Monday, August 29, 2016

Pioneers Adjust to Downsizing

by Tom Condardo

For anyone who has followed the Pioneers for the past few years, looking at the team huddle before the Masco scrimmage was a bit jarring. Something was definitely different. And then it hit me: the tallest person in the gathering was head coach Neal Weidman. Not that the coach isn't big, but in recent seasons, you'd be hard pressed to find Weidman in the shadows of some of the enormous redwoods that regularly populated the Pioneer squad.

Every year when the Pioneers marched in to a visiting venue or when a team came to play at Pioneer Stadium, opposing coaches and fans would inevitably express some variation of the question "What are they putting in the water in Lynnfield?"

The size difference between the Pioneers and their opponents was usually that striking. For the past five years or so, Lynnfield has trotted out a line (and many linebackers) that averaged 6'2 or 6'3 and 220+ pounds and thanks to the DeGeorge boys (Cam and D.J.) they would also sprinkle in a few 6'5 250+ bodies. It was a clear advantage for the Pioneers and led to some of the most lopsided wins in LHS football history.

However, size intimidation won't be in the toolbox for the 2016 Pioneers. It is a return to a squad with sizes more normal for a Division 3-4 high school team. This will obviously present new challenges for Weidman and his staff in general and for line coach Gino Fodera in particular.

"It's a bit difficult without size but we have speed which is something you don't really have when you have a lot of size. Size makes it really hard to have a lot of speed," Fodera told me. "We'll hit the holes quicker. Moving people off the line of scrimmage is going to be the hard part. But these kids are tough and they worked hard in the weight room this off season. They showed their dedication when they came in the first day and we're going to just have to keep working."

Lack of experience of equal concern
But the lack of a size advantage is not Fodera's primary concern. It's the lack of experience in his linemen.

"It's a little different when you don't have the likes of Cam DeGeorge and Spencer Balian and kids that have experience," he said. "Besides (captain) Mike Stellato, there are no starters from last year on this year's offensive line. These are kids that literally played JV last year. We'll have a lot of juniors playing offensive line and they didn't get the kinds of looks they're getting now. Even in practice, I'd take the ones and twos (first and second team) and I'd strictly work with them. And these kids weren't even the ones and twos last year.

"So it's a whole different approach," Fodera continued. "Even practice is different. Getting used to the way I coach with these kids is something totally new - something they haven't seen before. We work really hard at practice. I think as the season progresses these guys are going to get better and better. The ultimate goal is obviously to be just one unit and work together in tandem and we'll see what happens. They're good kids and they want to work hard. They come every day and we'll continue to improve."

The Pioneers are also devoting more time to teaching this year.

"Coach Weidman is doing a great job this year with just slowing down the pace a little bit," Fodera explained. "In years past it's been go, go, go. Neal's really taken the time out to correct things right away. Instead of doing it on the fly he's actually taken a little bit of time to make sure everyone knows what they're doing which is great."

Uneven start
Fodera got his first look at his new charges in action against a big, experienced, talented Masco team this past Saturday.

"I would have to honestly say some things looked good and some things looked bad," he said to me after the scrimmage. "It's hard in a game scrimmage like this to see because there's so many things going on. After we watch the film we'll determine what was good and what was bad. We made a lot of mistakes but we did some good things as well.

The Pioneers made some changes in anticipation of the revamped line they would be featuring this year.

"This past summer coach Weidman changed up the pass protection a little bit," Fodera said. "And I though they picked that up pretty well within only seven practices so far. I think they did a good job with that. We're going to try and get some pressure off the quarterback. As you could tell, there was some pressure and some things we need to clean up."

The Pioneer offense did well against Masco, picking up 132 yards on the ground and 138 yards in the air and scored 42 points in 40 plays.

"Once we get down to the final 11 that are going to play the games, we'll figure out what best suits us," Fodera summed up. "It's really hard when you have the first string offensive line and maybe a fourth group running back. Once we get everything settled, things will come together."

The Pioneers will get to fine tune things even more in scrimmages against Salem on Tuesday, August 30 and Melrose on Friday, September 2, before their regular season opener against Newburyport on September 9. And although you can't coach size, the Pioneer staff will certainly make sure the squad is prepared. In football, that's what really matters.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Rougher Road Ahead for Young Pioneers

by Tom Condardo

The Pioneers have just about a week of practice under their belts and are ready to kick off their pre season scrimmage schedule Saturday morning, so I thought this would be a good time to take a quick look back. In particular, the past three years under the new playoff format.

I'm not sure everyone can appreciate the phenomenal performance of the Pioneers in the pre-playoff portion of the schedule the last three seasons. So let's review.

The Pioneers played 21 games in the run up to three straight playoff berths and were a near perfect 20-1. Their only loss was a controversial (if you call scoring a TD at the end of the first half on a bonus play with no time left controversial - yes I'm still bitter) 22-15 defeat to Danvers. In the 20 victories, the Pioneers outscored their 15 league opponents and 5 non league opponents 729-89, an 8 to 1 margin. Their average winning score was 37-5 with 10 of the games shutouts.

Eye-popping. Incredible. Also, unsustainable.

It would be tough for any team to follow that performance, but this year will be particularly difficult to continue that trend for two big reasons: younger squad, tougher schedule.

That's not to say this year's team won't be competitive - head coach Neal Weidman and his staff will make sure they will be. In fact, Danny V's of the Boston Herald has the Pioneers ranked third in Division 3A behind Saint Mary's and Winthrop.

But the hard fact is that in the past two years the Pioneers have graduated nearly 40 seniors including a host of all-league players. No one wants to use the "R" word (rebuilding) - but the Pioneers have significant holes to fill this year. That's also been the case the last several years, but the Pioneers have been able to rely on large senior classes ready to step in and take over.

Weidman has pointed out that things are a bit different this season.

"The seniors have worked hard and they're ready for their senior year," the coach told me. "There just aren't a lot of them."

Only a dozen 12th graders are on the roster, the smallest group in three years. And football is a game of numbers in general and numbers of seniors in particular. The Pioneers certainly have the numbers - 72 players make up the pre season roster - but more than half (41) are freshmen and sophomores, which means more juniors and sophomores will likely be playing than in recent years. There is still a lot of talent in the Lynnfield cupboard, but it's hard to make up for experience.

Then there's the schedule.

The Pioneers will be playing only six pre-playoff games with Georgetown dropping out of the CAL to play an independent football schedule. Of those half dozen Lynnfield opponents, four are ranked in the top eight in their division - in other words playoff teams - according to the just released ratings from the Herald's Dan Ventura.

The Pioneers open on the road in the refurbished House of Lynnfield Horrors in Newburyport against a Clipper team ranked eighth in D3 and playing under a new head coach. That's followed by the home opener against Danvers, ranked fifth in D2A, two divisions higher than Lynnfield. The CAL Baker opener will be in Amesbury followed by another home game against the resurgent Ipswich Tigers who were 6-5 last year and are ranked fifth in D3, two slots behind the Pioneers. They follow that with another game at Pioneer Stadium against Manchester Essex, ranked sixth in D4.

With Georgetown gone, the Pioneers have a bye the following week and then wrap up their Baker schedule against Hamilton Wenham and new coach Jim Pugh, former head coach of powerhouse Masco.

In the first three years of the playoff format, the Pioneers only had to finish first or second in their league to clinch a playoff berth, but that's not the case this year. There are no automatic qualifiers in the CAL so the Pioneers have to finish in the top eight of the 12 team D3 based on their points rating.

They have the opportunity to run up some points since their first three games are against teams in higher divisions, meaning a victory would give them 12 points instead of 10.

Weidman is certainly preparing the Pioneers for the rugged road ahead based on their three preseason scrimmages. They kick it off Saturday in Boxford in a 9 am  scrimmage/practice against Masco, the number six team in D2, followed by a visit to Salem against D2A Salem, and finishing up the Friday before Labor Day against Melrose, the top rated team in D2A.

Needless to say, we'll know a lot more by Labor Day. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Time to Begin Again - Kicking off 2016

by Tom Condardo

Thought I disappeared right? Not so. Just waiting for the right time to spring the first post of the 2016 season on you. And not to rush past the summer, but that time is now. The beginning of a new Pioneer football season is upon us.

Preseason practice starts next Friday, August 19 and from then on it'll be all football all the time until Thanksgiving.

To prepare you for the upcoming season, I wanted to bring you up to speed about what's been happening around the Pioneer program in particular and in the high school football scene in general. There are some significant changes that affect the Pioneers both in the league and in post season play and we'll get to those shortly. But first, let's do a quick review of what's been happening with the Pioneer this summer.

7 v 7's
In addition to conditioning workouts three days a week, the Pioneers have been active on the 7 v 7 circuit. They got off to a nice start in early June with an impressive performance in a 20 team passing tournament at Assumption College. In round robin play, the Pioneers defeated Holliston, Killingly (CT), and Bishop Guertin (NH) and lost to Worcester Academy, a postgraduate school. The Pioneers were one of six teams advancing to the playoffs and missed making it to the final four when they fell to Londonderry (NH). 

“They did pretty well,” head coach Neal Weidman said of the team’s effort following the tournament. “We’re just trying to get guys in the right position and figure out who can do what because we have a number of new guys trying to fill a lot of open positions.”

The Pioneers had another strong showing July 23 in the annual Under Armour 7v7 tournament at Bishop Fenwick. Playing in 90+ degree heat, the Pioneers battled with 39 other teams for the East Division title and a right to move on to the UA New England Championship.

The Pioneers finished with a 3-1 record in pool play earning them a trip to the playoffs. They beat Billerica and Malden by the same 8-6 score to start the tournament then lost to Watertown 20-12. They bounced back with a 19-6 victory over Gloucester to earn their playoff berth. 

An impressive 19-0 win over Pinegree propelled them into the Elite Eight where their title hopes were dashed in a 15-7 loss to Milton.

“I thought we competed well and made it pretty deep into the tournament which was good,” said Weidman. “I was happy with how well we performed on both sides of the ball.”

The Pioneers got contributions from a host of players starting with captains Louis Ellis, Kyle Hawes, and Alex Boustris. Nick Kinnon got most of the snaps at quarterback but Jack Razzaboni chipped in with some timely TD passes as well. Other standouts included Cooper Marengi, Jay Ndansi, Peter Look, Andy Depalma, Alex Gildea, and Nathan Drislane. 
The defense was a particular area of interest as the Pioneers will be breaking in an all new corps of pass defenders and the newcomers did well. Hawes led the way along with Marengo, Kinnon, Jared Lemieux, Ndansi, Zack Huynh, and Tyler Murphy. 

“It was encouraging to see some of the juniors step up and make some big plays against teams like Billerica and Gloucester,” said Lynnfield assistant coach Pat Lamusta. 

"Our scoring was pretty spread out,” Weidman said. “We had some guys who haven’t had a lot of varsity experience step up and do some things which is what we were looking for. We need to see who can help out and make some plays. It was good day.”

Schedule all set
So much for the past. On to the future.

The Pioneer schedule through the end of October is all set. After a week of practices, the Pioneers will ramp up for the season with three Big Boy scrimmages, all on the road. They begin by jumping up three divisions to take on Masco, the largest school in the new Division 2, on Saturday, August 27th at 9 am in Topsfield. (Lynnfield is in the new Division 3A. More on that later). The Pioneers then travel to take on 2A Salem on August 30 at 4:30 pm, and move on to face 2A Melrose September 2 at 4:00 pm.

Since the late 1980's, the final scrimmage of the preseason on Labor Day weekend has been against Northeast Metro Tech in Wakefield. However, due to the divisional realignment (again more on that later), the Pioneers are now in the same division as Northeast. Since they could potentially meet in the post season, Weidman opted to find another opponent for the third scrimmage and settled on the Red Raiders, a perennial Middlesex League power. The three scrimmage opponents will easily be the largest schools the Pioneers face all year and will provide a good toughening up for the regular season.

Things don't get a whole lot easier when the Pioneers kick off the regular season. They start off with a visit to the newly refurbished War Memorial Stadium in Newburyport on Friday, September 9th at 7 pm. Let's hope they excavated and buried the ghosts that have haunted the Pioneers for decades up there when they dug up the old field. The Pioneers did finally end a 13 game losing streak in the old stadium that stretched back to 1986 with a convincing 32-0 win in 2014. 

The Clippers will sail in under a new head coach, Mike Levine, a New Jersey native who has been coaching in Texas for the past seven years. Levine takes over for Ed Gaudiano who retired after 28 years as Newburyport head coach. 

The Pioneers return home for a tough home opener against Danvers, the largest school in the new Division 2A, on Friday, September 16 at 7 pm. The Falcons made it to the D3 state semi-finals last year but lost their bid for a Super Bowl berth falling to Melrose 24-7.

Lynnfield gets into their CAL Baker schedule in Amesbury on Friday, September 23 then returns to Pioneer Stadium for home games against Ipswich on Friday, September 30th and Manchester-Essex on Friday, October 7th.  Georgetown has left the CAL and will be playing an independent schedule so the Pioneers have a bye the weekend of October 15-16. 

“We looked for someone to fill that date,” said Weidman, “but then I figured we are going to be a young team so being able to practice for a week without preparing specifically for another team would be helpful. It will be like a second week of preseason." 

The Pioneers wrap up their Baker League schedule on the road against Hamilton-Wenham on Saturday, October 22 in their only day game of the regular season. 

Depending on the results of those first six games, the Pioneers will either move on to the Division 3A North Playoffs or have their remaining schedule filled with three games against other non-playoff teams. Barring a trip to the Super Bowl, the Pioneers will wrap up the 2016 season at home on Thanksgiving Day, November 24th at 10:30 am against North Reading.  

Divisional Realignment
In an effort to balance out the divisions, the MIAA has realigned from six divisions into eight. The football committee realized that the divisions had become "bottom heavy" with the lower divisions having many more teams than the top divisions. To even things out, they created eight divisions of 12 teams each designated as D1, 1A, 2, 2A, 3, 3A, 4, and 4A. Placements were determined using male enrollments in grades 9-12.

The Pioneers (320 up from 305 in 2013), have been placed in Division 3A, the sixth largest division in the North, a drop of two divisions from last year’s D4 assignment. They go from being the second smallest school in last year’s 16-team D4 to the second largest school in this season’s new D3A. Fellow CAL league members Hamilton-Wenham and Ipswich will join the Pioneers. Five of the 12 schools in the division actually have higher enrollments than Lynnfield, but for placement purposes, vocational schools were cut by two thirds. 

Should the Pioneers make the playoffs, they will be competing against Matignon (411 combined with St. Joseph Prep), Stoneham (304), Hamilton-Wenham (279), Winthrop (274), Ipswich (266), St. Mary’s (235 after a plus 1.3 multiplier as a private school), Shawsheen Tech (231 after an 0.3 multiplier), Whittier Vocational (218 after the multiplier), Greater Lawrence Tech (215 after the multiplier), Northeast Metro Tech (200 after the multiplier) and Boston Latin (765). By agreement, all Boston Public Schools were placed in lower divisions, which is the reason Boston Latin was placed in this smaller division. Eight of the 12 teams will qualify for the playoffs instead of eight out of 16, which was the case last season. 

Despite now being one of the larger schools in their division, Weidman still thinks the Pioneers are in for some tough battles should they make the playoffs.

“If you look at some of the teams that we’re with, the competition is going to be similar,” he said. “You have Stoneham, St. Mary’s, and Winthrop and some other tough matchups. Obviously any time you play in the playoffs you’re still going to have dogfights against teams."

North Reading (407, now the second largest school in the CAL behind only Masco) was placed in D2A, two divisions higher than the Pioneers. They appealed their placement but were denied by the MIAA along with all other 16 schools who appealed their placements. To stay the Pioneers' arch rivals aren't happy with their assignment would be an understatement. 

“The MIAA hasn’t done us any favors but we can’t control their actions,” said Hornet head coach Jeff Wall. “This isn’t the first time we have climbed the mountain. Our athletes are aware of the challenges that lie ahead and are preparing diligently. To their credit, they aren’t phased by the move but rather accept is as an opportunity to prove themselves.”

The Hornets find themselves in a division made up of mostly Northeast Conference and Middlesex League teams. Should the Hornets make the playoffs, they will be competing against Danvers (494 enrollment), Marblehead (485), Burlington (479), Wakefield (461), Melrose (456), Gloucester (436), Wayland (434), Bedford (429), Wilmington (419), Dracut (393), and Salem (391 – adjusted down from 489 because they are a Comprehensive School). 

As for the rest of the CAL, Masco (632) is in Division 2, Newburyport (370), Triton (346), Pentucket (333), and Amesbury (331) were placed in D3. Manchester Essex (365 when combined with Rockport) and Georgetown (188) - who has gone independent and will not be playing a CAL football schedule this season – were placed in D4.

The Pioneers' placement provides the Pioneers with an opportunity to amass more points during the regular season. Matchups against now higher division Newburyport and Amesbury will be worth 12 points instead of 10 as will their game against Danvers. The other three CAL Baker games will be worth 10 points each.

One other interesting twist. Since the there is no division 3A in Massachusetts West, the Central, North and South will have a rotating bye into the Super Bowl should they win their division. By luck of the draw, the North - the Pioneers' division - has the bye this year.

Playoff system here to stay
When the current playoff system was instituted in 2013, it was supposed to be for a two year trial. However, the plan has been in operation for three years and the many schools who were not happy about the system, had been clamoring for another vote. The vote took place in April and the system was approved 161-105, a larger margin than the original approval in 2012. That means the current format is here to stay for the foreseeable future with tweaks made to adjust as the years go on.

One of those adjustments was the elimination of the automatic qualifier for the second place finisher in the league. This eliminates a situation where teams with a lesser record were getting into the playoffs where teams with better records but in tougher leagues were being shut out.

Spicing up Thanksgiving
One of the biggest complaints of the opponents of the playoff system was that it devalued the Thanksgiving Day games. The CAL has moved to address that by voting to include Thanksgiving Day games to determine league champions. That eliminates the need for holiday rivals to play twice - once in the regular season and then again on Thanksgiving. 

The Pioneers were not affected by this since North Reading is in the CAL Kinney, so the Tday game was never going to be a league game anyway. The only teams affected now are Pentucket-Triton, and Hamilton-Wenham-Ipswich. They will no longer play before the playoffs so the Kinney and Baker championships could hinge on those matches on the holiday.

The change also means there will not be an automatic qualifier from either CAL league. Playoff qualification will be determined strictly by the division ratings.

General change
Speaking of changes in the CAL, Hamilton Wenham will have a new old face at the helm this year. Andrew Morency, a member of the Beverly Hall of Fame, has returned home to take over as head coach of the Panthers. Morency led the Generals as they became the primary league rival of the Pioneers over the past decade. Morency spent 10 seasons with H-W compiling a 58-47 record with two CAL titles, four playoff appearances and a Super Bowl trip.

The Generals will be in good hands however as the new head man will be Jim Pugh, the former long time head coach at Masco. Pugh led the Chieftains for 26 years, won 178 games, seven CAL titles, and two Super Bowl appearances. He retired following the 2014 season but after a year as offensive coordinator at Malden Catholic, couldn't resist the lure of returning to the CAL. It should be an interesting change for Pugh who will be sharing the sidelines with a little more than half of the 60+ players he regularly suited up at Masco.

That's it for now. Check back soon and don't forget to follow all the Pioneer action with my coverage in the Lynnfield Villager.