to milk the clock.

Leading by 18 to start the fourth quarter, the Pioneers took over on their own 38 and then slowly marched downfield. They took 16 plays to move it to the North Reading five yard line where the drive stalled. By then both squads had put in their backups but the march consumed eight and half minutes so the Hornets got it back with two and a half to play and the outcome a foregone conclusion.

One particular heady play should be noted. On a first and ten from the 29, McHugh handed off to McCarthy on a sweep to the left. He picked up six yards before the Hornets got to him on the sideline. The easy thing would have been to keep running out of bounds. But McCarthy did the smart thing instead, spinning around so he landed in bounds to keep the clock running. A small thing with the game just about sewed up, but a heads up play at the right time.

Super Size
Watching the Pioneers for the last few years you take for granted just how big they are. I saw three North Reading games this year and felt they had the size to match up, but seeing them against the Pioneers, that really wasn't the case. That turned out to be a huge advantage again as the Pioneers simply wore down the Hornets.

"Yea we were able to run the ball pretty well," said Weidman. "We've been lucky. We've been blessed with a lot of size over the last four or five years. Although they had some size, we had a couple of more than they did.

As it turned out, the Pioneers played nine of a possible 10 Cape Ann League opponents this season. They swept the Baker and went 3.5-.5 (okay 3-1) against the Kinney with their only loss the one pointer to Pentucket. The only team they didn't play was Masco, but they handled the Chieftains in the opening scrimmage, so we'll call that a 9-1 record against CAL teams.

The Pioneers have been eeriely consistent when it come to scoring on the ground. In the past four seasons they have scored 33, 33, 32, and 32 rushing touchdowns. Before 2012, Lynnfield had scored 32 rushing TD's only twice - 42 in 1960, and 32 in 1978.

Record Book Update
Several Pioneers moved into some rarefied air in the Pioneer record books.

McCarthy's 78 points this season was 17th best all time for a single season and added to his first two year's scoring gives him 120 points all time - good for 11th place on the career scoring list.

Bronshvavg has seriously rewritten the placekicking page in the record books.

He tied Scott Milne (1985) for most PAT's in a game when he banged through seven against Hamilton Wenham. He hit six in a game four times, and five in a game seven times.

He now holds the top two spots in the single season PAT list with 47 last year and 38 this season. He is also tied with Steve Ullian for the single season mark for field goals with three. Ullian did it in both 2009 and 2010.

He now holds the career PAT record with 113, 38 better than second place Ullian who hit 75. To put his career total in perspective, his three year total equals all the PAT's kicked in the first 25 years of LHS football. The 113 represents 20% of the 575 PAT's kicked in the 58 year history of the school.

His 59 points this season places him 31st on the single season scoring list and this career total of 143 earns him ninth place for most career points in LHS history.

As for team marks, the 351 points scored was third best all time behind only the 1960 (410) and 2014 (400) teams.

The 10.3 points per game allowed was 13th best all time.

Senior Sendoff
Twenty seniors suited up for the last time as Pioneers Thursday morning - always an emotional time. Bidding adieu to the program are captains Drew McCarthy, CJ Finn, Drew Balestrieri, Cam DeGeorge, and Spencer Balian and Alex Soden, Easie Philantrope, Jake McHugh, Max Robert, Evan Battaglia, Ricky Johnson, Patrick Garrity, Dan Bronshvayg, Steven Vaccaro, Trevor Caswell, Brenden Rothwell, Paul Foukas, Matt Giannasca, Nick Fiorentino, and Nathaniel Courtney-Sweeney.

"I'm very proud of the senior class," said Weidman. "I'm just glad they finished as strong as they did. You never want to send them off with a bad feeling so I'm just happy for them. They're bunch of great kids.

On to 2016
We still have a banquet to get through to honor this year's squad, but it's never too early to look ahead to next year.

"We're going to be young," Weidman told me after the game. "We won't have as many seniors as we have had recently. But in the same vein, we get a chance to really develop some kids. Unfortunately a lot of this year's seniors didn't necessarily get a ton of time until this year. The next group will be lucky because if you don't have seniors, you have to play somebody so they'll get a chance to develop on the game field. These kids had to develop on the practice field. Of course they had a pretty good group to develop against."

Based on the current roster, next year's squad projects to have 13 seniors, 21 juniors, and 23 sophomores. Obviously those numbers will probably change, but it's a pretty good estimate.

A Hearty Thanks
Since this is the season for giving thanks, I'd like to finish with some thank yous. First and foremost to head coach Neal Weidman. He is always a gentleman, regardless of how emotional the game might be, answering every inane question I might throw at him. He always makes time for me if I need something between games and it's because of his cooperation I'm able to do what I do in my
The Reporter and the Coach
(Tom Waisnor Photo)
weekly Villager articles and here in the blog.

I also want to thank all the assistant coaches who are also very open to providing whatever I need in the way of information. Their cooperation is very much appreciated.

Also thanks to my old Tee-Ball Allstar, new Dad, and Triton head coach Pat Sheehan. He's always been there whenever I asked for his input and his insights really add a different perspective to the blog.

Finally, thanks to all of you for your kind words about the blog. As you can imagine, it takes a bit of time to put these together, but you are always quick to let me know you appreciate the work. So thanks for reading.

That's it for now. See you at the banquet.