BOLTON, Mass. -- The Nashoba Community Competition Complex is under renovation, roped off while surface improvements are made in anticipation of the upcoming athletic season.
About a hundred yards away, in the back left corner of the school grounds, the Nashoba Regional football team is practicing, undergoing a renovation of its own.
From a distance, it is hard to believe that this team, practicing in an outfield of a baseball field, amongst dirt piles and stationary backhoes, was last year’s Division 2 Central Mass Super Bowl Champion and is this year’s No. 10 team in ESPN Boston's preseason Top 25.
Most of the defense that allowed an average of 7.8 points per game, never gave up more than two touchdowns in a single game, and shut out Holy Name 27-0 in the Super Bowl is back. So is most of the offense that scored less than 20 points only twice all season, but there they are, running through plays trying to get them right.
Much like the field it plays its home games on, Nashoba looks mostly the same, but has its differences from last year. For one thing, it goes from being the proverbial hunter, to the hunted. No team in the Mid-Wach B conference will be taking Nashoba lightly, knowing full well about the explosiveness it brings on both sides of the ball.
“We just have to make sure we get better every single day,” said running back John Ojukwu. “That’s pretty much all we need to do, and not get cocky. We can’t think that teams are just going to give us games. We need to stay focused, and treat every game like it’s our last and be prepared as much as possible. Forget about last year, and just take it week by week.”
Twenty-one seniors are returning, knowing that championship feeling and the dedication it takes to get to that promised land. Complacency is a problem that has stricken many teams, whether it is caused from excessive celebrations or the expectance of victory causing them to not work as hard the second time around. The seniors are determined to not be one of those teams.
“We won’t let that happen,” said senior linebacker Zach Hume. “We talk about that a lot, about how we can’t just come back and walk through the season and take it really easy so we think we can just roll over teams. We won’t let that happen. We had a couple tough games last year, so we have to come out this year and play hard.”
The team was working out four times a week last year, in anticipation of getting back to the training camp grind once the season started. Hume, one of the anchors of the Chieftains defense, worked out with a trainer, bulking up his massive 6-foot-2, 230-pound frame. He also let teammates come over to his house to lift when they had nowhere else to go. It is seemingly small gestures like that which give a team the camaraderie it needs to win a championship.
The practice setting helps. The open, one goal post field has a grassroots feel to it. No pomp and circumstance. No recognition of what once was, and no recognition of what might be coming. Out there, with no eyes on the team but the coaches’ and their own, it is all about football.
That will be important in early September, when Nashoba will line up against Wachusett for the first of many games that will matter. It will be far removed from last year’s undefeated season, except this time, other teams will want to be the one to knock off the defending champs. With that, Nashoba will fall back on those days on the practice field behind its school, and all the repetitions, sprints, and coaching lessons that went along with it. They wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I always say to the kids it’s where everybody wants to be, so enjoy it while you’re there and take advantage of the situation and just prepare yourself,” said head coach Ken Tucker. “It’s the ultimate sign of respect if people are doing that to us. We just have to out-prepare them and outwork them, and nothing has changed. You’re not going to stay at the top unless you do those things. It’s a whole new season, last year means nothing, except everyone is gunning for us. In some ways, it’s a good feeling, because it’s where everybody wants to be. Enjoy it while you’re there because it doesn’t last forever.”
NASHOBA AT A GLANCE
2011: 13-0 (5-0 Mid-Wach B), won Division 2 Central Mass Super Bowl
Coach: Ken Tucker (23rd season, 167-94-1 overall)
Strengths: Returning starters, Skill positions
Key Returnees: John Ojukwu, Sr. RB/DB, 5-10, 175 lbs; Jack Sarnoski, Sr. QB/LB, 6-0, 215 lbs; Brady Schartner, Sr. WR/DB, 6-0, 175 lbs; Charles Phaneuf, Sr. TE/LB, 6-2, 215 lbs; Andrew Cross, Sr. RB/LB, 5-6, 175 lbs; Daniel Kennedy, Sr. WR/DB, 5-9, 170 lbs; Markiesh Harmon, Sr. RB/DB, 5-11, 165 lbs; Paul Louissaint, Sr. RB/LB, 6-1, 215 lbs; Zach Hume, Sr. FB/LB, 6-2, 230 lbs; Ethan Benjamin, Sr. T/DL, 6-4, 220 lbs; Alex Parker, Sr. T/DL, 6-2, 235 lbs; Mike Muldoon, Sr. G/LB, 6-0, 180 lbs; Wyatt Greene, Sr. G/LB, 6-1, 195 lbs; Garrett Curran, Sr. T/DL, 5-10, 205 lbs; Jack Garvey, Sr. T/DL, 6-0, 220 lbs; Jake Denaro, Sr. G/DL, 6-2, 205 lbs; Cameron Rothfuss, Sr. T/DL, 6-4, 275 lbs; Benjamin Nicholson, Sr. C/DL, 5-11, 230 lbs; Austin Cabral, Sr. WR/DB, 5-10, 165 lbs; Matthew Kelling, Sr. TE/LB, 6-3, 200 lbs; Joe Rios, Sr. TE/DL, 6-1, 215
Outlook: With over half the returning starters back from last year’s Super Bowl winning squad, it is a safe bet that Nashoba will be playing beyond Thanksgiving. It would be quite an achievement for the team to go undefeated again, given that it will be getting its opponents’ best game every Friday night. Another concern could be complacency, but by all accounts, the team has not lost the hunger and drive to repeat what it started. Tucker has coached championship teams before, so he’s well-versed in how difficult duplicating success is. There’s a leadership level both in the team and the coaching staff that seems to have Nashoba set up for continued success. Can it win a Super Bowl again? It certainly seems like it.