1. WITH MILLS/HOPEDALE'S JON BAKER LOST FOR THE SEASON WITH AN ACL TEAR, THE LINEMAN OF THE YEAR DISCUSSION IS WIDE OPEN AGAIN. WHICH PLAYERS WILL YOU BE PAYING ATTENTION TO FOR THESE PLAYOFFS?
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
Duxbury’s Grant Kramer has been one of the more steady linemen I’ve seen in the last couple of years. The younger brother of former Dragon and current BC Eagle Aaron Kramer, the 6-foot-5, 270-pounder will be a critical element to Duxbury’s offense if they hope to advance past Needham in Friday’s first-round playoff game. Also, you cannot overstate the effect Plymouth South left tackle Shaun Duncombe has in front of Dylan Oxsen. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound Bryant commit has played no small part in the Panthers’ playoff campaigns the last two seasons.
ESPN Boston High Schools Editor
This is about as wide-open a field as you'll find in our Player of the Year conversations, including Mr. Football (which is turning into somewhat of a short list). With Baker down, I am paying special attention to Plymouth South's Shaun Duncombe, an absolute road grader for star running back Dylan Oxsen, and also a force on the defensive line. You also can't count out Duxbury's Grant Kramer, who has a good shot at making it two Dragons in the three-year history of this award (Former Duxbury tackle Gordon Acha won the inaugural award in 2011). But keep your eyes peeled for some under-the-radar hoggies, in particular Shepherd Hill's Chris Lindstrom, Central Catholic's Joe Brown, Fitchburg's Hunter Sallila, Lynn English's Chris Tinkham.
ESPN Boston correspondent
I mostly cover Central Mass, but I do live in Brookline, so it's tough to ignore the pair of Division I offensive tackles playing at Dexter School. BC commit James Hendren and UMass commit Dan DiNicola have helped lead Dexter to the first winning season in program history (In fact, they're undefeated at 6-0).
Hendren isn' the two-way force that Baker is, and he plays a good deal of his schedule against Prep schools outside the state, but it's hard to argue that he isn't the most talented lineman left in the Commonwealth. As for MIAA lineman, I still love what massive OT/DT Will Greelish is doing out in Auburn.
The Rockets aren't the juggernaut they've been in recent years, but Greelish has dominated from his right tackle spot, and anchored the Auburn defense from the nose.
Founder and Editor, Mass. Prep Stars (massprepstars.com)
There are a lot of solid lineman that have had great seasons. Three of the top names that stand out are down South in Duxbury's Grant Kramer, Plymouth South's Shaun Duncombe, and Marshfield's Aidan Beresford.
ESPN Boston correspondent
My Lineman of the Year goes to Shepherd Hill's Chris Lindstrom. At 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Lindstrom is the anchor behind the success of the Rams Double-Wing offense, and a key reason why they are the No. 1 seed in the Central Mass. Division 4 Tournament.
2. WHICH TEAM GOT THE BIGGEST SNUB OUT OF THESE PLAYOFFS?
Barboza: I don’t think there’s any doubt that it was Pope John Paul II. For all intents and purposes, a team that very might have won Division 6 South is now playing out the string until Thanksgiving Day.
Hall: I would have liked to see Medway get a shot, after landing in the top eight of its division, but the biggest snub might be Pope John Paul II. This is a legitimate state title contender, with a live arm (Ryan Barabe), some cerebral receivers and an underrated tailback in Diego Meritus. The Lions would compete for a state title in Division 4, let alone D6, yet they are on the outside looking in thanks to automatic qualifiers. I hope they revisit this second auto qualifier rule next year when they vote on this again.
Parello: Honestly, I don't think anybody was snubbed. We all know the qualification rules (Though they are somewhat different in North and South than they are in Central and West), so if you don't get in, that's your fault for not taking care of business or scheduling quality opponents.
I will say, however, that I am a little stunned that Brockton didn't get in. Not because they were snubbed by the system, but because I just think the Boxers are incredibly talented, particularly on the offensive line. Andover missing out was a bit of a disappointment as well (Especially since they had a better power rating than AQ Malden), but again, those are the rules. Plus, the Golden Warriors appear to be a year away from playing their best football.
Kilian: It is hard to say there are many snubs as there certainly seems to be a lot of representation. If you look deep you could make some arguments tams such as North Reading in D4 North and Minuteman in D6 North but of the most part I think they nailed it.
McGuirk: I feel Minuteman Voc. got the biggest snub in the Division 6 North Tournament. The Mustangs were an impressive 5-2, playing in the Commonwealth Conference Small Division, including a 3-0 record at home.
3. DIVISION 2 SOUTH IS THE MOST INTRIGUING, AND ARGUABLY MOST COMPETITIVE, BRACKET. HOW DO YOU SEE IT PLAYING OUT?
Barboza: Going through the field, I have No. 1 seed Mansfield, No. 2 Barnstable and No. 3 Natick holding serve through the first round, although I like No. 5 Duxbury by a hair over No. 4 Needham in a close, one-possession game. From there, I see Mansfield claiming its second postseason win over the Dragons in as many years and Natick edging out Barnstable in the other semifinal, which could be the best game in the tournament regardless of division. Then, in the sectional final, I have the top seed and overall state No. 1 Mansfield moving on to the Eastern Mass. final.
Hall: There isn't anything Mansfield has done to convince they won't emerge from this cauldron, but keep your eyes on Barnstable and Natick as a potential second-round matchup. If these two battle each other in the next round, it won't be a rock fight -- it will be a laser fight. Both of these offenses are known to score in bunches. Barnstable has some home run threats in Derek Estes and Hayden Murphy, and they like to go vertical on teams where they feel they have the advantage. There's also some intricate extracurriculars at work in the running game, using receivers to not only take defenders out of the box, but scramble their identity of the play's direction. Troy Flutie has had an amazing year for Natick, capped with his 561-yard, eight-TD performance last week against Walpole; but something tells me he is about to ignite even more fireworks this next month.
Parello: Throw a dart in Division 2 South and see who it lands on, but Mansfield has obviously been dominant, and Barnstable has won six in a row, including very impressive wins over Xaverian and BC High. Then you have Troy Flutie and Natick, who seem to be able to score at will on anybody.
I'll cop out and go with top seed Mansfield, but will add that whoever emerges from this bracket will likely have to contend with Leominster from CMass or Springfield Central from the West. Things won't get much easier then.
Kilian: Mansfield looks too strong right now, despite the ridiculous bracket of strength in D2 South. The Natick and King Philip opener is pretty wild and if the favorite seeds advance in to the semi-final round it will be a who's who of match-ups, with some must-watch football.
McGuirk: In the Division 2 South pairings, I expect Barnstable and Natick to make solid runs. But in the end I will stick with Mansfield. This team is multi-talented with QB Kyle Wisnieski at the controls. No doubt the Hornets will be pushed to the limit in what is arguably the best overall bracket in the state but should still come out on top in the end.
4. WHO ARE YOUR CONTENDERS FOR DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR?
Barboza: I think there are several linebackers worthy of mention in the conversation, including (in no particular order) Tewksbury’s Eddie Matovu, King Philip’s Brett McEvoy and Leicester’s Tom Rodrick. Up front, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a defensive lineman with as big an impact as Xaverian’s Joe Gaziano. As far as defensive backs are concerned, Everett’s Lubern Figaro is also in the conversation.
Hall: This award went to linebackers in its first two years (Tim Joy, Chelmsford, 2011; Marshall McCarthy, Duxbury, 2012), and Leicester middle linebacker Tom Rodrick is the best I've seen this year, but this could be the first year we give it to a defensive back. The competition at the corner and safety postitions is steep this year, with multiple candidates from Everett (Lubern Figaro, Lukas Denis) and Leominster (Neil O'Connor, Jarell Addo) as well as St. John's of Shrewsbury's Davon Jones, Springfield Central's Day Day Clemons and Central Catholic's D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie. Barnstable's Derek Estes, one of the state's premier coverage corners, is the dark horse of the bunch.
Parello: I'm sticking with linebacker Tom Rodrick from Leicester, but what Lubern Figaro does for Everett is pretty special as well, plus he faces tougher competition night in and night out. Still, nobody does more for their team than the Wolverine linebacker, and you get the feeling that Rodrick is a man amongst boys out there, roaming sideline-to-sideline and delivering crushing blows to ball carriers and receivers that dare go across the middle.
Kilian: There are some very good senior defensive standouts this year that deserve immediate consideration in Everett's Lubern Figaro, Leicester's Tom Rodrick and Central Catholic's D'Andre Drummond-Mayrie. One underclassmen to keep an eye on during the playoffs, however, is Lowell star junior linebacker Shyheim Cullen. Cullen has had a breakout season and is a star in the making.
McGuirk: The Defensive Player of the Year has to go to Springfield Central's Ju'an Williams. The senior is equally an exceptional as a shutdown defensive back as he is a top-tier wide receiver and place kicker.
5. NAME THREE TEAMS THAT WILL SURPRISE IN THESE PLAYOFFS
Barboza: I don’t know if it’s so much of a surprise, but maybe teams that aren’t so much in the main focus in Division 6, but I could envision scenarios where either Cathedral or Latin Academy go on to win the state championship (Hint: I did pick one the aforementioned to win it all). Cathedral hasn’t even played to its full potential for most of the year with Kejonte Hickman being held out for most of the first half of the season and simply are not many finer play-makers in the state at quarterback than the Dragons’ Kyle Dance. Also, watch out for Dennis-Yarmouth in Division 4. The Dolphins drew the No. 2 seed, which means they’re on the opposing side of the bracket from TVL powers Westwood and Holliston. They might just have the in-road to the sectional title.
Hall: They're the No. 2 seed in D1 South, yes, but I'm not sure Attleboro is being talked about enough as a contender. This is a team that put up 42 points on the No. 1 team in the land (Mansfield), then came out swinging against one of the state's top defenses (King Philip) for a nice upset victory. This program has forever been a sleeping giant, and the Blue Bombardiers may finally be headed in the right direction under first-year head coach Mike Strachan. Quarterback Tim Walsh garners most of the attention, as well as top targets Luke Morrison and Brendan Massey, but keep an eye on junior scatback Damon Belin and sophomore two-way lineman Kyle Murphy, the latter a physical specimen with a high ceiling.
In D4 Central, many are going with Doherty, Shepherd Hill or St. Peter-Marian as their champion. But don't sleep on Quabbin, which seems like the ultimate wild card in all of this. They have the state's leading passer in Dylan Kierman, operating a hyper-charged Air Raid scheme that has seen its four top receivers record 340 or more yards receiving. Nick Thyden leads Central Mass. in both receiving (696 yards, 9 TD) and interceptions (six), and he could be the difference in the Panthers' first-round battle with Doherty. If Quabbin doesn't come away victorious in that one, there's plenty of teams in the bracket that are hoping the Panthers can at least soften up the Highlanders for later rounds.
Playoff games tend to favorite teams that like to chew up the clock, which is why I think Somerset-Berkley is a sleeper in Division 3 Southeast as the No. 7 seed. The Blue Raiders are always a tough out with their double-wing scheme, and Chip Wood has done a fine job as the feature back.
Parello: In Division 1 North I think Lowell could really surprise some people, despite the fact that they would have to take out St. John's Prep, then likely Everett to do so. But, I am a huge fan of the Red Raiders' up-tempo offense and receiver Jack Galvin. If they defense can at least slow people down, they're going to be a tough out.
Not a huge surprise, but I like Dennis-Yarmouth in Division 4 South. In Division 4 Central keep your eyes on St. Peter-Marian. The favorites in that bracket are Shepherd Hill and Doherty, and rightfully so, but the Guardians lost to both those teams by a combined two points. Plus, SPM has a talented sophomore QB in Seamus Leary that seems to get better by the snap.
I still think Doherty could win the whole state in D4, but beating SPM again won't be easy.
Lowell - the combination of QB Brian Dolan and WR Jack Galvin are as good as any where else in the state.
Arlington - A team with no big stars, but has solid coaching and has been stellar on defense throughout allowing a mere 13 points-per-game.
Acton-Boxborough - The dual running attack of Will Tejada and Tom Soponaro should give opposing defenses plenty of fits.
No. 4 seed Wayland in D3 Northwest
No. 4 seed Lincoln-Sudbury in D2 North
No. 7 seed Stoneham in D4 North
6. NAME THREE PLAYERS THAT WILL HAVE A BREAKTHROUGH IN THESE PLAYOFFS
Barboza: Not that we haven’t been paying attention, but Marblehead has flown under your radar, junior running back and linebacker Brooks Tyrrell is a player people are going to enjoy watching. A Notre Dame lacrosse commit, Tyrrell is a dynamic athlete, who’s already surpassed the 1,000-yard rushing mark on the year. Quabbin quarterback Dylan Kierman has put up some startling numbers this season, and has led the state in passing yards for much of the year. Now, the Panthers have a tall task in the first round of the Div. 4 Central playoffs with a matchup with Doherty, but if they can somehow pull off the victory, Kierman will be a big reason why. Finally, Attleboro sophomore two-way lineman Kyle Murphy is a Division 1 college talent in the making. The 6-foot-3 tackle seldom leaves the field, all that much more impressive for a second-year player, and is a player opposing coaches alter game plans around.
Hall: We've talked about Dennis-Yarmouth's Michael Dunn and his ability as a jack-of-all-trades on offense, lining up seemingly everywhere, but I love the way this kid covers so much ground on defense. He is a smart player who knows when and when not to take chances, and his conditioning is impressive.
The conversation of top quarterbacks is typically crowded, but one guy that does not get talked about enough is Melrose's Malik Garrett, as true a dual threat QB as you'll find. The Red Raiders are a No. 2 seed in wide-open D3 Northwest, and the 5-foot-11, 200-pounder is arguably the biggest reason why. Melrose likes to play fast, and hit quick darts on the perimeter, but one area I think they excel in particularly is in the option game, whether it's a straight pitch out or packaging swing passes and screens on the backside of zone reads. Garrett is a very elusive player with the ball, a trait visibly influenced by his lacrosse prowess.
I really liked what I saw out of Walpole's Lovevindjy Salvant last week against Natick. He's one of the star sophomores coach Barry Greener was raving about in the preseason, and it's exciting to think of what the Rebels could do with two more seasons of Salvant and Steve Cuqua in the backfield. But for the now, Salvant could be their secret weapon, with his elite top-end speed. When he goes in motion, take cover.
Joe Gaziano, Jr. DE, Xaverian: Gaziano has emerged as maybe the best player on one of the state's best defenses. He's delivered dominant pass rush performances against Everett and Brockton (That I can remember off the top of my head), and seems poised to thrust himself into the state-wide conversation for Defensive Player of the Year in 2014.
Davon Jones, Jr. WR/S, St. John's (Shrewsbury): It seems like everybody in Central Mass has been waiting for Jones to fulfill his potential as a receiver, but he's already one of the state's most impactful safeties. The emergence of Michael McGillicuddy has cooled Jones' numbers on offense, but if the Pioneers are to score that colossal upset win over Leominster, it will be a coming out party for Jones as, maybe, the state's premier defensive back heading into next season.
Alfred Adarkwah, Sr. WR/TE/DB, Doherty: I'll stay out in Central and give you the best red zone threat I've seen all year. 6-foot-4 Alfred Adarkwah is impossible to cover one-on-one, especially near the goal line. Still, teams are virtually forced to do it, because he plays opposite explosive BC receiver commit Isaac Yiadom. Don't be surprised if Adarkwah has himself a few multi-touchdown games in these playoffs.
McGuirk: My three breakthrough players are Tejada as well as Agawam running back Stephen Comee, the key offensive force behind the Brownies undefeated season; and Quabbin quarterback Dylan Kierman, who has put up solid numbers all season with over 2,000 passing yards and 23 TDs, but has not received the recognition he deserves.
James Sullivan, Jr. RB/DB, Tewksbury
Kejuan Farquharson Soph. RB, Conocrd-Carlisle
Mike Balsamo, Jr. RB/DB, Central Catholic