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.

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