The Buckingham, Browne & Nichols football program has been a powerhouse under coach John Papas since he took over eight years ago, as the Knights have won and won big — especially lately — losing just three times in the last four years.
Their average margin of victory over that span has been 24.5 points, with most of the scoring done in the first half before Papas takes his starters out for the second.
But this fall, BB&N comes in having lost the majority of its starters – and five Division I athletes – from a team that lost to Lawrence Academy last season, 28-26, denying the Knights an undefeated season and a shot at a NEPSAC bowl berth. In other words, the perception around the ISL is that BB&N is in for a down year, and teams are lining up for their chance to even the score.
“Our kids have to realize that a lot of people that want to get back at us,” Papas said. “[Schools around the league] pretty much think that there’s nothing left. I think we have a bull’s eye on our chest. There’s a lot of payback they want to get. We’ve got to take on all comers right now. We’ve done a lot of punching the last few years. They want to punch us now.”
While BB&N will only have three seniors and will be short on experience, there is going to be enough talent on this team to weather the haymakers the rest of the league will be throwing its way.
Eric Bertino (an ISL-leading 24 TD passes in 2009), a returning starter at quarterback, fullback/outside linebacker Peter Savarese (an ISL leading seven TD receptions in ’09) and newcomer to the sport James Diblaisi, a 6-foot-6, 225-pound hockey player who will play defensive end, make up that small but talented senior class.
Papas raves about Diblaisi’s potential and compares him to Blake Barker, who held several BCS offers last year before committing to Harvard.
“This is his first year of organized football, but I’ll tell you what, he’s been unbelievable in preseason scrimmages,” Papas said of Diblaisi, a Winchester native. “He plays with a flat back and is really tough off the edge. He really has the chance to be a Division I football player if he matures.”
Papas, who previously coached in the college ranks for 13 years at Tufts, Harvard and Bentley, knows a thing or two about sending players onto the next level. In his tenure at BB&N, 31 of his former players have gone on to play college football. There are currently seven ex-Knights on Ivy League rosters, the most of any school in the country, according to Papas.
“We’ve been able to attract a lot of kids that want a first-rate education at an urban prep school,” Papas said of the Cambridge institution that is just a stone’s throw away from Harvard Square. “It’s unique in that you don’t have to board, it’s co-ed and in Cambridge. There are a lot of kids that have come looking for that education and football experience.”
Two new additions to the program are juniors Chris Coady and Dan Connaughton, who transferred in from St. John’s Prep and Lincoln-Sudbury, respectively. Coady, who is also a tremendous lacrosse player, will take over at tailback and outside linebacker, while Connaughton will be a two-way tackle. Both players are receiving early interest from Boston College.
Another junior, Nick DiChiara, younger brother of Mike, a former Knight quarterback who is now at Cornell, will start at middle linebacker and is one of the team’s few returning starters.
Papas believes classmate Eric Olson, a 6-foot, 6-and-one-half-inch, 255-pound offensive tackle, may end up being the most highly sought-after recruit of the bunch, as he is already receiving early interest from BC, Stanford and Notre Dame.
“He’s got great feet,” Papas said. “He plays basketball, as well. He’s just kind of figuring it out. He’s a late bloomer in football.”
Papas’ two starting cornerbacks, junior Rhett Weisman and sophomore Willie Peoples, probably won’t play football in college, but are both Division I athletes. Weisman, Mansfield native, will play baseball at Vanderbilt, while Peoples, who hails from Cambridge, is a budding tennis star.
“He’s a ridiculous tennis player, unbelievable,” Papas said of Peoples, “and he’s out there banging with us.”
While everyone around the league will be focused on a Lawrence team that already has four BCS-committed players, Papas insists his team is focused solely on Saturday’s opener at Belmont Hill. The Hillers, who were the league’s premier program in the years leading up to the emergence of BB&N and Lawrence, had beaten their neighbors 21 consecutive times before the Knights won the last three meetings.
“They have a great tradition and great players as well,” Papas said of Belmont Hill. “If you ask our kids, the biggest game they circle is Belmont Hill.”
It’s safe to say that there are plenty of school’s that have BB&N circled, as well.
BB&N AT A GLANCE
2009 record: 7-1
Coach: John Papas (47-13)
Players to watch: Eric Bertino, Sr., QB, 6-1, 200; Chris Coady, Jr., RB/OLB, 6-2 ½, 220; Dan Connaughton, Jr., OT/DT, 6-3, 265; Nick DiChiara, Jr., MLB, 6-0, 205; Eric Olson, Jr., OT, 6-6 ½, 255; Rhett Weisman, Jr., CB, 6-1, 180; Willie Peoples, So., CB, 6-0, 175; James Diblaisi, Sr., DE, 6-6, 225; Peter Savarese, Sr., FB/OLB, 5-10, 190.
Strengths: Line play, experience at QB, linebackers.
Outlook: The Knights were decimated by graduation, losing five Division I athletes off a team that only lost to a loaded Lawrence Academy squad last fall. Although Papas’ charges will be breaking in a lot of new starters, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare, as a bevy of highly-touted juniors are in the fold to restock the roster. Papas likes what he sees up front on both sides of the ball, and the Knights should be strong enough there to control the line of scrimmage against most of the teams on their schedule. Bertino returns at quarterback, and he will be giving most of his handoffs to Coady, a transfer from St. John’s Prep that is getting major interest in both football and lacrosse. Savarese led the ISL in touchdown receptions a year ago, as Papas likes to use a power run game to set up the play-action pass. The defense operates out of a 4-3 cover two base, and Papas thinks he has one of the best groups of linebackers in Eastern Mass. in Coady, DiChiara and Savarese. Lawrence comes in as the heavy favorite in the ISL, but despite their inexperience, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Knights and their upcoming talent.