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.

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