EXETER, N.H. -- No coach. No problem.
As it turned out, Billerica did not need a mentor to guide them through the grueling and heat-exhausting Under Armour 7-on-7 North Regional on Saturday.
Once pool play was completed, Indian coaches left their team in good hands (to themselves) as they prepared for the single elimination playoff round. Those Billerica players taking part in the event clung to a 'no problem' attitude as it ran roughshod through the playoffs before claiming the regional title at Exeter High School's Eustis Field.
The Indians knocked out Buckingham, Browne & Nichols (22-14) in the semifinals before disposing of Danvers 20-12 in the championship tilt.
"We just pulled it together," said senior fullback/linebacker Derek Laundry. "All of us know how to play together. We just came out here and had some fun. Everyone seems to be stepping up in their roles and I think it is going to be another great year for us."
This triumph marks the second straight North title for the Indians, who defeated BB&N in last year's final. The Indians also reeled in the Northeast New England crown, upending Stoughton. The two victories appeared to set the tone for Billerica upon entering the regular season. The Indians won their first 10 games, including postseason victories over Waltham and Newton South, before succumbing to Reading in the Division 2 North final.
With a majority of its skilled players lost to graduation, this particular Billerica club offered several new faces. Yet the mindset still remains the same. With the brunt of the defense back in the fold, undoubtedly, the Indians have be considered a favorite to reach Gillette Stadium next December.
"When we are here for stuff like this, we really put the work in," senior wide receiver and defensive back James Flaherty said. "We don't bring a lot of guys but the guys who do come play hard. The seniors from last year left this team on a good note and I think we are following in their footsteps and continuing to send this program in the right direction. There are not a lot of other teams who work as hard as we do during the off-season. Gillette is the goal and that is what we are aiming for."
Despite some new faces, the Indians continue to be a team on the rise under Sigsbury, who will begin his third season at the helm. Billerica, in spite not having a coach to guide them during this tournament, never wavered as they demonstrated solid athleticism and talent by taking down some of the top clubs in the process during this event.
"We just stayed confident throughout," said senior quarterback Zac Burns. "We went undefeated in pool play and we just wanted to win the whole thing after that. When Coach (Duane) Sigsbury left we just played together as a team and stuck together the whole time. We want to get to the Super Bowl and for me, (last year's QB) Justin Beck was a good mentor for me and I really learned from that. For us, its Super Bowl this year."
Looking to make mark in ISL
By most standards, BB&N's 5-3 mark of a year ago should be considered a success. But if you talk to the players that experienced it, it was not.
The Knights started off last season in fine fashion, winning their first two games. But they quickly hit a road block, losing three straight to the likes of Governors Academy, Milton Academy and Lawrence Academy. Having faced, and fallen, to the iron of the ISL, it would have been easy for BB&N to fold its tent thereafter. Yet the Knight, rebounded nicely, closing out the season with victories over Nobles, St. Sebastian's and St. Paul's.
Although the late season resurgence did not award them a postseason bowl, the Knights appear determined to make a solid run this year.
"I think for us, it is just about learning how to finish," said Knights senior quarterback and reigning NEPSAC MVP Jeff Costello. "We can play a great game but in that last two minute drive we need to be light's out. We let a few games slip in the final minutes of the fourth quarter last year. But I think this year we will definitely be improved in that aspect. The talent level in this league is so high level that we need to come out firing on all cylinders each week."
In each of those three defeats, BB&N was within striking distance of obtaining victory.
"It wasn't like we played bad in any of those games," senior receiver/linebacker Graeme Davis said. "Obviously, all of them are very good teams but we know that we need to play a complete four quarters."
Says senior safety Will Hurley, "I think last year we struggled a lot coming out of the gate. In a lot of games, we came out really slow and got down early. I think it is really important this year for us to mentally prepare ourselves before games and go all out on every single drive. If we come out strong, and continue it throughout the fourth quarter, then I think that will be the difference for us this year."
Costello, who transferred from Lexington High to BB&N at the start of last season, admits it took a bit of time to learn and adapt to a new offensive style. Now with a year under his belt, Costello says he feels a lot more comfortable running the offense.
"It took more time than it should have for me to learn it," he said. "But now it is all coming natural to me as far as my reads and progressions go. I am a lot more confident going into this season. To be honest, I don't see any reason why this team cannot win the ISL championship this year."
Goffstown eyeing a repeat
No one ever thought it would happen, let alone did anyone come to expect it. But in the final game of last season, there stood Goffstown relishing in the glow upon winning the NHIAA Division 1 state championship.
From the start of last season to the very end, the Grizzlies were tested and pushed to the limit yet refused to give in. They finished the year undefeated at 12-0 that was highlighted with a 42-14 triumph over Exeter in the championship game -- the first in school history.
"To be honest, I didn't see it as being realistic that we could compete with the Manchester schools, the Nashua schools and then you throw Exeter and Pinkerton Academy into the mix," said Goffstown head coach Justin Hufft. "I did not think it would happen but credit those kids who never doubted themselves and played with a lot of confidence."
It was only a handful of years ago when Goffstown was bumped up from Division 3 status to Division 1. Still decimated by low participation numbers, Hufft, who took over the program in 2011, wasn't sure how long the program would survive thinking long term. Now, following last year's success, interest in the program has risen.
Goffstown, participating in the Under Armour North Regional 7-on-7, will enter the upcoming season with a completely different perspective on things compared to years past. With 20 players since departed, for the first time, they will no doubt be the considered the hunted instead of the hunter.
"Last year is in the past so you can't dwell on it anymore," said Nik Moquin, who will be the team's starting quarterback replacing the departed Casey Gervais, now at Stonehill College. "We all know that we need to come out this year and compete. That is why coach takes us to things like today. He know these events build team chemistry. The past two year, playing behind Casey, has helped me a lot. I was able to watch and study a great quarterback and, I feel, that is only going to help me grow as a player here."
What the Grizzlies were able to do a year ago was captivate this Manchester suburb as well as bring a certain pride to the community. That will never depart.
"Goffstown football never really had a season like last year before," senior slot receiver Franklin Castillo-Diaz said. "I think it is probably the best thing to happen to our town because we were the first team to bring a state championship to it. As a team, I think we did a very good job representing our town."
Marshwood sets sites on another title
The setting may be different, but the culture has not changed. Whatever Alex Rotsko touches seems to turn into gold and his players have all bought in.
Since Rotsko's arrival to the South Berwick, ME school in 2012, he has led them to three state championship appearances. In his inaugural campaign, the Hawks came up short. But in 2014, they won the first of back to back Class B championships. Success breeds more success and there is no shortage of that at Marshwood. The participating numbers have risen over 40 percent since Rotsko's arrival. A school with an enrollment of approximately 750, the Hawks plan to dress nearly 90 players for the upcoming season.
"We may have lost some skilled players from a year ago but I think we have better depth overall and a lot of pretty good skilled players said Rotsko, his team taking part in the Under Armour 7-on-7 North Regional. "Because of that I think we can continue to compete."
Rotsko may very well go down as one of the greatest all-time high school football coaches in Massachusetts history, while continuing to build upon a newfound legacy in Maine. After a stint coaching at AIC, Rotsko took over at Longmeadow High School in which he built a true state powerhouse, winning 11 Super Bowls and finishing with an astounding career record of 184-39.
At Marshwood, the idea of a three-peat is never considered improbable. Although the Hawks lost number key components responsible for the past two state title victories, they still return a solid group capable of getting them back to the promise land.
"We have the talent here but now we just need to build on it," senior RB Chris Sarzynski said. "Everyone here now wants to be apart of this program. It's not just the starters, but everyone."
Sarzynski is certainly most-grateful to be apart of the Hawks program. Last year, during a game versus Leavitt, he suffered a broken neck. Following countless months of rehabilitation, Sarzynski has been given a clean bill of health by physicians to be able to play again this season.
Marshwood will look to senior Matt Caverly to lead the team during the season. Caverly is the son of John Caverly, who coached against Rotsko during his days at East Longmeadow High School, and was the head coach at Marshwood before Rotsko took over. The young Caverly is well aware of the football tradition Marshwood has set for itself over the years and says he wants to keep that tradition going strong.
"We do have a rich football history in our town," he said. "I feel as though these past two years we have brought football back to Marshwood. We know this year we will have targets on our backs but we see it more as the other teams are trying to catch us. But we know that we can never stop from taking our foot off the pedal."
Asked what the difference has been coaching at Longmeadow and Marshwood, Rotsko says there is not much at all when it comes to the game of football itself.
"I will say it is a different animal here," Rotsko said. "Longmeadow is a white collar town and [Marshwood] is a blue collar town. But I still find that both schools and both towns love the game of football just as much as the other."