BLUE DEVIL FOOTBALL IS BACK
From Johnny Appleseed to a centuries-deep plastics industry, there’s always plenty to be proud of in Leominster. But the one constant that remains is October 29, 1988, when the Blue Devils football team scored one of the biggest upsets in state history, knocking off a Brockton squad that was ranked the No. 1 team in the nation by USA Today.
Folks in the Twin Cities have yet to stop talking about it since, and the talk only intensifies during Brockton week.
“You gotta understand, it’s talked about all the time,” said first-year head coach Dave Palazzi, himself a former Blue Devil. “They had 13 Division 1 players signed from that Brockton team. It’s all everybody hears around here. It’s such a big game from our perspective, to play such a large school and all that.”
But, he added, “I told the kids, ‘Let’s make our own history, so they talk about you 20 years from now. They’re not No. 1 in the state, but we’ve only beaten them three times in 26 years.”
Given the Boxers’ turbulent season, and the depth of quality underclassmen in Leominster’s program, a win shouldn’t be a total shock. But the magnitude by which they did it -- a 33-0 shutout, their second win over the Boxers since that famed '88 game, and by many accounts an all-around dominant showing -- raised some eyebrows.
Some have even wondered whether the Blue Devils –- who some have mused were a year away, what with one of the school’s strongest sophomore classes in ages –- are ahead of schedule, after some lean recent years. After all, making the switch to Palazzi’s patented spread scheme, after three-plus decades of ground-and-pound under legendary coach John Dubzinski, isn’t something that transitions cleanly –- nor overnight.
After an 0-3 start, the Blue Devils have reeled off five straight, capped with wins the past two weeks over previous Top 20 St. John’s of Shrewsbury and the aforementioned Boxers. And for their reward, they make their debut in ESPN Boston’s statewide MIAA Top 25 poll for the first time in the history of the poll.
Palazzi found continued success the last decade at Millbury, running an uptempo, spread-oriented scheme out of a slew of different formations, with timed routes aimed at getting athletes in space. In players like Kyle Sanders, Cortez Ludden and Geraldo Rivera, he has skill guys with big-play capability. Perhaps most tantamount to the hot streak has been the development of junior quarterback Garrett DelleChiaie, a “cerebral player” who has shown strides in his mental progression.
In DelleChiaie, Palazzi sees shades of former Millbury great Nick Hebert, who tied a then-state single-season record with 39 touchdown passes in the Woolies’ 2003 Super Bowl championship run.
“We run a lot of timing routes, you don’t need a gun to get the ball there,” said Palazzi, who left UMass in 1988 as the school’s all-time leader in offensive yards (a record since broken). “It’s about timing, reading the defensive backs, footwork, things like that, throwing the ball before they break.
“Garrett’s similar [to Hebert] in that respect. He definitely has the mindset, wants to learn, he’s in there working. He hasn’t seen everything enough, hasn’t run things enough yet, he’s getting there, but he definitely has the potential to be successful at the position. He’s done that so far in some of the bigger games we’ve had.”
CARDIAC KIDS STRIKE AGAIN
It's been an on-going theme for No. 12 Mansfield this year, a habit of making fourth quarters very interesting.
"Well, you always get your money's worth with this team," Dave Redding, father of Hornets head coach Dave Redding and de facto team photographer, said after Mansfield's 34-33 overtime win over Barnstable Friday. "They always keep you on the edge of your seat."
The Hornets were waltzing to their seventh win of the season when the Red Raiders put up 17 straight points in the fourth quarter to push the game to overtime. Granted, the non-league matchup didn't matter to either team's longterm postseason prospects, so Redding managed his players in the fourth quarter as such.
But it served as yet another reminder of the way the Hornets ended their season at Gillette Stadium last December, the Hornets took an improbable last-minute win over Reading for the Division 2 Super Bowl.
Rest assured if the Hornets get back to Gillette, they won't let it happen again.
"We have some things to work on," the younger Redding said postgame. "We need to learn how to finish games. We can't let teams back into games."
A MORAL VICTORY?
Although the game's importance pales in comparison to this Friday's Old Colony League battle against No. 3 Bridgewater-Raynham on the Cape, the Red Raiders couldn't hide their excitement in their fourth-quarter comeback against the Hornets. And, while Barnstable fell short of the win after failing to convert a 2-point conversion pass, the Red Raiders can take plenty of momentum into this weekend's paramount game.
"We battled," Red Raiders first-year head coach Chris Whidden said postgame. "You can certainly take something from the resiliency the team showed."
PUNCHING AN EARLY DANCE CARD
The first Eastern Mass football team to earn a playoff berth might have come as a surprise to some. After watching a senior-laden team go down in defeat in the D-2 Super Bowl to the aforementioned Mansfield squad, Reading has bounced back to once again earn the right to represent the Middlesex Large.
John Fiore's team wasn't long in the tooth, and it showed in the Rockets' 1-3 start to the season. Some disciplinary issues also threatened to derail the campaign, but Reading has bounced back with four straight wins and a 4-0 record in league play including Friday night's 16-7 triumph over Woburn.
Not only have the Rockets continued their championship form, they should remain a force for the foreseeable future with imposing sophomore Drew Belcher (11 for 16, 218 yards, 2 TDs vs. Woburn) under center.
“I am real happy for our seniors,” Fiore told correspondent Ryan Kilian on Friday. “A lot of people said this was a weak class. We are down to about 48 kids. The seniors are the ones. They are a tight class.”
Jonathan DiBiaso wasn't the only local gridder making history on Friday night as Holliston running back Jake Frechette (154 yards, 2 TDs) broke Matt Bellomo’s school record during the Panthers' 35-13 win over Millis/Hopedale.
“I am so proud of him,” Holliston head coach Todd Kiley told correspondent Adam Kurkjian Friday night. “I remember the first day he stepped on the field as a varsity player, a little freshman and probably, in most cases, shouldn’t be playing because of his size. And freshmen as a whole shouldn’t be playing. He just fought the battle that year and he’s continued year after year.”
CATHOLIC CONFERENCE MERRY-GO-ROUND
After eight weeks, we know this much about the clear-cut favorite in the Catholic Conference: there is no clear-cut favorite.
In the preseason, Catholic Memorial head coach Alex Campea made no efforts to hide the fact that he was going to use Penn State commit Armani Reeves, the state's top-ranked overall player, "in every conceivable fashion". And simply put, the multi-talented athlete makes plays all over the field, capped last Friday by bringing a dull crowd to life with a 72-yard punt return as the No. 9 Knights beat St. John's Prep, 26-7.
"Listen, he's a gamebreaker," Campea told ESPN Boston following the win, the Knights' first over Prep since 2008. "He makes plays, whether you're throwing the ball or punting the ball to him, he's a heck of a player. He's just a difference maker."
Xaverian head coach Charlie Stevenson continues to flex his creative side, this time using defensive tackle Maurice Hurst Jr. at fullback to positive results in the No. 8 Hawks' 27-9 win over St. John's of Shrewsbury. The All-State contender carried nine times for 126 yards and two scores, including a 75-yard scamper in the second half.
"For a kid who's that big, to make that kind of athletic move, and to run as quickly as he did, was OK," Stevenson said of the touchdown run, adding with a laugh, "The thing that worried me wasn't that none of the guys in white caught him, it's that none of the guys in blue (the Hawks) caught him."
And while No. 5 BC High simply isn't going to go out and replace Preston Cooper, an All-State candidate who's down for the season with a broken ankle, they certainly looked OK with replacement Deontae Ramey-Doe. The senior ran for 120 yards and a score on 19 carries in the Eagles' 44-7 thumping of Malden Catholic.
How will it all sort out? Your guess is as good as mine. It starts Friday night, when the Hawks visit BC High. CM takes on Brockton this weekend, looking to avenge last season's last-second Hail Mary, before taking on the Hawks next week and potentially setting up a Thanksgiving showdown with BC High for the league's playoff berth.
Now, when was the last time that happened?