Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Pioneer Gridblog Report - Final Edition

by Tom Condardo

North Reading Leftovers

The short-staffed Pioneers had no business being in this game. Yet there they were with 5:35 to go in the game, playing with a backup quarterback and backup running backs driving for what could have been the go-ahead touchdown.

"If we had gotten that in, we were definitely going for two," Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman told me after the game.

But then came the back-breaking, game-ending bad snap/fumble and North Reading turned what might have been a 21-20 Lynnfield lead into a 27-13 heart-breaking loss. But in defeat, this game told you more about this year's team than all the blowout wins over Newburyport, Amesbury, Winthrop, Manchester-Essex, and Bedford ever could: The 2017 Pioneers had heart and guts.

This 60th game between the rivals could have gotten ugly in a hurry and it looked like we were headed that way early. The explosive Hornets gashed the Pioneers on their first two drives gobbling up 134 of their 311 rushing yards and jumping out to a 14-0 lead.

But the Pioneer defense stiffened and held the Hornets offense to only one more TD. The Lynnfield defense, on the arms and legs of Matt Mortellite, then got in gear to cut the lead to 14-6 just before the quarterback's day ended on a spinning tackle right before the half.

But the resilient Pioneers kept at it. Junior Brett Cohee showed his mastery of the spread run game making the right reads and picking up 87 rushing yards including a 35 yard scamper that made it 20-13 after captain Nick Kinnon's PAT. With a quarter and a half to go, the Pioneers were in business.

However, it was not to be on this holiday morning, but it wasn't for lack of effort or determination.

Much of grit was the result of the stellar leadership of captains Kinnon, Cooper Marengi, Nathan Drislane, Harry Collins, and Anthony Murphy (whose absence in the game due to a broken leg suffered against Watertown was huge). Coupled with the loss of Mortellite for the second half and the loss of several other key players due to disciplinary reasons, and the Pioneers faced a mountain just too steep to climb.

"We have definitely had to deal with adversity all year," Drislane told me after the game. "It's been kind of a common theme. It was again today, especially when our quarterback went down. I'm proud of what we did today with so many things fighting against us."

"For all these young guys to step up in what we consider one of the biggest games of our career is huge," added Marengi. "We just told the guys to be confident in what they were doing. We told them they are in that position for a reason and we trust them to make the plays and they ended up doing pretty well."

"We did alright," Weidman summed up. "The kids we asked to hop in did a nice job and the kids that have been there all year really played hard. We were really close to pulling this one out."

Champs Again
Lost in the disappointment was the fact that 20 miles to the north, the Ipswich Tigers were in the process of helping to secure the Pioneers' sixth straight CAL championship. Ipswich upset Hamilton-Wenham 22-20 in overtime leaving the three teams in a tie with 3-1 league records.

"It wasn't really an up and down year," said Weidman. "Hamilton-Wenham outplayed us. That's the only game I can say was a real disappointment. But give credit to them. They outplayed us that day in every way and I would have like to see a little better performance that night but other than that we were right there. Watertown we played tough in some tough circumstances with the weather and then today we played through some tough circumstances as well but I can't complain. I really can't."

Deja Vu 
Thursday morning's game brought back some bad memories of the 2011 Thanksgiving game on the same field when another short-handed Pioneer squad fell to the Hornets 37-18. Like this year, the Pioneers went into the game without their starting running back. That year is was Mike Thomas who was out with a collarbone and outside linebacker/placekicker/backup quarterback Alex Roper.

And again like last week, they lost their quarterback to concussion symptoms in the second quarter when starter Mike Karavetsos took a hit to the head on a nine yard run. With Roper unavailable, Weidman was forced to jump start the career of Danny Sullivan.

The freshman, alternating with sophomore Matt Kramich, hung in there - all 5'6" 135 lbs of him - and picked up the first of his eventual 29 career TD passes. On the Pioneers' first play of the second half from their own 20, Sullivan reared back and drilled a perfect pass to a streaking Alex Pascucci who got behind the Hornet defense and raced all the way in for the score. It gave Lynnfield a short-lived 18-16 lead, but the depleted Pioneers couldn't hold off the Hornets' devastating running game.

Still Ahead
Despite the loss, the Pioneers still lead the series with the Hornets 35-25. They hold a 1013-824 scoring edge. It was the second loss in a row to North Reading, the only time the Pioneers have suffered consecutive losses to their rivals in the past 10 years.

Unlucky 13
It was only the second time this season the Pioneers have scored 13 points or less, the other being the seven they tallied against H-W and both resulted in losses. In the past ten years of the Weidman Era, the Pioneers are 2-15 in such games and five of those came in the coach's first season in 2008. The two wins both came against Ipswich, 13-7 in 2008 and 13-6 in in 2011.

Top Gun
The unceremonious end of Mortellite's day at Arthur Kenney Field brought to a conclusion a stellar career that puts him in the company of all time great Pioneer passers. Mortellite's two year career numbers puts him in the conversation with Danny Sullivan and Gino Cohee, two other elite passers of the past three decades.

Mortellite's 38 career touchdown passes shattered the previous mark of 30 set by Cohee from 2007 to 2010. His 21 TD passes last season tied him with Sullivan (2014) for the most in a single season. He also tied the record for most career two-point conversion passes with 10, a 45-year old record set by Steve Mucica from 1960-62.

Mortellite's 1,878 yards passing this year is the best ever for a single season since at least 1989 (and probably all time considering how offenses were run before the advent of the spread offense), topping Sullivan's 1,741 in 2014. Mortellite's 68.1% completion percentage this year is second only to Sullivan's 69.1% in 2013. Mortellite's two-year total of 3,609 yards is almost 700 yards more than Sullivan's second most 2,954 career total.

Mortellite's NFL passer rating this season was 128.8 a tenth of a point behind Sullivan's 128.98 in 2014. His two year passer rating was 118.1.

Not bad for someone who stepped into a brand new offense when he transferred in from Malden Catholic as a junior last year. He struggled in his first game against Newburyport throwing three interceptions and no TD's in the 32-12 loss. It would be the last game in which he ever played that he DIDN't throw a touchdown pass. He would go on to throw TD passes in 20 straight game culminating in the 24 yard beauty he tossed to Jason Ndansi in the second quarter Thursday morning. Even more impressive, after three picks in game one, he was intercepted only eight more times in the next 20 games.

Truly an outstanding career.

Catching a Record
Captain Nick Kinnon caught 7 TD passes this year and 8 last year to set a career touchdown reception mark of 15, edging Jon Knee who caught 14 in 2013-14. Kinnon also scored 68 points giving him 178 for his career placing him 6th on the all time scoring list. Captain Anthony Murphy finished with 108 career points good enough for 16th on the all time list.

Data Points
- The 60 year Lynnfield record now stands at 317-275-11, an all time winning percentage of .526,
- The 337 points the Pioneers scored this season placed them fifth on the all time single season points scored list. Seven of the top ten teams on the list are from the Weidman Era.
- The 188 points against - a 17.1 ppg average - places them 40th on the all time points allowed list.
- It was the 16th Pioneer team to reach at least eight wins in a season. Six of those have come in the last 10 years.

That's it from here. Congrats to the Pioneers for another great season.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The Pioneer Gridblog Report - Thanksgiving Edition

by Tom Condardo

The Big Game Preview

The Pioneers and Hornets will meet on Thanksgiving Day for the 59th time on Thursday (actually its the 58th time on the holiday and 60th time overall. I'll explain the discrepancy in a bit) and both teams are hankering for more than just turkey.

The Pioneers are coming off a devastating 38-34 loss to Watertown in the D5 North Final (and the Raiders went on to get smushed by Dennis Yarmouth 41-3 last Friday) while the Hornets suffered a one point loss to Melrose (who is going to be playing for the D4 State Championship a week from Saturday). North Reading followed that up with a 21-7 loss to a tough, 8-2 Wilmington team last week.

So combined the rivals are 0-3 coming into the big game.

It normally takes a while to shake off the affects of a playoff game loss which may have been the case with the Hornets. The Pioneers struggled in the first halves against Watertown in 2013 and Greater Lawrence last year before clearing the cobwebs and coming back for wins. The Pioneers need to avoid a first half letdown or they will find themselves in a deep hole to a strong Hornet team at Arthur Kenney Field in North Reading.

"Sometimes having a game to get it out of your system is better but we're not in that situation," Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman told me. "So we need to find a way to be ready to go."

North Reading Battle Tested
The Hornets come into the game with a 6-4 record, but that is very deceptive. Their four losses have come at the hands of Melrose, Wilmington, Hamilton-Wenham, and Lynn English, teams that currently sport a combined 36-4 record. They swept the CAL Kinney beating Masco, Newburyport, Pentucket and Triton to capture the league title for the second straight year.

"They played some tough teams," said Weidman. "They're physical and very sound defensively."

Offensively, they will look to run the ball, nothing unusual sine the Hornets have a TOTAL of 54 yards passing in the past five Thanksgiving Day games combined. They will unleash a stable of talented runners led by Jake Bedell who does most of the heavy lifting. Alex D'Ambrosio and Ryan Edison, will also get some carries.

Quarterback Kyle Bythrow, who returned for the Melrose playoff game after missing five games in the middle of the season, is also a dangerous runner. He will also throw the ball as he did last year picking up 58 yards and a touchdown in the Hornets' 21-20 win in Lynnfield.

Pioneers Feature Dangerous Offense
The Pioneers will have to overcome the loss of leading rusher and starting inside linebacker captain Anthony Murphy, who suffered a broken leg against Watertown. Murphy (535 yards, 4.9 yards per carry, 10 touchdowns) was the thunder to Tyler Murphy's lighting (469 yards, 10 TD's), giving the Pioneers a change of pace one-two punch.

Tyler Murphy and quarterback Matt Mortellite (358 yards rushing, 5 TD's) will have to pick up the slack in the running game. But with the forecast calling for a clear day, look for Mortellite and the Pioneers' combustible receiving corps to fill the North Reading sky with footballs tomorrow morning.

Mortellite has passes for 1,778 yards and 16 TD's this year as he keeps adding to his career TD passes record which now stands at 37. He has plenty of targets in captain Nick Kinnon (698 yards, 7 TD's), Jason Ndansi (337 yards and 4 TD's), and Peter Look (402 yards, 2 TDs). Murphy is also dangerous out of the backfield with 113 yards and a TD.

Common Opponents
The Pioneers and Hornets have only three common opponents this year. Both beat Newburyport: the Hornets 32-14, the Pioneers twice 32-0 and 26-7. Both beat Wayland, NR 17-14 and the Pioneers 28-26 in OT. Both lost to Hamilton Wenham, NR 28-14 and the Pioneers 35-7.

The game should be evenly matched and offer a delectable appetizer for everyone's Thanksgiving Dinner to come.

What's the Number?
So earlier I noted that this is officially the 59th Thanksgiving Day game. However, the 1989 game was actually played on the Saturday following Thanksgiving due to a snowstorm. It was also the day then Pioneer head coach Bill Adams was getting married so he had to hightail it from North Reading to get to his wedding.

Unfortunately, the Hornets were killjoys scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to erase a 14-13 Lynnfield lead to upend the Pioneers 28-14.

And this will be the 60th meeting between the schools, but the first game was played the last week of October in 1958 so is not officially recognized, which has always been a pet peeve of mine. Officially the Pioneers lead the series 35-23, but the Hornet won that first game 26-12 so Lynnfield really holds a 35-24 edge.

Let There Be Light
This will be the one and only day game the Pioneers will play all season. They haven't played in daylight since last Thanksgiving. Since Pioneer Stadium's opening in 2014, the Pioneers have played 39 total games, only eight in the daytime. The Pioneers are 5-3 in those games with the only losses coming to Holliston 26-0 in 2014, Pentucket 28-27 in 2015 and North Reading 21-20 last year.

My Top Five Thanksgiving Day Games
Tomorrow I will be covering my 42nd Lynnfield/North Reading game. Yikes. My first came in 1976 when I was a cub reporter/advertising sales/paper delivery person for the North Reading Transcript, fresh out of Suffolk University with my brand new journalism degree.

Back in the day, the games usually ended up as mudfests as the Middle School and Arthur Kenney Field melted as the temps rose through the morning.

There were plenty of exciting Thanksgiving Day games before I came on the scene - the 1960 classic between two undefeated powerhouses is probably the all time number one - but this list is made up of only games I have witnessed personally.

So as we get ready for the 60th meeting between the Chestnut Street Rivals, it's time to fire up the LHS Football Wayback Machine. Here in reverse order is my personal Top Five Most Exciting North Reading-Lynnfield games.

Number 5: 2002 - Stung at the Buzzer 13-12

The excitement for the 2002 game started when Mother Nature dumped an early season snow storm just before Thanksgiving. The DPW along with the football team and other volunteers worked all day Wednesday to clear the field for the holiday morning game.

Their efforts were not in vain as the large crowd that turned out at the Middle School field were treated to a real nailbiter.

The Hornets were running a double wing in 2002 and they took the opening kick and drove 78 yards over the snow covered field to take a 6-0 lead. Jamie Solomon and Chris Bryant helped the Pioneers get in gear late in the first half. Quarterback Mike Parizale connected with Andy Poor and Jared Polansky to get the Pioneers to the NR three yard line. But the Hornets stuffed Polansky at the one to preserve their 6-0 lead.

The Pioneers broke through on the opening drive of the second half when Chris Stivers took a reverse handoff and sprinted 53 yards for the score. The PAT try was wide but the score was now tied at 6-6.

Lynnfield took the lead in the fourth quarter on a clock eating drive capped by a six yard Bryant run to give the Pioneers a 12-6 lead with three minutes to play.

The Hornets began their final drive at their own 39 and methodically moved down the field. They got to the Lynnfield two yard line with 20 seconds left. Quarterback Steve Labo took the snap, tried to find a receiver, could not, tucked it under his arm and plowed into the endzone for what appeared to be the tying touchdown. However, the Hornets were flagged for illegal motion which nullified the score and pushed them back to the seven yard line with seven seconds left in the game.

The final play of the game was one of the most bizarre in North Reading-Lynnfield history. Labo took the snap and handed off to John Murphy who was immediately grabbed by Matt Talis for what appeared to be the game winning tackle.

In desperation, Murphy shoveled the ball to Labo who was just standing at the three yard line watching Murphy getting stopped. Finding the ball in his hands, he turned and stumbled into the endzone with no time remaining to tie the score. Labo then drilled the extra point for the 13-12 win over the stunned Pioneers.

Number 4: 1981 - Another Stunning Comeback Defeat 20-15

The Pioneers were heavily favored in this one, coming into the game 6-3 to North Reading's 3-6. The game was billed as a defensive struggle, but the Hornets came out fired up and scored first. Mark Tremblay bulled in from the two and Brian Jones added the PAT and NR led 7-0.

The Hornets made it 14-0 midway in the second when Les Montford hit Jeff Hull with a ten yard scoring strike. The Pioneers got on the board late in the half when Andy Nekoroski plowed in from the two yard line. Nekoroski added the two point conversion and Lynnfield trailed 14-8 at the half.

The Pioneers appeared to right the ship with under three minutes to play when quarterback Scott Sanborn tossed a screen pass to Nekoroski who zigged and zagged his way to a 62 yard touchdown. Joe Krieger added the PAT to take a 15-14 lead with only 2:57 left in the game.

But the Hornets were not done. Billy Germano returned the kick to the 38 and a late hit call on the Pioneers gave NR the ball at midfield. On the next play, Montford found David Lee down the right sideline for a 51 yard strike to get the Hornets to the Lynnfield two yard line. Two plays later, Montford slashed into the endzone for the score. Jones missed the PAT but the Hornets led 20-15 with less than a minute to play.

The Pioneers did not quit. Sanborn hit Jeff Perkins for 28 yards and a head slap penalty on the Hornets moved the ball to the NR 29 yard line with less than 30 seconds to play. But the Pioneers could get no further and Sanborn was sacked on the final play of the game to seal the Hornet victory.

Number 3: 2000 - Veinot leads the way 29-23

This was one of the highest scoring Lynnfield-North Reading games and get my vote as the second mod exciting in the past 35 years.

Tailback Danny Veinot was the story in this one as the outstanding runner finished with 277 yards and scored all four Lynnfield touchdowns and 27 of the Pioneers' 29 points.

Veinot got the Pioneers on the board on their first drive with a four yard run. He booted the PAT and Lynnfield led 7-0. The Hornets answered when quarterback Tom Tone hit A. J. Richardson for a 43 yard TD to tie the score at 7-7.

On the first play following the NR touchdown, Veinot responded with a 63 yard run and PAT to give the Pioneers the lead at 14-7.

The Pioneers appeared to be taking control but quarterback Jimmy Motzkin turned an ankle and had to leave the game. But Veinot was hitting on all cylinders and scooted 38 yards for another TD. Backup QB Mike Parziale hit Brian McBride with the two point conversion and the Pioneers appeared to be in control 22-7.

The Pioneers cut into the lead when Tone his Matt Cecchini for a 22 yard TD pass to make it 22-13 at the half. The Hornets then began to stop the Pioneer offense and crept closer in the third when Drew Canan scored from the three to make it 22-20.

The Hornets were driving again, but Veinot went to work on the other side of the ball and picked off a Tone pass to end the threat. At this point, Motzkin reentered the game and seemed to energize the Pioneers.

Motzkin hit Drew Barraford and McBride on consecutive passes to get the Pioneers to the NR 14 yard line. Veinot took it in from there to give the Pioneers some breathing room at 29-20.

The Hornets nailed a field goal on their next possession to make it 29-23. But the Hornets would not go away quietly. They got the ball back with 1:57 left in the game and marched to the Pioneer 21 yard line. On fourth down, with 23 second left, Tone attempted one last pass into the endzone. It was picked off by...guess who...Dan Veinot to preserve the win.

Number 2: 1980 - For All the Marbles 7-6

This was the most exciting Pioneer-Hornet game I have witnessed not only because of the play on the field, but also because of the stakes involved.

The Hornets came into the game as the two time defending CAL Champs with a 7-1 league record (8-1 overall). The Pioneers were 6-1-1 in the CAL and 6-2-1 overall. If they beat the Hornets and Amesbury could knock off Newburyport, the Pioneers would take the crown.

So this was in affect a CAL championship game.

The two teams battled through a scoreless tie as the day started cold then warmed up turning the Middle School field into a quagmire. With 1:14 left in the game, Andy Nekoroski plowed in from the three to give the Pioneers a 6-0 lead.

Playing like the champs they were, the Hornets came back. Warren McNeill hit Jeff Hull on two post patterns to get the ball to the Lynnfield three yard line. With only 23 seconds to play in the game, Billy Welch bulled in from the one to tie the score. Marco Vittozzi nailed the PAT to seal the win and sew up a third straight CAL Championship for the Hornets.

If it makes anyone feel better, the Clippers beat Amesbury 26-6 so even if the Pioneers had held on, they would not have earned a piece of the title.

Number 1: 2012 - Playoff Bound 14-7
This was the final year before the current playoff format was adopted and getting to the post season was a lot more difficult. The only way to earn a shot at the Super Bowl was to win your league title. The Pioneers (7-2) and Hornets (8-1) faced off at the Middle School field in a battle for the league championship. The winner would move on to the Super Bowl semi-finals and the loser would go have some turkey dinner.

The game was billed as a battle of contrasting styles with the Pioneers "sideline to sideline, spread 'em and shred 'em" attack vs. the Hornets "toe-to-toe, pack 'em in, throwback single wing" ground game.

The Pioneers came out on top in both style and substance. They held the dangerous single wing and super back Carl Lipani to only 145 total yards. The Lynnfield Spread meanwhile exploded for 319 total yards, 275 of it on the ground led by junior Kyle McGah.

McGah carried four times for 55 yards on a 63 yard Pioneer scoring drive late in the opening quarter including the final nine for his 13th TD of the year. Alex Roper nailed the PAT and the Pioneers led 7-0.

The Hornets knotted the score midway in the second with Lipani edging into the endzone to make it 7-7.

Midway in the third quarter, captain quarterback Mike Karavetsos broke loose for a 65 yard run to the eight yard line. Three plays later he bootlegged around the right side for a five yard TD that turned out to be a the winning score.

The Hornets answered by marching to the Lynnfield 30, but on fourth and three, Anthony Costa knifed through and cut down Lipani short of the first down. North Reading would not threaten again.

The Pioneers went on to defeat Amesbury for the second time, this one in a playoff at Lowell's Cawley Stadium, earning them a trip to the Super Bowl against Bishop Feehan.

So there it is. My top five.

Who knows. Maybe 2017 can crack the list on Thursday.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Pioneer Gridblog Report Week 10

by Tom Condardo

Watertown Leftovers

Well now we know how the Atlanta Falcons fans felt last February. Just as they thought a 28-3 lead with a quarter and a half to play was enough to get them a Lombardi Trophy, most Pioneer fans believed a 34-24 lead with 2:55 to play was enough for the Pioneers to punch their ticket to the Division 5 State Semi-finals.

But just as someone forget to tell the Patriots the game was over, Watertown was just as forgetful, pulling out a dramatic, heartbreaking 38-34 win with 11 seconds to play.

Instead of folding after Tyler Murphy galloped in for a 29 yard touchdown, the Raiders went to work. They moved quickly going 56 yards in eight plays in just over a minute and a half. Nick McDermott hit big John Korte with a six yard TD pass and the lead was cut to 34-31 with 1:15 to play.

"We just couldn't make them use enough time on the drive," head coach Neal Weidman told me after the game.

Watertown still needed to get the ball back and they did so by executing a perfect onside kick. Conor "Superfoot" Kennelly bounced it to the left side where Korte came down with it right on the 50 yard line. An inch less and the play would have been called back, but every break seemed to be going Watertown's way at this point.

"They got a perfect hop and it hopped up to a 6' 5" kid," said Weidman.

After two McDermott incompletions, the Raiders faced a 3rd and 10 from the 50. They converted on a backbreaking completion from McDermott to Kennelly to the 13 yard line. Kennelly pulled down the pass with Peter Look draped all over him. He couldn't have defended it any better but the 6'1" Kennelly took advantage of a couple of inch height advantage to make an incredible catch.

Two plays later McDermott swept in from the six for the winning score.

The Watertown comeback should not have come as a surprise. It was the third straight playoff game on the road that they have crawled out of the grave to pull out a win. In the opening round, they overcame 21-7 Swampscott lead in the first half and a 27-24 lead at the end of three quarters. But McDermott hit Korte on an 86 yard bomb with just over five minutes to play to win 31-27.

They cut it closer the following week when McDermott hit Kennelly for a 26 yard TD pass with 12 seconds to play to upend Somerville 21-20. Then came the 11 second stake in the heart of the Pioneers.

Something tells me Dennis-Yarmouth may want to pay attention Friday night, especially if they have a lead on the Raiders late in the game.

And also, now that you have some empathy for the Falcon Faithful, you may want to think twice before pulling on one of those 28-3 tee shirts,.

Long Distance
Watertown's Kennelly has a big foot, but Raider coach John Cacace may have been pushing it when he had the senior attempt a 48 yard field goal midway in the fourth period. Kennelly had earlier boomed a 37 yarder easily into the win at the school side of the field and this one was with the wind at his back. The ball landed in the end zone to the left of the goal post and the Pioneers still led 28-24.

Rare Occurence
Friday night was only the third time in school history the Pioneers failed to win when scoring 34 or more points. Going into the game, their record when scoring 34 or more was 76-2. The only losses came on Thanksgiving Day 2011 and in 2013 against Danvers both by the score of 42-35.

It was so cold....
So how cold was it? It was 27 degrees at kickoff with a howling wind from the north making it feel like single digits.

I've covered over 400 high school football games and I can count on both hands the number of games I've done from the press box. I prefer to be on the sideline because a) I have to take photos for the Villager and b) I always felt I got a much better feel for the game, listening to the players, coaches, and referees interact.

For example, in the Newburyport playoff game, the Clipper score was widely reported as a touchdown by quarterback Owen Bradbury who appeared to sneak into the end zone. That wasn't the case. Bradbury fumbled at the goal line and a scramble ensued with Newburyport's Thomas Murphy recovering it in the end zone.

The only way I know that was because I was standing on the goal line, saw the action and realized something was up. When the official trotted over to the sideline for the extra point, I asked him if it was a fumble. He answered "Yep it was a fumble and #10 recovered it in the end zone."

Anyway, I prefer to be down where the action is and that was my plan Friday night. So I underarmoured up, heavy winter coat, couple of fleeces and assumed my regular post on the sideline. Unfortunately, I neglected to take into account that my trusty Bic 4 Color pen contains ink made mostly of at 27 degrees, guess what? Ink freezes. So as the first half wore on, my pen began to malfunction. So at halftime, I had to hightail it up to the heated press box so I could chart the second half.

In terms of cold games, the only ones I can remember that came close was the division championship game in Winthrop in 2014 but according to the Weather Underground web site, it was only 34 degrees that night.

But the coldest was probably Thanksgiving Day 2002. Lynnfield was hit with four inches of heavy wet snow the day before and a frigid cold front came in right behind it. The Middle School Field was a frozen tundra ringed with snowbanks and the game time temperature was 25. The difference, however, was that the temperature rose throughout the game to about 30 by the end and the game was played in sunshine. Friday night the temp dropped throughout the game landing at around 23 by the bitter end.

Ironically, that 2002 game also resulted in a stunning, last second Pioneer defeat. With 20 seconds left in the game, the Pioneers led 12-6. But the Hornets had the ball on the Lynnfield two yard line. NR quarterback Steve Labo took the snap from center, looked to pass, found no receiver, tucked the ball under his arm and spun into the end zone for what appeared to be the game tying touchdown.

Fortunately for the Pioneers, a motion penalty on North Reading wiped out the score and pushed the ball back to the Lynnfield seven yard line with seven seconds left on the clock. On the game's final play, Labo handed off to Hornet running back John Murphy who was quickly grabbed by Matt Talis behind the line of scrimmage.

Bottled up by Talis, Murphy shoveled the ball forward to Labo who was standing at the three yard line where he gathered it in and stumbled into the end zone to tie the score with all zeroes showing on the clock. Labo calmly booted the extra point as the frozen Pioneer faithful watched in stunned disbelief at a victory that got away.

The good news? Early forecasts for next Thursday calls for a partly sunny morning with temps in the upper 30's.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Pioneer Gridblog Report Week 9

by Tom Condardo

Newburyport Leftovers, Watertown D5N Final Preview

Newburyport Leftovers
Keepaway was always a fun game to play when you were a kid. Two or more players would pass around a ball while another player in the middle would try to intercept it. Lots of fun except for the poor kid in the middle who could never get his or her hands on the ball.

Lynnfield opponents try to play a similar game when they face the Pioneers, figuring the best way to stop Lynnfield's high octane offense is to prevent them from getting the ball. It's a classic football approach to teams that can seemingly score at will.

When I mentioned that it seemed like keepaway was Newburyport's plan in last Friday's game, Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman responded, "I think that's a lot of teams' plans."

And for the most part, opponents have been successful at it. The "keeping away" part. Turning that into wins? Not so much.

For the season, Pioneer opponents have held the ball for 228 minutes to only 167 for Lynnfield. That's a 62 minute difference - equivalent to almost six full quarters of time of possession (TOP) advantage for Pioneer foes. There have been only two games this season where the Lynnfield has won the TOP battle: Amesbury (24:48-19:12) and Bedford (24:27-19:33).

The extended possession time hasn't translated into points or wins, however. That has a lot to do with what the teams have done with the ball when they have it. The Pioneers have scored 290 points or an average of one point for every 35 seconds of game time they have had the ball. On the other hand, it has taken Lynnfield opponents 112 seconds of game time for every point they have scored.

In Friday night's game, that ratio worked out just about perfectly for the Pioneers as they scored 26 points in 14 minutes of game time - one point every 32 seconds. That included the incredible end of first half in which the Pioneers raced 80 yards in 1:29 to score the go ahead TD with no time on the clock. That effort worked out to one point every 15 seconds.

For the night, the Pioneers had scoring drives of 4:26, 1:29, 0:15, and 0:06.

On their lone touchdown, the math worked out perfectly for Newburyport as well they consumed 13 minutes of clock and came away with 7 points, a point for every 111 seconds. Things didn't work out as well for the game in total. Despite holding the ball for more than twice as long as the Pioneers (29:56-14:04), they managed only that lone score. Their overall time to points ratio was one point for every 257 seconds of possession.

The moral of the story? It's not how long you hold the ball, it's what you do with it while you have it.

Conversion Time
One of the reasons the Clippers were able to control the clock, especially in the first half, was their ability to convert on third and especially fourth down. Newburyport was only 5 for 13 on third down but they were a backbreaking 4 for 5 on fourth down. The Pioneers were 4 for 7 on third down and 1 for 2 on fourth down.

Air Tight (Addendum)
All year I've been touting the stellar work of the Pioneer's defensive backs in shutting down opposing air attacks. I've neglected to give a little love to the defense's next level - the linebacking corps of captains Cooper Marengi and Anthony Murphy, Jack Razzaboni, Leo Quinn, and Hunter Allain,

That group stepped to the front again Friday accounting for both Pioneer interceptions. Marengi's pick halted a Clipper drive in the fourth quarter. Razzaboni made an athletic play midway in the final quarter not only blocking Owen Bradbury's pass at the Clipper 10 yard line but picking it off before it hit the ground. That set up Tyler Murphy's 10 yard score on the next play.

The bottom line is the entire defense is working together to make throwing the ball against the Pioneers' difficult. They are going to have to go to another level Friday against pass-happy Watertown, but more on that later.

Leading Man
The Pioneers picked up 242 yards of total offense, 175 of it passing. They managed only 67 yards on the ground. The Pioneers leading rusher? Junior Jaret Simpson with 26 yards on four carries, a solid 6.5 per carry average. Although all of it came on the Pioneers's final drive as time was running out, the lack of a Clipper bench meant he was still running against some Newburyport regulars.

Reversing the Curse
Although many (okay me) obsess over the Clippers dominance over the Pioneers over the years, the fact is Lynnfield has now beaten Newburyport in five of their last six meetings. That includes twice this year by a combined score of 58-7.

Happy Returns
Captain Nick Kinnon's TD kickoff return was the first for the Pioneers since 2015 when he did it against Manchester-Essex in game five. The last time someone did the trick at home was by Cam Rondeau in 2014, also against M/E. It was the 28th kickoff return for a touchdown in school history. The career record is 3 held by Matt Kramich (2012-13) and Shawn Egerton (1994-95).

Watertown D5N Final Preview
The Pioneers face their toughest test of the year Friday night when they host the powerful Watertown Raiders. That's the way it should be when you're playing for the Division Five North Championship and the right to move on to the state semi-finals.

The Raiders come in flying after impressive come-from-behind road wins over Swampscott and Somerville in the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Raider coach John Cacace is playing up his sixth seeded squad as an overachieving, underdog Cinderella team but that is so much locker room, pep talk balderdash. He was even quoted in the local paper as Watertown being the "smallest school in the division."

Anyone paying attention realizes that Watertown is always one of the top two or three teams in the division. And - Fake News Alert - they are the fifth LARGEST school in the division with 352 boys grades 9 through 12. The Pioneers with 320 are the smallest.

The only reason the Raiders fell to sixth place in the playoff rankings is because of their brutal schedule. They play in the tough Middlesex League made up of mostly strong D4 schools.

They finished the regular season 3-4 but their four losses were against Melrose 28-14 (playing in the D4 Finals), Wilmington 32-17 (lost in the D4 semi-finals), Stoneham 27-23 (playing in the D6 Finals) and Wakefield 21-14 (didn't make the D4 playoffs, sorry Tom Waisnor). The Raiders's three wins came against Arlington Catholic 50-28 (lost in the D6 semi-finals), Plymouth South 48-29 (didn't make D4 playoffs) and Burlington 35-20 (didn't make the D4 playoffs).

So coming into the playoffs, they were as battled tested as any team in the division and it has showed. In round one, they trailed third seeded Swampscott 21-7 early, then cut the lead to 21-17 before halftime with a TD and 25 yard field goal in the final 39 seconds of the second quarter. The Raiders took a 24-21 lead late in the third quarter but the Big Blue jumped back out front 27-24 at the end of three. Watertown took the lead for good midway in the fourth to advance with a 31-27 win.

Last week against Somerville, dressing only 27 players, the Raiders took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter only to see the Highlanders score twice to knot the game 14-14 at halftime. With less then four minutes to go in the game, Somerville scored to take a 20-14 lead. They missed the PAT which would prove fatal.

The Raiders moved down field and with 12 seconds left, quarterback Nick McDermott found Conor Kennelly with a 26 yard TD pass. Kennelly then kicked the PAT for the 21-20 win, punching their ticket for a trip to Lynnfield for the division championship.

Watertown may have a thin roster, but they are heavy with talent. McDermott is a gifted passer and runner and will be the best QB the Pioneers have faced all season. He has two superb targets in big John Korte (6'3, 200 lbs) and Kennelly. They also can do serious damage on the ground with Mange Camara who ran for 104 yards against Somerville, and Matt Muldrew.

"Watertown looks like Watertown," Weidman told me. "They're the same tough team. They grind."

This will be the third game in five years between the schools. Their first every meeting came in 2013 after both squads were bounced in the division semi-finals. The Pioneers shook off a sleepy first half to climb out of a 14-0 hole and win a thriller 21-20.

Two years later, the teams met in the opening round in Lynnfield and the Raiders upset the Pioneers 25-17. That is the only loss in seven playoff games for Lynnfield at Pioneer Stadium.

The forecast for Friday night is brutal, below freezing cold with winds approaching 20 mph. So despite the fact that both teams love to throw, this one could come down to a ground battle.

Game time at frigid Pioneer Stadium is 7 pm. Dress warm.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Pioneer Gridblog Report Week 8

by Tom Condardo

Bedford Leftovers, D5N Playoff Update, Newburyport Preview

Bedford Leftovers
Let's file this one under "taking care of business."

There were two goals for Friday night's opening playoff matchup with the Buccaneers. First - and most important - win and advance to the D5N semi-finals. A secondary goal was to shake off any lingering hangover from the disappointing loss to Hamilton-Wenham.

On point one, mission accomplished - rather easily as it turned out which is frankly what should have been the case. The Pioneers sputtered out of the gate but kicked it into high gear in the second quarter with three TD's to ice this one by halftime.

And give some credit to Bedford for the home team's slow start. Yes the Bucs won only two games but I stand by my assertion that their record was a bit deceiving. They did play a tough schedule and played some teams close for long periods of time, but they are young team with only eight seniors and eventually that surfaces.

Aiding the Buccaneer cause Friday night was the return of Peter Kapanides. The 6'4" 195 junior was the starting quarterback at the beginning of the year but suffered a broken thumb against Wilmington in the second game of the year and hadn't played QB since. With playoff time arriving, Kapanides returned to throw (3 for 13, 48 yards and an interception), catch (4 receptions, 26 yards), and run (5 carrries, 48 yards) the ball for the Bucs.

"He's a good athlete," Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman told me after the game. "Obviously he hasn't had a chance to play much this year. He's definitely a big, strong athletic kid."

Having him back no doubt gave the young Bucs a shot of energy which I think we saw in the first quarter.

Which brings us to goal number two: washing off the stain of the H-W loss. No doubt the lopsided loss shook the confidence of the Pioneers. They had run into some resistance against Wayland and Ipswich, but no one had been able to manhandle them the way the Generals did.

Friday night's first quarter was shaky for both squads as Bedford had four penalties and the Pioneers had three. But as young teams will do, the Bucs made the first big mistake when captain Harry Collins broke through and blocked Bedford's first punt giving the Pioneers the ball at the Bedford 20.

The first good sign came three plays later when the Pioneers quickly cashed in with a three yard Anthony Murphy run. Captain Nick Kinnon, handling the kicking chores again, booted the PAT and the Pioneers led 7-0. Lynnfield's downfall against H-W was their inability to cash in on opportunities. This was an early sign that was not to be the case against Bedford.

The Pioneers couldn't do much the rest of the quarter, but unleashed their speed demons in the second to score three rushing touchdowns in less than seven minutes. Quarterback Matt Mortellite, showing a couple of extra gears, sprinted in for two of them - one on a scramble for 18 yards and the other on an all out dash for 45 yards. Tyler Murphy showed off his jets with a 20 yard TD run just before the half. That one was set up by a 44 yard Mortellite to Peter Look pass completion.

So up 28-0 at the half, the memory (nightmare?) of the H-W loss was far in the rear view mirror.

So on the two goals for the game? Done and done.

Alternating Memory
Interesting to watch the Bucs alternate quarterbacks for much of the game. Bedford coach Tom Tone shuttled between Kapanides and sophomore Gregory Cormier depending on the situation.

No doubt Tone was inspired by his own experience as a quarterback for North Reading. I remember when he was a junior, he alternated every other play with Matt James, in a system Hornet coach Ed Sapienza used.

Tone was 1 for 4 for 34 yards and a touchdown passing and carried only once for -1 yard while James was 4 for 6 passing for 22 yards and a touchdown and carries five times for seven yards in a 28-12 North Reading win.

Triple Threat
Senior lineman Zack Huynh pulled off an rare triple play Friday in Friday's game. On third and 7 for Bedford from the Pioneer 27, Huynh broke through the line and sacked Cormier for a six yard loss. Actually Cormier stumbled and Huynh covered him up but it's still a sack on the stat sheet.

On the very next play, Huynh picked off Cormier at the Lynnfield 23 for his first career interception. That ended a Bedford scoring bid that would have tied the game and launched an 85-yard Lynnfield TD march that made it 13-0 in favor of the Pioneers. Then early in the second quarter with the Pioneers leading 13-0, Huynh recovered a muffed punt on the Lynnfield 18 yard line. Sack, pick, and fumble recovery. Not a bad night's work,.

Look-ing Good
Opponents have to pick their poison when deciding how to defend the Pioneers speedy receiving corps. They usually start with Kinnon and Jason Ndansi, but they can't cover everyone. The biggest beneficiary lately has been senior Peter Look.

Look has been the Pioneers' leading receiver the past two games catching 4 for 80 yards against Hamilton-Wenham and then 4 for 78 and a two point conversion against Bedford. For the season, Look is now the team's second leading pass catcher with 16 receptions for 299 yards and a pair of TDs. He trails only Kinnon who leads the team with 25 catches for 582 yards 6 TDs and a pair of two point conversions.

Running Wild
It's clear that Mortellite is one of the league's best passers, but lately he's been doing just as much damage with his legs. In the Pioneers' first five games, the quarterback did not have a rushing TD. In the last three games, he has four, two against Ipswich and another two against Bedford. His ability to run off the read option gives the Pioneers another valuable weapon.

By the way, Mortellite's second touchdown was the 1000th rushing TD in the history of the school.

Air Tight
In the last two games, the Pioneers have faced two teams who like to sling the ball around. And in H-W's case, they had to defend Billy Whelan, the second best quarterback in the league. Despite the increased passing activity, the Pioneer secondary is still sporting some eye-popping numbers.

The group of Kinnon, Ndansi, Look, Tyler Murphy and Justin Ysalguez have allowed only 30 completion in 92 attempts - a 33% completion rating. They've allowed only 326 yards, a paltry 3.5 yards per attempt. They've given up only 4 touchdowns and picked off 11 interceptions. That works out to a 14.49 rating using the NFL passer rating formula.

For comparison, Mortellite is 79 for 120 (66%) for 1,435 yards, 13 TD's, and 4 interceptions. His passer rating is 128.99.

Joining the Century Club
Anthony Murphy's touchdown Friday night gives him 64 points for the year and 102 for his career making him the 21st member of the Pioneer Century Scoring Club. Of those, 11 have played in the Weidman Era. Murphy is now #18 on the all time scoring list.

Kinnon's 8 points gives him 159 for his career and lifts him into sixth place all time. He passed Jamie Solomon who had 158 from 2001-2003.

600 Club
Finally, the Friday night's game was the 600th in school history. The Pioneers now have an all time record of 316-273-11.

Grand Openings
Since the inception of the new playoff format in 2013, the Pioneers have qualified five straight years. They have enjoyed much success in opening games. The win over Bedford was their fourth opening playoff win in five tries. The only year they failed to advance to the second round was 2015 when they were upset by Watertown 25-17.

The Pioneers have played 13 playoff games in the Weidman Era with an overall record of 7-6.

Lynnfield's playoff history over the past nine years;

2009: Austin Prep 26 Lynnfield 20 (OT) D3A EMass Semi-Finals
2012: Lynnfield 35 Amesbury 14 D3A EMass Semi-Finals
2012: Bishop Feehan 21 Lynnfield 7 D3A EMass Super Bowl
2013: Lynnfield 34 Stoneham 12 D4N Quarterfinals
2013: Bedford 14 Lynnfield 7 D4N Semi-finals
2014: Lynnfield 42 Saugus 6 D4N Quarterfinals
2014: Lynnfield 35 Swampscott 7 D4N Semi-Finals
2014: Lynnfield 35 Winthrop 14 D4N Championship
2014: Holliston 26 Lynnfield 0 D4 State Semi-Finals
2015: Watertown 25 Lynnfield 17 D4N Quarterfinals
2016: Lynnfield 34 Northeast Tech 14 D3AN Quarterfinals
2016: St. Mary's Lynn 44 Lynnfield 24 D3AN Semi-Finals
2017: Lynnfield 34 Bedford 6 D5N Quarterfinals

D5N Playoff Update
The Pioneers will play Newburyport for the right to get to the division championship game and we'll talk about that in a bit. First, let's take a look at the other side of the bracket where #2 Somerville will play #6 Watertown.

Pat Sheehan's Triton Vikings had a valiant effort against Somerville, jumping out to a 9-0 first quarter lead, and trailing only 13-9 after three quarters. The Highlanders got their potent offense in gear and pulled away with two fourth quarter touchdowns to advance to the semi-finals with a 27-9 win.

Meanwhile, Watertown upset #3 Swampscott coming back from a 21-7 deficit to take a 31-27 win. The Raiders, who I told you last week would be dangerous, scored on a 53-yard TD pass with five minutes to play to take the win.

Watertown plays in the tough Middlesex League against D4 and D3 teams and that hurts them in the regular season playoff rankings but when they get to the post season, they become the team no one wants to play. The Somerville-Watertown game should be quite a battle with the survivor moving on to take on the winner of the Lynnfield-Newburyport game for the D5N title.

Newburyport Preview
To quote the late Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again.

The Pioneers will host the Clippers for the second time this year and the first time in the playoffs, but a lot has happened since opening night. You may remember Lynnfield pretty much had their way with Newburyport, playing their first game under head coach Ben Smolski.

The Pioneers rolled for 410 yards of offense and held the Clippers to only 149 building up a 25-0 halftime lead and cruising to a 32-0 shutout win.

It won't be nearly as easy this time as Newburyport has come around under their new coach.

"They are much improved," Weidman told me. "They are doing way more on offense than they did at the beginning of the year and they're getting the ball into the hands of the right kids."

Leading the way are two players right out of the great-athlete mold typical of Newburyport football. Running back Myles Maloof and quarterback Owen Bradbury combined for nearly 200 yards rushing in the Clippers' 28-0 win over Weston in the quarterfinals last week. Expect both to be featured against a Pioneer defense that has struggled to stop the run lately.

"We're going to have to do a good job in the running game," said Weidman. "(Maloof) runs the ball really well and (Bradbury) is also running real well. They run some option stuff and some zone reads with the bubble screen. It's going to be like defending the triple option. You have to take away the running back, the quarterback, and the pitch or bubble man. It's difficult to do especially when two or all three of those options are viable. They have good athletes and are doing a good job."

Why such an improvement in seven weeks?

"They have good players every year," Weidman explained. "It's just the fact that any of the new things they are doing after the coaching turnover is seven weeks better. It was brand new and now it's not. That gives them a chance to be better."

The Clippers bounced back from the shutout loss to the Pioneers to nip Ipswich 10-7. They were then blanked by Masco 35-0 and after a bye week edged Triton 19-13 and Pentucket 21-13. they finished the regular season with a 32-13 loss to North Reading but their 3-3 record was good enough to earn the #5 seed.

Weidman doesn't see an advantage either way when it comes to playing a rematch.

"They're are probably advantages and disadvantages playing both a team you know well and one you don't," he said. "We're going to need to prepare our best and come ready to play and not be sloppy. It can go either way for either team. It really is going to come down to blocking and tackling and who wants it more."

The last time the Pioneers played a team twice in the same year was 2012 against Amesbury. They beat the Indians 21-14 at Landry Stadium and ended up winning the CAL/NEC 4. Amesbury went 5-0 in league play to take the CAL/NEC 3 and the two played a rematch at Cawley Stadium in Lowell for the right to go to Gillette Stadium to play in the Division 3A Super Bowl.

The Pioneers dominated the second meeting 35-14 thanks to a smothering defense led by Andrew Kibarian, D. J. DeGeorge, Mike Soden, Tyler Palumbo, Kyle McGah, Alex Roper, Anthony Costa and A. J. Gallo that limited the Indians to 174 yards of offense.

Meanwhile on offense, McGah rumbled for 176 yards and four touchdowns. Quarterback Mike Karavetos ran for 114 yards and a touchdown. The O-line of Kibarian, DeGeorge, Dom Costa, Connor Lordan, and Cam DeGeorge shredded the Amesbury defense opening gaping holes.

The win propelled the Pioneers to Gillette where they fell to Bishop Feehan 21-7.

The Pioneers are hoping the second time is the charm against Newburyport as well. Game time at Pioneer Stadium is 7 pm.