1. WHAT TEAM IS THE MOST SURPRISING UNBEATEN TEAM IN THE STATE?
Scott Barboza, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: I’m going to go with Stoneham at 5-0. The Spartans are coming off a two-win 2011 campaign and have already more than double last year’s win total. The last time Stoneham started a season 4-0 was 1992. The Spartans have a legitimate backfield with Aaron Louis and Darius McPherson at running back. Even though Stoneham hasn’t yet opened up play in the Middlesex League Freedom (Small) division, it has a boatload of momentum heading into its opener against fellow upstart Watertown this weekend. That’s something that hasn’t been said in a while.
Brendan Hall, ESPN Boston High Schools Editor: We all know this team is super talented, but let's be honest. Who here saw Barnstable sitting at 5-0 right now? We're two weeks out from that fateful rainy night at Everett Memorial Stadium, and I'm still getting emails and texts from people wondering how the heck Barnstable beat Everett. Granted, we all knew this would be a close game going in (both Scott and I picked Everett to win by a score, for instance), but nobody predicted they'd actually pull it off.
Adam Kurkjian, ESPN Boston correspondent: Gotta go with Stoneham here. No, the list of teams the Spartans have played haven't exactly been the caliber of say, Xaverian's, but this is not a program that has had very much success at all in recent years. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Bob Almeida has to be commended for the job he's done so far.
If there's a second choice, it would be Sharon. A long-suffering program in a strong league, it is good to see this team have some success.
Ryan Lanigan, Editor-In-Chief, HockomockSports.com: To me, the most surprising unbeaten team has to be Sharon. In terms of Hockomock power houses, the Eagles came into the season pretty low on that totem poll. Sharon finished last season at 4-6 after only picking up one win in 2010. Now, they stand at 5-0. They’ve gotten strong performances from quarterback Sean O’Neill (8 passing touchdowns) and running back Sean Asnes (5 total touchdowns). Accompanied with their offense, their defense has been solid.
On top of that, they have had a clutch factor this season. Against Taunton, they scored on their final play with 6 seconds left and won on the extra point. Last week, they scored two fourth quarter touchdowns against Canton, including the second with under a minute before winning in overtime. They might not have had the strongest schedule in the state, but it’s still impressive to have already won as many games as their previous two seasons combined.
Corey Allen, ESPN Boston correspondent: Dorchester. The Bears have a bye week, and with two-fifths necessary Boston South wins under their belt to take the league outright (O'Bryant, Burke and English in weeks 8, 9 and 10 remain), will the 5-0 Dorchester squad stay hungry or lose their picnic basket?
Josh Perry, Managing Editor, HockomockSports.com: Considering I picked Mansfield to beat them by three touchdowns, the most surprising unbeaten team is Stoughton. In addition to the difficult schedule, the Black Knights are dealing with unspeakable tragedy and the team showed incredible guts to go out and perform like they did against Foxboro last week. The defense has been better than advertised and they have gotten strong performances by running backs Aaron Mack and Frankie Morris.
I’m not sure that the unbeaten run will continue past this week against North Attleboro, but at this point there will be no surprises from Stoughton because it is a very good team. Also in the Hockomock, Sharon is surprisingly undefeated as well, albeit with a much weaker schedule than Stoughton and the unbeaten run should end this week against King Philip.
2. WHICH CENTRAL MASS. UPSET FROM LAST WEEKEND WAS MORE IMPRESSIVE: WACHUSETT OVER LEOMINSTER, OR SHREWSBURY OVER ST. JOHN'S?
Barboza: I’m conflicted on this one. Both of these came as a shock, more so Wachusett’s victory over Leominster, so I’m going to go with Wachusett. Shrewsbury, while not considered to quite be at the Pioneers’ level this year, comes as less of a surprise. Wachusett had gotten blown out by St. John’s (Shrewsbury) the week before and got thumped in its opener against Nashoba. So how were we to expect the Mountaineers would stymie Leominster (at Top 5 team in last week’s poll) the way they did? Perhaps the most impressive stat line any team put up last week was the measly 32 yards Wachusett allowed in the second half of Saturday’s upset.
Hall: I'm inclined to go with Wachusett, a team that St. John's pasted 46-14 two weeks ago, for the simple fact that St. John's isn't invincible against the run. We saw this in Week 1, when Holy Name ran for 460 yards on the ground in a 47-40 shootout win by St. John's. The next week, the Pioneers cut that number in half, against a tough Wing-T attack from Longmeadow. But if you can establish the run early, you can go far, and Shrewsbury went up by as much as 17 in this one. Zach Dionis ran for 200 yards and three scores in the first half alone. Plus, this is an intense rivalry game, and you know how we feel about rivalry games. Anything can happen.
Kurkjian: Tough to say, but the thought here is that Wachusett is a little more surprising given how poorly it has played at times this season. Shrewsbury's only loss was to a loaded Auburn squad and already had a win over Doherty that looks a lot better after the Highlanders' win over Holy Name this weekend. Wachusett was blown out in its two losses and had the look of a down year yet beat a Leominster team that nearly everyone pegged as the preseason favorite in Central Massachusetts.
Allen: Shrewsbury. President Bush was in office the last time the Colonials beat St. John's. The tides have turned on Route 140.
3. WHAT WILL FRIDAY'S CONTEST BETWEEN SPRINGFIELD CENTRAL AND LONGMEADOW TELL US ABOUT THE DIVISION 1 WEST SUPER BOWL RACE?
Barboza: About as much as we learned last year. Last October, the Golden Eagles put Western Mass. on notice, eking out a 21-20 win and ending the Lancers’ 52-game league winning streak. When the chips were on the table at Gillette Stadium in December for the Division 1 Super Bowl, it was a different matter. I think Friday’s game will count for about as much as it did last year, as one regular season game. Of course, we’ll see which team has the inside track at the ultimate prize in December. But, in the same token, I fully expect to see the teams meet once again in the final game of the season.
Hall: Considering Springfield Central's top-flight quarterback will be sitting on the bench in this one, this will tell us just how deep the talent pool goes on Roosevelt Ave. Central's Cody Williams is serving a two-game suspension as part of the fall-out from the Eagles' melee with Chicopee two weeks ago, and naturally there have been questions abound about what changes with him out. Last week against East Longmeadow, Cody's cousin Ju'uan Williams moved into the quarterback role, and the Eagles went with a hybrid spread/single-wing look (similar to what Everett threw at them in Week 2) en route to a 40-7 blowout. Ju'uan reportedly hasn't played quarterback since fourth grade, but it just goes to show what kind of athletes coach Valdamar Brower is molding.
We know what we're getting with Longmeadow, and right now it seems like those Lancers and these Eagles are a class above the rest in Western Mass. But if the Eagles can win without their star signal-caller, that will tell us just what a complete team this is.
Kurkjian: Probably not as much as it would seem at first glance. Remember, last year Springfield Central defeated Longmeadow in the regular season only to be blown out at Gillette Stadium. A lot of things can happen between now and December: injuries can occur, personnel adjustments can be made, you name it. Also, don't underestimate how difficult it can be to beat a quality opponent twice in one season. That said, it is still a big game and the winner should have a lot of confidence heading down the home stretch.
Allen: The game will let us know if the Longmeadow linemen (Lou Calabrese, Rob McClure, et. al) that were in Gillette last year have been preparing for another trip to the promised land, or whether they are ready to relinquish the crown.
Jay King, Sports Producer, MassLive.com: Longmeadow and Central are the two best teams in Western Mass., and the third team (whoever that may be) isn’t even close. That being said, Friday night’s meeting might not explain as much as we’d hoped, because Central will be missing its star QB.
Without suspended Cody Williams, Central dominated a decent East Longmeadow team 40-7 last week. Ju’an Williams, filling in for his cousin under center, transitioned well especially considering it was his first time at the position since 4th grade (when, ironically enough, Cody beat him out for QB on their youth team), showing a better-than-expected arm as well as the expected ability to make plays with his legs. But as St. John’s showed earlier this season, the best way to beat Longmeadow is by featuring a strong passing attack to take advantage of Longmeadow’s lack of explosive athletes. With Cody Williams, Central has that. Without him, the Golden Eagles don’t.
Still, the game should be a fine contrast between Longmeadow’s impressive strong front line and Central’s deep stable of playmakers. Both teams know their game Friday night is likely to be replayed in December when the Div. I Super Bowl arrives. If Central can win without Cody Williams, Longmeadow should be worried. If the Golden Eagles can’t, the two teams should still be evenly matched come December.
4. AT THIS POINT, IS THERE A FAVORITE ANYMORE IN THE HOCKOMOCK LEAGUE?
Barboza: Yes, I think they are King Philip and Stoughton, respectively, in their divisions. I know KP hasn’t exactly faced murderer’s row of competition in the early going, but they’ve done everything they’ve needed to do to this point. By the same extension, the Black Knights are undefeated rolling into a Week 6 matchup with North Attleborough and already have a critical Davenport division win over Foxborough last week. If Stoughton’s able to pull off another big win against North, they might ride that wave of momentum through the rest of the season.
Hall: As talented as King Philip may be, I'm not sold on them yet, on account of its soft schedule. Ditto Sharon. No, the only true favorite right now in the league is Stoughton, which proved itself with back-to-back dominant wins over Mansfield and Foxborough to assume a de facto pole position in the Davenport division. It's hard not to root for these guys, after the way they responded following the tragic death of teammate David Wade two weeks ago. But cast aside the inspirational back-story, and by itself this is a talented defense. Marcus Middleton is among the elite coverage defensive backs in Massachusetts, and Imani Pina has emerged as another turnover threat in the secondary.
Kurkjian: In the Kelley-Rex, no. King Philip has yet to really play anyone all that challenging outside of maybe Dartmouth. Franklin, Attleboro, Mansfield and North Attleboro are all dangerous but there is no one dominant team. All of these games should be very close and you could easily see a scenario where the playoff participant is decided by another three-way tiebreaker.
In the Davenport, you have to like what Stoughton has done so far. Yes, Sharon is undefeated, too, but the schedules the two have played to date aren't even comparable. Foxboro had a nice win over North Attleboro but will now need some help after the loss to Stoughton. Oliver Ames is flying under the radar a bit for a team that won the title last year and the Tigers' win over Pembroke last week was a quality one. Still, Stoughton has been the most impressive team in either division thus far and has to be considered the favorite right now.
Lanigan: In the Davenport Division, Stoughton has emerged as the clear cut favorite after the season began a little cluttered. Sharon has impressed at 5-0 and Oliver Ames has played well at 4-1, but neither have dominated or have been as impressive as Stoughton. Couple that with their unbelievable performance last Friday after the tragic loss of teammate David Wade, and it looks like the Black Knights are poised for something special this season.
For the Kelley-Rex, a clear favorite hasn’t emerged, but that doesn’t mean things haven’t changed from the beginning of the season. North Attleboro started the season as one of the hottest teams in the state, but has fizzled after two straight losses. Mansfield picked up an important win over Attleboro but haven’t shown consistency, failing to win back-to-back games. King Philip stands at 5-0 but haven’t dominated teams in the way some expected. Joe Johnston has very reliable in the back field while the offensive line has done their job. If you had to pick a clear favorite from the whole league, it’d be the Black Knights of Stoughton while King Philip is tops on the big side.
Perry: The answer is yes...and no.
Stoughton has taken on the mantle of favorites in the Davenport division after impressive wins over Mansfield and Foxboro. The Black Knights defense has been outstanding and, although Oliver Ames will give them a battle, should be too much for the other teams in the small school bracket. The Kelley-Rex division, on the other hand, is up for grabs.
Many people, myself included, think that North Attleboro is the most talented team in the league this season and are stunned at the recent performances from the Rocketeers. KP is undefeated, but has not played any top opponents. Mansfield is a very strong team, but could be a year away from challenging for the league title. Attleboro and Franklin are improved from last year, but have not been able to put together a string of victories that makes it seem as though they can claim a playoff spot. In the end, North Attleboro could still be the last team standing but trying to predict anything in the Hock is a futile exercise.
5. EVERETT 51, CAMBRIDGE 30. CAUSE FOR CONCERN? OR IS THE REST OF THE GREATER BOSTON LEAGUE BETTER THAN WE'VE GIVEN CREDIT FOR?
Barboza: Not entirely, but the question it raises in my mind is whether Everett’s secondary is the sound group we thought it was heading into the season. While it didn’t bear its head in the Crimson Tide’s loss to Barnstable (largely due to the weather conditions), Everett surrendered 274 yards and four touchdowns against David Maaghul and looked vulnerable. That group will have another test on its hands Saturday with Xaverian; the Hawks have a deep core of pass catchers. While it’s premature to overreact in a game Everett ultimately won, it’s worth keeping an eye on as the Crimson Tide builds toward the postseason.
Hall: There are a number of different things we can read into this, but the underlying theme here is the dirty little secret that true insiders know about the GBL: namely, that no matter how lopsided the league has become over the last decade, there will always be talented individuals outside of Everett's program.
Consider, for instance, that there are three guys currently on active NFL rosters that played their high school football in the GBL, and not one of them played for Everett -- Malden's Breno Giacomini (Seahawks), Somerville's Gosder Cherilus (Lions), and Waltham's Mackenzy Bernadeau (Cowboys).
[Editor's Note: Waltham left the GBL in 2008, the same year Bernadeau was drafted by the Panthers]
In more recent years, there have been players to go on to Division 1 colleges from a non-Everett GBL squad, be it Cambridge's Josh Adams (North Carolina), Malden's Wiston Jeune (UTEP) or Somerville's John Wallace (UMass). Think about it -- when you're a league of five urban schools that each serve as the lone public high school for a working-class city of a population anywhere from 40-100,000, it's just law of averages that you'll find enough talent to field a decent team. No one team can truly monopolize the talent pool, the trick is maximizing the exploits -- and that seems to be what Cambridge is trying to do here with its pass-happy attack.
Cambridge, as noted before, is viewed by some as the powder keg of this bunch. Consider that last season, the Falcons went 2-8 yet sent tight end Kevin Lovaincy off to UMass, where he is currently redshirting. After watching the Cambridge-Everett game on film twice now, I can confirm that both wide receiver Elijah Scott and quarterback David Maaghul are legit; and after making a few calls, I can confirm there is Division 1 interest building. And with a 2014 nucleaus of Maaghul, receiver Elijah Booker, and tailback Shaquille Anderson, you're looking at potentially a Top 20 team to start the 2013 season.
Elsewhere around the league, look out for Somerville two-way lineman Ryan Conte, another prospect who is building some Division 1 interest in a program that routinely challenges itself with a tough non-league schedule.
So let's not overreact to this Everett scare, but let's also give credit where credit's due. The rest of the league is working hard towards relevance.
Kurkjian: There are a number of reasons to be concerned as an Everett fan. The injury bug has been one, the toll graduation has taken another. Overall, the team has played a tough early schedule that doesn't figure to get any easier the next two weeks with road trips to Xaverian and BC High. No, neither the X nor BC High have played well early, but playing them in back-to-back weeks takes a physical toll (ask Brockton about how scheduling consecutive Catholic Conference opponents affects the roster).
No doubt the final score of the Cambridge game was a surprise, but a cause for concern? Well, it came the week after a very physical and emotionally draining loss to Barnstable. Everett gave up a lot of points but got the W. That's all the team should really be concerned about, not style points.
As far as the rest of the GBL, Cambridge has some excellent skill position talent. The defense of course needs work, but this is an offense that can score points in bunches and will only get better as the season progresses.
Cambridge has always been perceived as a sleeping giant type of program, because there are plenty of athletes in that building that get overlooked. But in the early part of this decade, Kwame Dixon came in and turned the Falcons in to a real threat, even knocking off the Tide on Thanksgiving in 2001. Cambridge had teams in subsequent years under Dixon, most notably with quarterback Matt O'Brien, that went into Thanksgiving with a chance to win the league with a win over Everett.
With a lot of the key pieces from this year's team returning next season, keep an eye on Cambridge as it attempts to knock the Tide off the GBL throne.
Allen: Defense wins championships, this offensive showcase sounds four alarms for fans of the game. Stop the madness and stop the JV basketball scores. The deeper into the season, the less surprises there are on offense, these scores will slow down if coaches are paying attention.
Perry: After an emotionally and physically exhausting game against Barnstable and the loss of the number one ranking, there had to be a little drop off for Everett. Cambridge deserves credit for a great game and could be considered a threat in the league going forward, but I think that this will be a blip for a team that has played a brutal early season schedule and Everett will recover quickly for a strong finish. It is hard to doubt a team that is always considered one of the top teams in the state and they just needed a week to get back on their feet and get over the disappointment of the loss to the Raiders.
6. WHAT ARE THE ODDS OF DUXBURY AND READING BOTH FINISHING THE REGULAR SEASON UNDEFEATED?
Barboza: Both teams are good enough to run the table in their respective divisions, but I’m looking at the strength of schedule each team plays through the end of the season. Reading’s schedule features only two games where I truly feel they’ll be pushed (Wakefield and Stoneham). On the other hand, Duxbury’s schedule is rife with potential pitfalls. That starts this week with a Pembroke team that took a big win over Whitman-Hanson two weeks ago. Not to mention, the Dragons have to contend with the aforementioned Panthers and a defensively sound Hingham squad to clinch another Patriot Keenan title. With that being said, I feel that both Duxbury and Reading will navigate the regular season without a blemish. The postseason is another question though.
Hall: Set the odds at three to one. Reading still faces a stiff challenge on Nov. 2 in Wakefield, and Duxbury should get a good push from Patriot League foes Pembroke (Friday), Hingham (Oct. 26) and Whitman-Hanson (Nov. 9). But the good news is both Reading and Duxbury got scares last weekend, having to pull out wins in the final minute in different methods -- Reading via a Drew Belcher touchdown, Duxbury via a goal-line stand. It's not about one superstar with either team, it's about a collective ball-hawking defense that swams, and that's why I believe these two teams will meet in the Division 2 Super Bowl with matching 12-0 records.
Kurkjian: The odds that both teams run the table are excellent. Not a knock on any of the teams remaining on either schedule, but it would be a major upset if either Duxbury or Reading took a loss. At this point, those teams are also my picks to meet up in the Division 2 Super Bowl, although obviously a lot can happen between now and then.
Allen: 83 percent, unless players begin taking practice days and series off with premature thoughts of the playoffs, then we drop to 41 percent. Teams with nothing to lose always practice harder than teams with a full meal in their bellies.