Tuesday, November 29, 2016

North Reading Leftovers

by Tom Condardo

Well you certainly got your money's worth.

I expected a wide-open shootout on Thanksgiving morning but the two defenses had something to say about that. Both teams moved the ball - the combined offense for the two teams was over 600 yards - but finding the end zone proved difficult.

In the end it came down to penalties (nullifying a Hornet TD and a Pioneer field goal from Liam Fabbrio, and a driving-killing unsportsmanlike penalty) and special teams (two field goals from NR's Bob O'Donnell, including a 40 yarder that would have been good from 45, a blocked punt, and a missed extra point).

Those are the types of things that often decide games between two evenly matched teams and make no mistake, on this day, the Pioneers and Hornets were equals.

The Pioneers understandably came into the game as underdogs to one of the best North Reading teams in 40 years. The Hornets made it to the D2A finals and finished 9-2, their best record in years. They are loaded with talent but it took everything they had and a few breaks to sneak out of town with a narrow win.

"That's a good team and we were right there," said Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman who suffered only his third Thanksgiving Day loss against six wins. "We actually had a chance to win."

But you also have to give North Reading credit. Trailing 7-3, things looked bleak for the Hornets
when their main offensive weapon, Matt McCarthy, left the game with what appeared to be an injured ankle. Things got even dicier for the visitors when Matt Mortellite and Louis Ellis hooked up for the 60 yard bomb to make it 14-3.

But they didn't fold.

With McCarthy watching from crutches on the sideline, captain John Merullo emerged from the shadows and led the Hornets to victory. He ran for over 100 yards and scored a touchdown in the second half and if you slipped on McCarthy's #25 jersey instead of his #33, you might not have known the difference. Big effort there from the senior.

The Pioneers wrapped up their season with a 6-4 mark going 6-2 after losing their first two games. Three of their four losses came against top quality teams in Danvers, St. Mary's, and North Reading.

Those three squads had a combined record of 29-4 a winning percentage of .879. St. Mary's is going to the Super Bowl, North Reading was one step away, and Danvers lost one step before that to the Hornets in the semi-finals. As for the other Pioneer loss? Newburyport in Newburyport. No more need be said.

So in a year in which the Pioneers returned only one starter, they won a league championship and finished with a winning record for the fifth year in a row. Not too shabby.

"We had a good year after those first two games," Weidman said to me after the game. "If you go back and watch the film from that first game it was like night and day. We were doing all kinds of crazy stuff. I think we improved a lot throughout the year."

Things look bright for the Pioneers for next year as they will be losing only seven of 22 starters. Not that there won't be some huge cleats to fill in captains Louis Ellis, Mike Stellato, Alex Boustris, and Kyle Hawes. But the coaching staff will have a talented pool of 18 seniors and 21 juniors to choose from. The 2017 season starts now.

And now a word about freshman kicker Liam Fabbri. The ninth grader was visibly upset when the PAT try to tie the game slid just right of the goal post. That was a huge spot for the youngster but there was nothing wrong with his form on the kick. He hit is solid and it had plenty of distance.

But understand that was not the reason the Pioneers lost. As Weidman said after the game, "You can never say one play cost you the game. There are a ton of plays that decide a game."

You could argue Fabbri should never have been in that position. He more than did his job in the game. He nailed a 25 yard field goal in the first quarter that was erased on a holding call. He drilled two other PAT's, including one from 25 yards following the Pioneers' second touchdown. He banged it through once, but it was called back for holding. Then North Reading was called for offside. The spot came on the 15 and he drilled it through cleanly.

For the year, the freshman was reliable, connecting on 18 of 25 attempts. His 18 PAT's tied for the ninth most in a season and he now sits in 10th place all time for PAT's.

Dan Bronshvayg's record of 113 looks far away, but who knows?

Passing Fancy
Speaking of newcomers, quarterback Matt Mortellite certainly shined in his maiden voyage with the Pioneers. Coming from Malden Catholic, the junior had to learn the complicated spread offense from scratch, and he excelled.

He finished an outstanding season completing 128/208 (61.5%) for 1731 yards and 21 touchdown passes. He tied Danny Sullivan's 2014 record for most TD's in a season and finished 10 yards behind Sullivan in passing yards. His 128 completions were the most since 1989 (which is as far back as I've been keeping stats).

His NFL passer rating was 109.7 and puts him in the Pioneer Passing Pantheon behind Sullivan's eye-popping 129.0 in 2014 and Gino Cohee's 114.7 in 2009 and just ahead of Mike Karavetsos' 101.5 in 2012.

He ended with only six interceptions and two of those were Hail Mary desperation heaves at the end of both halves on Thursday. If not for those picks, his rating would have been 113.7.

Quite a debut.

Better to Receive
While we're on the topic of records, there is one more we need to note. Captain Louis Ellis hauled in two more touchdown passes on Thursday giving him seven on the season. That equalled the seven he caught in 2015 giving him 14 for his career and tying him with Jon Knee for most career TD catches. Knee did the trick in 2013-14.

Ellis' 603 yards is third best since 1989 behind Jeff Millinazzo's 789 in 2007 and Brian McBride's 720 in 2001. Nick Kinnon's 597 yards is fourth best.

Kinnon's eight TD catches were one shy of the record held by Lindsey Ross (1973) and Knee (2014).

Scoring Leader
Kinnon led the Pioneers in scoring this year with 74 points. Combined with the 36 he scored last season, he now has 110 career points, good for a 14th place tie with Todd Coviello (85-86). Frank Berardino (1958-61) sits atop the list with 262 points.

Ellis was second on the season with 46 points and his career total of 94 places him in 23rd on the all time Pioneer scoring list.

Rivalry Update
Thursday's game certainly lived up to past games in the series. It was the fifth game decided by a single point. The Pioneers won only one of them, a 14-13 win in 1990 (I hope you caught my story about this game in last week's Villager). North Reading has won the other four one point games: 13-12 in 2002 (a late game heartbreaker), 7-6 in 1980, and 3-2 (yep that's right) in 1966. Ironically, all five one-pointers were played in Lynnfield.

The win snapped a two game losing streak in the rivalry and was the 24th victory for the Hornets. It was North Reading's first win at Pioneer Stadium and their first win in Lynnfield since 2006. The Pioneers still lead the series 35-24 and have outscored North Reading 1000-797.

Running for 10K
Anthony Murphy's one yard blast allowed the Pioneers to reach another milestone - the 10,000 point mark. Lynnfield came into the game with 9,999 points all time and finished the game with 10,019. In the 592 games of the program, the Pioneers are averaging 17 points a game. They've allowed 9,048 or 15.2 points per game.

Their overall record now stands at 309-272-11.

That's it for now. Congrats to the Pioneers on another successful season.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

North Reading Game Preview: Clash of Champions

By Tom Condardo

For the second year in a row the Pioneers will be playing in the Unofficial Cape Ann League Championship game. Last year it was Baker Champ Lynnfield against Kinney Champ Pentucket in an exciting 28-27 Sachem win.

Tomorrow, the five-time Baker/CAL-NEC4/CAL Small Champion Pioneers host the Kinney Co-Champion Hornets for supremacy in the overall CAL. Of course it's highly unofficial and no one cares or even mentions it but me, but still.

Both teams come into the game after successful championship seasons, the Pioneers at 6-3 after an 0-2 start and the Hornets at 8-2.

Both teams made brief playoff runs, Lynnfield bowing out in the section semi finals and North Reading lasting one round longer and losing in the sectional finals to a strong Marblehead squad.

Both can put points on the board in a hurry - the Pioneers averaging 32 points a game over their last six contests and the Hornets scoring at a 30 point per game clip in their last half dozen games.

But that's where the similarity ends. The methods of each offense vary significantly.

The Hornets are a run-first offense led by dynamic running back Matt McCarthy. North Reading has scored 39 touchdowns and 32 have come via the run - 18 from McCarthy and 8 from quarterback Kyle Bythrow. The Hornets have tallied only three passing TD's. They've run the ball 304 times and passed it only 20 times.

The Pioneers are more balanced scoring 15 rushing touchdowns (4 each from Anthony Murphy and
Nick Kinnon, and 3 from Tyler Murphy.) But quarterback Matt Mortellite has tossed 19 touchdown passes - 8 to Kinnon and 5 to co-captain Louis Ellis. They've had 221 running plays and 180 pass attempts.

There will be no surprises on what the Hornets want to do. McCarthy, who has gained over 1600 yards so far - will get the lion's share of the carries but the Pioneers will have to keep an eye on Bythrow who is averaging almost 10 carries a game.

The Pioneers have more offensive weapons with Mortellite throwing to a solid corps of receivers in Kinnon, Ellis, and co-capt Kyle Hawes. Anthony Murphy, Tyler Murphy (if he's able to go after suffering an injury against Greater Lawrence), and Kinnon will handle most of the ground game. If Tyler Murphy doesn't play, Justin Ysalguez could see significant action.

The wild card for the Pioneers could be Mortellite on the run. He's carried 55 times for 219 yards and a pair of touchdowns, but he has speed and could burn the Hornets if they don't pay attention.

The weather looks to be ugly with freezing rain on the menu, and that would tend to favor a running team like the Hornets. But the Pioneers have been able to throw in bad weather, something they have faced too many times already this year.

It should be a good matchup and the question will be which defense can slow down the other offense the best. If neither can, we could be looking at a shootout at Pioneer Stadium.

Pioneers like home cooking
The Pioneers come into the game winners of two straight against North Reading and four straight at home. The Hornets haven't won in Lynnfield since posting a 22-0 shutout at the Middle School field in 2006.

The Chestnut Street Rivalry is the longest for both teams. The Pioneers have played the Hornets every year since the program began in 1958. That first game was on the last week of October and since 1959, the game has been played on Thanksgiving.

The Hornets won that first game and then the Pioneers reeled off the next seven and 14 of the first 18 meetings. The series has been pretty even since then. The teams are 10-10 over the past two decades and the Pioneers hold a 21-19 edge over the past 40 years.

Playoff System Fallacy
Oh well. Too bad the Thursday's game doesn't mean anything and no one is interested right? Wrong.

The critics of the playoff system will tell you the Thanksgiving Day games have been devalued because teams that have been bounced from the playoffs or didn't make it in the first place are just playing out the string.

I never understood this logic since what would you call it when a team loses its first three games with seven to go and has no chance of winning a league title - as unfortunately Lynnfield and North Reading and many others - have done too many times in their respective histories.

The angst over the playoff system affecting the holiday games is simply hogwash. The Thanksgiving Day rivalries are normally long standing battles between neighboring towns and will ALWAYS mean something. That's the case whether both teams come in 1-9 or march in as champions of their respective leagues. And that will be the case tomorrow when the Pioneers and Hornets meet for the 59th time.

So let's tee it up, hope the rain holds off, and get ready for what promises to be an exciting game.

Game time at Pioneer Stadium is 10:30.

That's it for now. Check back next week for my Leftovers post

Monday, November 14, 2016

Greater Lawrence Leftovers

by Tom Condardo

I don't want to say I told you so, but.....well, I told you so.

After pouring their heart and soul into the D3A playoff semi-final against St Mary's, the Pioneers came out Saturday morning looking like they needed a massive shot of caffeine.

It's to be expected really. In every other high school sport, you play the regular season and build up to the tournament and if you make it, you keep playing. If you don't make it, your season is over. Likewise once you're bounced from the playoffs, you're off to the next sports season.

Football is different. Every team is going to play at least 10 games. Some will be pre-playoff and some will be post-playoff. There is no way around it unless you want to make the football season seven games and end it in October. No one would want that.

Teams that don't make the playoffs continue on playing other non-playoff teams hoping to pick up a win or three before their big Thanksgiving Day rivalry game.

It's actually a little harder for teams that make the playoffs. They have higher expectations with visions of Super Bowls dancing in their heads. Unfortunately, for all but 16 teams in the state, that dream will not be realized and they will be forced to deal with the massive letdown. For some, it comes after the first round. For others, the sectional semi-final or final, and for others, the state semi final.

Whenever it happens, the air comes out of the balloon and coaches have to regroup and pump the team back up to play a few more games that won't lead to the Super Bowl.

For the Pioneers, that came after the St. Mary's loss. And the crash was hard, as head coach Neal Weidman acknowledged after the Greater Lawrence win.

"Practices weren't that good so I wasn't overly surprised," Weidman said after watching his team play in a haze for the first quarter and a half Saturday. "That first week after you lose in the playoff is sometimes tough to get them rallied back up. We just weren't ready to play today."

The Pioneers managed only 10 yards of offense on their first three possessions - all three and outs. Meanwhile Greater Lawrence a team with a load of weapons, was rolling. The Reggies had the "advantage" of shaking off the cobwebs in a 47-13 rout of Winthrop last week. They came out flying and built up a 14-0 lead before the Pioneers slipped off their bedcovers.

Fortunately for them, once they snapped out of it, they rolled over the Reggies with five straight touchdowns, four of them TD passes from Matt Mortellite - one to Anthony Murphy (who had the fifth TD on an eight yard run), one to Nick Kinnon, and two to Louis Ellis.

The first one to Ellis was a circus catch that was a good a high school reception as you're going to see. But it probably wasn't the captain's best of the day. That came on the Pioneers' final scoring drive when Ellis leaped over the GL defender and snatched the ball away as he fell to the ground.

Many of you are too young to remember, but the catch reminded me of this great Lynn Swann catch in Super Bowl X in 1977.

Speaking of the junior quarterback, he had another stellar performance completing 16 of 22 passes for 218 yards. His NFL passer rating was 143.5. For reference, a perfect score is 158.3. For the season, Mortellite has a passer rating of 117.8.

Birthday delay
So I mentioned the delay in posting this was due to my grandson's first birthday party on Sunday. Here is a comparison shot of Jackson Condardo from Day 1 to Day 365. He's definitely growing into his Pioneer hat.

Jackson Condardo 1 day.

Jackson Condardo 1 year
That's it for now, check back next week for my preview of the big Thanksgiving Day game.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Greater Lawrence Game Preview: Hair of the Dog

by Tom Condardo

1. Chew some fresh ginger or peppermint.
2. Eat one or two bananas
3. Drink a glass of fresh tomato juice with a bit of lemon juice along with a slice of plain toast.

Say what?

Those are some simple home remedies for avoiding a hangover, and the Pioneers should consider one or two of them as they prepare for Saturday's game against Greater Lawrence. Or they could just partake of a hair of the dog that bit them - get back out there and play some football.

The Pioneers and Neal Weidman's coaching staff poured their heart and soul into preparing for the playoff semi-final against St. Mary's last Friday night. Although they danced with the Spartans for a while, in the end they couldn't overcome one of the best teams in Eastern Mass.

Now they have to get over it.

There is a real danger in getting back up after a disappointing playoff loss and we've seen it play out from both sides of the fence in recent years.

In 2013 following a hard fought divisional semi-final playoff loss to Bedford, the Pioneers came out flat as a pancake and fell behind Watertown 14-0. Weidman admitted the team had a "sluggish" week of practice and it looked like it carried over into the game.

Luckily, Dan Sullivan hit Jon Knee with a 30 yard TD pass with four seconds left in the first half to cut the lead in half. That seemed to wake the Pioneers who stuffed a Watertown scoring bid on their first possession of the third quarter when Matt Kramich picked off a pass at the five yard line.

Lynnfield then capped a 95 yard drive with a halfback option play when Jake Rourke hit Knee to cut the lead to 14-13. Not done tricking around, the Pioneers snapped directly to placekicker Dan Bronshvayg on the PAT who promptly found Austin Caswell cruising into the endzone to take a 15-14 lead.

Watertown jumped back out to a 20-15 lead but Kramich got it right back for Lynnfield with a 93 yard kickoff return and the Pioneers held on for a 21-20 win.

The Pioneers got to see the hangover affect from the other sideline last year when they faced Pentucket after both the Sachems and Lynnfield were eliminated in the first round. Pentucket suffered the bigger upset as they were the top seed and got knocked off by number eight Bedford.

Lynnfield pulled it together after their disappointing loss to Watertown to jump out to a 21-0 halftime lead over a dazed Pentucket team. Jake McHugh hooked up with Kyle Hawes for the first score, Drew McCarthy ran one in from 41 yards for a second TD, and McHugh found Louis Ellis for a six yard score to give them the three touchdown lead at the half.

Unfortunately Pentucket shook off the cobwebs in the second half and scored four times to only a single McCarthy score to escape with the 28-27 win.

Greater Lawrence Rolling
The Pioneers can't afford to sleepwalk into this one on Saturday because if they do, the Reggies will run them over. Greater Lawrence comes into the game at 6-3 and shook off their upset playoff loss to Ipswich two weeks ago by thrashing Winthrop 47-13 last week.

The Reggies, who finished as the third seed in D3A one spot ahead of the Pioneers, run a spread offense very similar to Lynnfield. They have two explosive skill players running it and the Pioneers are going to have to figure out a way to control them.

Running back Ojany Belliard is their leading scorer with 130 points on 21 touchdowns, the fourth highest score in D3A. He's been on fire the last five weeks rushing for 959 yards and 15 touchdowns in five games - an average of almost 200 yards and 3 TD's per game.

But the Pioneers can't sell out on Belliard or they will get torched by quarterback Kyle Vasconcellos who has been another potent weapon for the Reggies. In the last five games, Vasconcellos has run for 6 touchdowns, and completed 25 of 46 passes for 408 yards and 5 more TD's.

The Reggies have had a solid season beating two seven win teams in Shawsheen and Mystic Valley, but they lost to Northeast and Ipswich, two teams the Pioneers handled fairly easily. The question is which team will show up on Saturday.

This will be the first ever meeting between the schools, the second day game of the season for the Pioneers, their third game on natural grass, and their first morning game.

Game time in Andover is at 10:30 am.

That's it for now with one additional programming note. My Leftover post will be delayed since I will be spending Sunday in Western Mass celebrating my grandson's first birthday. I should have something up by Tuesday. Check back then.

Directions to Greater Lawrence High School from Lynnfield High:

Lynnfield High School

275 Essex Street, Lynnfield, MA 01940
Get on I-95 S
5 min (2.5 mi)
Take I-93 N to River Rd in Andover. Take exit 45from I-93 N
17 min (17.7 mi)
Continue on River Rd to your destination
3 min (0.8 mi)

Greater Lawrence Technical School

57 River Road, Andover, MA 01810

Sunday, November 6, 2016

St. Mary's Leftovers

by Tom Condardo

It was a few days after Halloween, but still appropriate that the Pioneers played the role of a zombie football team Friday night. No matter how many times St. Mary's tried to bury them, the Pioneers kept rising from the dead in a ruthless pursuit of the Spartans.

In the end, they finally succumbed, but not before throwing a real scare into the Spartans. In fact, St. Mary's coach Matt Durgin told Steve Krause of the Daily Item that Lynnfield gave his Spartans their toughest test of the season.

"That's the best anyone's played against us all season probably," Durgin was quoted in Krause's article."

The Pioneers forced St. Mary's to play their starters the entire game, something no one else has been able to do. They gave the Spartans all they could handle, but when I asked head coach Neal Weidman if battling tough made him feel any better he replied, "Not really. It doesn't make it any better when you give them a great game and you lose."

As for pure entertainment value, the fans certainly got their money's worth.

There used to an old joke where someone would say they went to a prize fight and a hockey game broke out. On Friday night, Pioneer fans went to a football game and a track meet, aerial circus, and a little MMA broke out.

The teams combined for 686 yards of offense, 68 points, 9 touchdowns, and six two point conversions. And believe it or not, the defense wasn't that bad. The offenses were just that good.

The Spartans did most of their damage on the ground, breaking long plays with the dynamic running of Calvin Johnson, Abraham Toe, and James Brumfield. Toe went out with an ankle injury early but Brumfield stepped in and picked up 67 yards and a score. Johnson was other-worldly, virtually unstoppable and uncatchable when he got to the edge. He rolled for 246 yards and five touchdowns.

Meanwhile, the Spartans clamped down on the Pioneer running game, holding them to only 74 yards rushing. So the Pioneers went to plan B which was airing it out. Quarterback Matt Mortellite fired it up 42 times connecting on 26 of them for 245 yards, three TD's, and three two-point conversions. (More on some of those stats in a minute.)

Weidman was impressed with a couple of changes the Spartan coaching staff made, one of which helped foil the Pioneers opening drive. After falling behind 8-0, the Pioneers moved the ball from their own 25 to the Spartan 40 and looked to be in good shape. They were then flagged for a motion call and the Spartans adjusted their defensive approach.

"They stopped rushing the passer," explained Weidman. "Instead they just had their tall kids start reading the quarterback and put their hands up and they got a couple of batted balls in a row. That was a smart move."

The two blocks ended the first drive.

Stopping the explosive St. Mary's double wing is nearly impossible so the Pioneers needed to match them score for score. They nearly did, but in the end came up a few scores short.

"Unfortunately we shot ourselves in the foot offensively in the first half," Weidman said. "That's the way it is. When you play good teams, that stuff just can't happen."

Big Time
The Spartans clearly had the size advantage, making the Pioneers' effort to hang with them in the trenches even more impressive. Freshman TE/LB Matt Cross is 6'7" 215, Lineman Cam Sakowich is 6'4" 230, Lineman Liam Reddy, a beast all night, is 6'2, 270 and TE/DL Patrick Henry (no, not the "give me liberty" guy) is 6'3, 260.

Now we know what Pioneer opponents felt like the past few years when Lynnfield always came out with the significant size edge.

St. Mary's either doesn't  have or chooses not to use a placekicker and always goes for the two point conversion. That forces the opposition to match them and the Pioneers did just that picking up three-two pointers on Mortellite passes to co-captains Louis Ellis and Kyle Hawes and one to Nick Kinnon. With the hat trick, Mortellite tied the record for most two point conversion tosses in a single game.

The record was set in 1961 in a 30-6 win over Westford Academy. In that game, quarterback Steve Mucica tossed two to Laurie Bleiler and one to Frank Berardino.

To find the last game in which the Pioneers picked up three two pointers you have to go back 36 years to 1980 when Jim Dolbeare ran for three conversions in a 36-20 win over Masco.

Airing It Out
The Pioneers threw an incredible 44 passes in the game - 42 by Mortellite and 2 by Kinnon. That's the most since I've been keeping stats - 1989 - and my guess is that it's the most all time. The most passes before this was in 2009 when Gino Cohee (32), Chris Grassi (4) and A. J. Roberto (1) combined for 37 in a 28-7 loss to Wilmington.

Just to show how the high school game as changed in the past twenty years, in 1998 Pioneer quarterbacks Kris Borkowski (92), Jim Motzkin (17) and Charlie Shove (2) combined for 111 pass attempts FOR THE SEASON! They completed 34 for a total of 468 yards for the year.

Mortellite completed 8 fewer passes for 223 fewer yards in Friday night's game than the 1998 team did for the entire year. It was certainly a different brand of football.

James Brumfield's 50 yard touchdown run Friday night was the 9000th point scored against the Pioneers in the history of the program. The tally now stands at 9013 against in 59 seasons.

Next Up: Greater Lawrence
The Pioneers will play their final game before Thanksgiving on Saturday morning at 10:30 in West Andover against 6-3 Greater Lawrence. Check back Thursday night for my preview post of the game against the Reggies.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

St. Mary's Playoff Game Preview: The Juggernaut Awaits

by Tom Condardo

In 2007, the high flying New England Patriots rolled into Super Bowl XLII with a unblemished 18-0 record hoping to become the first team in NFL history to go undefeated in a 19 game season. The New York Giants, 10-6 in the regular season and barely making it into the playoffs as a NFC wildcard, came into the game as a 12 point underdog. The result: Thanks to the miraculous "Helmet Catch" by David Tyree, the Giants edged the Pats 17-14 to become Super Bowl Champions.

In 1980, the Soviet Union came into the Olympics having won the gold medal in six of the seven previous games. They also had won 12 of the prior 15 World Championship tournaments. In the prior four Olympics, the Soviets went 27-1-1 and outscored the opposition 175-44.

In head to head matchups, the Soviets outscored the U.S. 27-8. In 1979, The Soviets went 5-3-1 against an NHL All Star team. The U. S. team was made up of a group of college players 5-10 years younger then the Russians. The Americans were 1000-1 underdogs to beat the Soviet Union. The result: The U. S. upset the Soviet machine 4-3 and went on to win the Gold Medal two days later.

In 1977, the Pioneers under head coach Bill Rodan had struggled through their first eight games and sported a 2-6 record. Week eight was the low point as the Pioneers suffered their most lopsided loss of the year, a 27-8 beating at the hands of Ipswich. And things were about to get worse. In their final game before Thanksgiving, the Pioneers had to face the undefeated Newburyport Clippers, the CAL juggernaut at the time.

The Clippers sailed onto Pioneer Field at the Lynnfield Middle School not only with a perfect 8-0 record, but winners of 38 straight games - at the time the longest winning streak in the state. No one gave the Pioneers a chance and they were expected to roll over for Newburyport in what was expected to be an easy 39th win in a row.

The Pioneer defense played their best game of the year. They held the Clippers to zero first downs in the opening quarter and 13 total yards in the first half. The home team mounted a 50 yard drive in the second quarter and Eric Hansen, the fifth leading scorer in LHS history, bulled in from the two to give the Pioneers a 6-0 lead. .

The Clippers threatened several times in the second half, marching to the Lynnfield 13 yard line once and recovering a fumble at the Pioneer six another time. Both bids ended with interceptions by Rich Erb and the Pioneers held on for a monumental 6-0 upset win over the stunned Clippers.

My point? You have to play the games.

The Pioneers come into Friday night's game against undefeated St. Mary's as prohibitive underdogs. The Spartans have eviscerated every team in its path on the way to eight straight wins. They are averaging 42 points a game while allowing only 8. Their smallest margin of victory was 26 in a 38-12 win over Lynn English.

As Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman said to me, "no one has come close to them yet."

"Looking at the scores they're obviously deserving of the top seed," Weidman continued. "We'll have to have a good week of practice and play a fantastic game obviously."

Although the Spartans present a monumental road block, let's look ahead to what this game means for the Pioneers. Number two seed Shawsheen and number three seed Greater Lawrence were both knocked off last weekend. That means if the number four seed Pioneers can pull the upset over the top seeded Spartans, they would host the winner of the Ipswich-Stoneham game with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.

With the new alignment, Western Mass does not have a Division 3A leaving only winners of the North, South, and Central so there is rotating bye in the state semi finals. This year the bye happens to go the the North winner who will therefore head straight to the Super Bowl to face the winner of the South-Central semi-final.

Bottom line? Let's play the game.

Double Trouble
The Spartans run a double wing offense with tight splits, reminiscent of the Holliston "War" package the Pioneers faced in the D4 Semi-Finals in 2014. The Spartan offense is led by a pair of dynamic running backs in Abraham Toe and Calvin Johnson. Johnson is the second leading scorer in D3A with 137 points and 21 touchdowns. Toe is fifth with 96 points on 12 TDs.

Quarterback Marcus Atkins rarely throws but when he does, he's usually looking for one of those two out of the backfield. That's a weapon they use when the defense sells out to stop the devastating running game.

If you want to get a preview of the double wing offense, check out this You Tube clip. It's what you'll be seeing a lot of on Friday night.

Double Vision
Speaking of Holliston, they are a reasonable facsimile of St. Mary's, especially on defense. They are not overly big but fast, quick, and athletic. Holliston was able to bottle up the Lynnfield spread offense by funneling everything to the outside and getting the Pioneers to run sideways and then using their team speed to blow up the play. Expect St. Mary's to try something similar.

Schedule Comparison
It's tough to compare the schedules of Lynnfield and St. Mary's but here goes. The combined record of the Pioneer opponents is 29-26 with 3 having winning records, 1 at .500, and 3 with losing marks. They played 3 teams from a higher division, 3 in their own division, and 1 in a lower division. Five of their opponents made the playoffs and three are still alive playing in this weekend's division semi-finals.

The combined record of the Spartans' opponents is 25-38 with three having winning records and five having losing marks. They played 5 teams from a higher division, 2 in their own division, and 1 in a lower division. Four of their opponents made the playoffs and three are still alive playing in the semi finals this weekend.

Rubber Match
This will be the third meeting between the schools. In 1991 under head coach Bill Adams, the Pioneers whitewashed the Spartans 36-0. Twenty years later in 2011, St. Mary's returned the favor to the Weidman-led Pioneers with a 40-16 win.

Game time at Manning Field in Lynn is 7 pm.

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

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Northeast Leftovers

by Tom Condardo

The tortoise and the hare is an appropriate analogy for Friday night's playoff game that saw the Pioneers advance to the D3A semi-finals.

Northeast was obviously the tortoise, staying in its shell, hoarding the ball, hoping the hare - the Pioneers - would get frustrated or make a mistake. It was a sound strategy against an increasingly explosive Lynnfield offense which has now scored more than 30 points in their last three games.

But according to Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman, the slow down, ground and pound, slow motion wing T attack was not developed specifically for this game.

"That's just what they do," the coach said. "And they're good at it."

You think?

Northeast had a four to one advantage in time of possession and first downs. The Pioneers had the ball for less than 10 minutes of game time - less than a quarter of the game. But playing keepaway was only part of the equation if the Knights hoped to win the game. The other part was stopping the Pioneers when they DID have the ball, and they never could do that.

Special teams played a key role in the win, with captain Kyle Hawes punt return for a score getting the Pioneers on the board early, and captain Mike Stellato's blocked punt leading to a 5 yard drive for the score that iced the game at 27-6.

In between, the Pioneers burned the Knights on quick strikes, scoring on four touchdown drives of less than a minute and a half - two of them less than 30 seconds.

Despite the lopsided final score, Weidman wasn't happy with the way the game began, with the Pioneers running only six plays in the first half.

"Exactly how it started was exactly how we didn't want it to start," Weidman said of Northeast's two long drives that resulted in one score. "We didn't have a ton of offensive plays and we knew they were going to try and control the ball and the clock and they were able to do that. But we kind of recovered from that after the first quarter and a half."

Northeast was able to cut the Pioneer lead to 7-6 on a long drive that saw the Knights gash the Lynnfield defense. But after that drive, the Pioneers shut out the Knights until the fourth quarter when Weidman emptied his bench. Northeast's first offense marched 70 yards against the Pioneers' second and third teams for their second score.

"We made some adjustments after that first drive," said Weidman. "Guys were getting themselves caught up in the wash by not playing sound technique defensively."

Weidman acknowledged the key in playing a team with a patient offense is to get ahead early.

"It's important," the coach said. "It they are able to control the ball and go right down and score and then they force you to punt or get a turnover and they control the ball again and score again, the next thing you know you're down two scores with no time left in the half. It's important to get on the board quickly.

The Pioneers did that and the reward is a date with St. Mary's Friday night. Gulp. But we talk more about them later in the week.

Well Rested
Weidman noted that with the lack of offensive plays, the Pioneers didn't have to use much of its arsenal.

"We were able to use a bunch of different guys which is nice because it makes it a little bit tougher to defend us," he said. "We didn't have the ball much so we really didn't throw it much but the one time we did we had the big play. We didn't use our outside receivers at all and they are some of our better players.

More from Mort
Quarterback Matt Mortellite only had to throw three times, but completed two for 76 yards including a beautiful pass to Nick Kinnon on the 66 yard TD strike. Mortellite also showed off his wheels scooting through the Knight defense on a nifty 15 yard TD run. Weidman is impressed with the progress his quarterback is making.

"He's getting more and more comfortable knowing what to do," the coach said. "That's half the battle. The beginning of the season we just had to get him up to speed. He started from zero. If you're a freshman or sophomore in the system you at least get some of it. To come in your junior year and never see any of it is not typical."

Milestone TD
Speaking of the quarterback, the Mortellite to Kinnon hookup was the 350th touchdown pass in the history of LHS football. 119 of them have come in the Weidman era - the past nine season since 2008. For perspective, in the first 30 years of the program - 1958 to 1987 - there were 122 touchdown passes.

Happy Returns
Hawes punt return for a score was the first since Jon Knee did the trick against Georgetown in 2014. It was the 32nd punt return TD in LHS history.

Coincidentally, Knee caught his second TD in as many game last weekend for Macalester College in a 48-36 win over Cornell. He collected his first collegiate TD the week before against Beloite. The sophomore has caught 20 passes for 296 yards this season for the 7-2 Scots. He's also returned 7 punts but as yet to break one.

Playoff Action
The win ups Lynnfield's playoff record in the Weidman Era to 6-5. This is the fifth straight year and sixth of the past nine seasons the Pioneers have made the playoffs.

Home Cooking
The victory improves Lynnfield's record at Pioneer Stadium to 12-2. The only two losses since the stadium opened in 2014 was the 25-17 loss to Watertown in the first round of the playoffs last year and the 30-14 loss to Danvers this year.

That's it for now. Check back Thursday night for my preview of the St. Mary's game.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Northeast Playoff Game Preview: Knight Night

By Tom Condardo

Ever since I began covering the Pioneers in 1989 (yikes), the preseason would end with a Labor Day scrimmage against Northeast Metro Tech (or as it was known in the early days, Northeast Voke).

Playing the Golden Knights right before the season started always offered a good gauge of where the Pioneers stood in their preparation. Northeast was always a tough, hard nosed team and if Lynnfield was able to hold their own or dominate, they were usually in for a strong season. If the Knights pushed them around, the Pioneers were likely in for a long season.

For the first time in probably three decades, that scrimmage didn't take place this year. Northeast head coach Don Heres felt that since realignment placed the Pioneers and Knights in the same division, it might be better to skip the annual practice game. Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman agreed and the scrimmage was scratched.

"It was Donny more than me," Weidman told me. "He said if we're going to be in the same division, maybe we shouldn't scrimmage each other."

Well Friday night promises to be a little (a lot?) colder than the first weekend in September, but the
traditional rivalry will continue...just with a lot more at stake. And instead of wearing practice jerseys with no numbers (specifically to confound me I suspect), the Pioneers will be in full uniform since this is Round 1 of the Division 3A playoffs.

"This will be different," Weidman said. "We've always had a friendly relationship as far scrimmaging and trying to make each other better. We stay in contact throughout the year. It'll definitely be different playing them in a real game."

And other than a two month delay, not much else has changed. The Knights are still big and tough and come in to Pioneer stadium with a 5-2 mark.

All the years of scrimmaging doesn't necessarily give the Pioneers much of an advantage.

"Offensively they do some of the same things they've always done," said Weidman.

But defensively they have a different look thanks to their new defensive coordinator - LHS head lacrosse coach Joe Papagni. Papagni is a former Pioneer coordinator and was on the same staff with Weidman under Bill Adams. He'll be coaching against some of his lacrosse charges which should make for some interesting interplay.

The two teams finished in a near photo finish in the playoff rankings, with the Pioneers gaining the home field thanks to a single point out of the 83 they collected. You can thank Newburport for its upset of Masco earlier in the year for the one point that put the game here Friday night instead of in Wakefield on Saturday afternoon. Lynnfield finished with a 13.83 rating to a 13.71 rating for Northeast. It can't get any closer than that.

The game will feature a clash of styles when the wide open Pioneer offense faces off against the run-heavy, ground and pound, run game of the Knights.

The Knights run a wing T with some variations.

"They are probably more like an Amesbury than a Pentucket," Weidman said referring to a pair of CAL teams than run the Wing T. "They've got some big bruisers and try to keep pounding it. They're pretty big and their backs (Scott Peary and Austin Perrin) are big too. They have good sized linemen. Size wise probably similar to us."

"Tough to tell who they compare to just watching them on film," Weidman continued. "They'd be right there with Cape Ann Small teams."

The Knights opened the season with a 21-12 loss to Manchester Essex, a team the Pioneers beat 47-14. But don't let that score fool you. This is a different Northeast team than the one that played in that game.

"That was early in the year and they shot themselves in the foot a little fumbling inside the five once or twice," Weidman said. "They had a couple of opportunities that they missed out on."

Northeast bounced back with a huge 52-12 beating of Chelsea and followed that with wins over North Quincy 14-8 and Greater Lawrence 36-20. GL finished ahead of both Lynnfield and Northeast and come into the playoffs as the third seed in the division.

The Knights fell hard to Shawsheen, the second seed in the division, 34-8, but finished the year strong with wins over Whittier 42-8 and Lynn Tech 36-26.

"It's the playoffs now and we're going to have to step our game up," the coach summed up. "We have to be motivated to play and play with some emotion. That's what everyone is going to be doing now."

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

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Hamilton-Wenham Leftovers

By Tom Condardo

Six titles in nine seasons, the last five in a row. Pretty impressive performance by the Pioneers under head coach Neal Weidman and his outstanding staff. Weidman and his staff have built a powerhouse program over the past decade and they have done some of their best work this season, molding a young, talented group into another champion.

Weidman doesn't like to talk about year after year success, instead choosing to focus on the season at hand - the current group he is working with.

"This is another team," the coach told me after the HW clincher Saturday afternoon. "A lot of people thought that maybe this team wouldn't be able to do it so I'm happy and proud of them."

Drive for Five. Captains celebrate the Pioneers' fifth straight
league championsip. (l to r) Mike Stellato, Kyle Hawes
Alex Boustris, and Louis Ellis
"We definitely needed some experience," Weidman said about beginning this season's team. "We didn't have any to start the year. We had a lot of new guys playing. It takes time sometimes. We were patient and they were patient and now we're starting to come together."

After an 0-2 start with losses to Newburyport (4th seed in D3) and Danvers (3rd seed in D2A), the Pioneers ran the CAL Baker table and now at 4-2, and earned the fourth seed in D3A. The Pioneers have made the playoffs all four years of this new format, and begin their post season quest when they host Northeast Friday night.

The Pioneers have compiled a 68-29 mark in nine seasons under Weidman - a .701 winning percentage - the best of any football coach in LHS history. It's been an impressive run and should be recognized as such. The coaches and the 2016 edition are to be congratulated for a job well done.

Second Half Dominance
The Pioneers were in control for much of the game against HW except for the last half of the second quarter. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Generals began knifing through the Pioneer defense on their lone scoring drive. The marched 57 yards on 12 plays - collecting half of their total 113 yards of offense on the day.

I asked Weidman if the Generals were doing something different on that drive to allow them to have success all of a sudden.

"Not really," he replied. "They just grabbed the momentum and we didn't do a good job of grabbing it back right away. I was happy with our second half effort considering they had the momentum going into the half. Maybe it was one of those things where the half came at the right time. Just to slow it down a bit."

The second half was truly dominated by the Pioneers.

Nursing a 12-7 lead to start, they snuffed out the Generals' first drive of the third quarter and then marched 95 yards for a score. Quarterback Matt Mortellite had a 32 yard completion to captain Kyle Hawes to start the drive and Tyler Murphy chipped in with runs of 18 and five yards. Mortellite capped it with a swing pass to Nick Kinnon who scooted down the left sideline to make it 18-7.

Then captain Mike Stellato and the defense clamped down, holding the Generals to 15 total yards and one first down the rest of the way. The biggest play came on a fourth and half yard at Lynnfield 30. General Christos Meimeteas attacked the line looked for a hole to get the first down but instead found Harry Collins who wrapped him in a bear hug. Cooper Marengi quickly joined in to keep Meimeteas from reaching the first down marker.

Quick Thinking
That big stop led to what Weidman called the turning point of the game.

After the fourth down stop, the Pioneers were looking at a three and out to start the fourth quarter. Stellato went back into punt formation in a steady rain. I'll let him take it from there.

"It was a high snap and I managed to keep possession of it," the big lineman said. "I started to run for the first down and I dodged one kid and I saw (captain) Louis (Ellis) break into the flat so I decided to throw it off to him and we got lucky with the penalty."

Indeed the the Generals were flagged for pass interference giving the Pioneers a first down. Some chirping from the HW defense tacked on an additional 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct and the Pioneers were in business at the HW 45. Eight plays later Kinnon, lining up in the wildcat, took the snap, eluded General Jake Lanciani, and sprinted into the corner of the endzone for the touchdown to make it 25-7.

The heady play by Stellato was key to keeping the drive alive.

"He kept his head on that play," Weidman said. "It's always good to have a senior captain back there. He'll be talking about that one for a while."

Steady Improvement
Weidman talked the past few weeks about the continued improvement of his team. There's no question the team that played Saturday is very different from the one that opened the season in Newburyport. The numbers bear that out dramatically.

In the first three games against Newburyport, Danvers, and Ipswich, the Pioneers averaged 15.6 points and a total of 216 yards of offense. In the last three games against Amesbury, Manchester-Essex, and Hamilton-Wenham, they have doubled that output, amassing an average of 412 yards of offense good for 33 points per game. The Pioneers have exceed 300 yards of offense in the last three games.

The improvement has been even more dramatic on the defensive side of the ball. In the first three games the Pioneers allowed an average of 314 yards and 25.3 points per game. In the last three, they've tightened up considerably, allowing only 162 yards and 9 points per game. The first team defense is even better, allowing only two touchdowns in the last three games.

"We've come a long way from the first couple of week where we caught blocks and missed tackles," Weidman said of his defense. "They've made a conscious effort to eliminate those things by working at it in practice."

Mighty Mort
Mortellite is putting together quite a season in his first year as the Pioneers' quarterback. He was 11 for 17 for 240 yards and 2 touchdowns in the clincher against the Generals. His passer rating using the NFL formula was 147.3. A perfect rating is 158.3

For the season, the junior is 69 for 107 (64%) for 967 yards, 11 touchdowns - tops in D3A - and only 3 interceptions. His total passer rating is 116.3.

HW coach Jim Pugh, who left Masco at the end of the 2014 season, helped out at Malden Catholic last year and worked with Mortellite as a sophomore there. Following Saturday's game, Pugh told Phil Stacey of the Salem News that he saw the potential of the young quarterback.

"Matt's a great kid," Pugh told Stacey. "He's done a great job for them."

Weidman has also spoken about Mortellite's ability to come up to speed in a very different - and difficult - system than the one he operated in at MC. The performance on the field has proven both Weidman and Pugh to be correct in their assessment.

Stormy Weather
Saturday was the third game out of six that the Pioneers have had to splash to victory - Ipswich and Amesbury being the other two. The early forecast for Friday's playoff game? 90% chance of showers. Good omen?

The win was the fifth straight over HW. The Pioneers have outscored the Generals 175-29 in that stretch.

Playoff Patter
Some interesting tidbits that came out of the playoff seedings announced Sunday morning.

North Reading, which wasn't happy about being elevated to Division 2A, ended up with the second seed and will host Bedford Friday night. They finished their pre-playoff schedule with a 6-1 mark, their only loss coming to Masco.

Triton, coached by former Pioneer offensive coordinator and captain Pat Sheehan finished with a 5-2 mark, good enough for the second seed in Division 2. They will host Swampscott Friday night.

And in an interesting twist, Newburyport, who finished with a 2-4 record, actually earned a home playoff game finishing as the fourth seed. The reason for their high point total was their tough schedule. They earned 27 opponent points for wins against the four-win Pioneers and five-win Masco. They piled up the points even in their losses to Ipswich (4 points), North Reading (6), Triton (5), and Pentucket (3). Their 45 opponent points allowed them to leap Pentucket and be able to host them even though the Sachems beat Newburyport 21-19 earlier this year. The combined record of the Clippers' opponents was 27-14.

That's it for now. Check back Thursday night for me Northeast game preview.