PEABODY, Mass. -- Many are anticipating a different dynamic in Reading this year, with different faces. But there is one constant under center: the rifling arm of rising senior Drew Belcher.
When we last saw the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Belcher, he led the Rockets to a 27-7 win over Mansfield in the MIAA Division 2 Eastern Mass. Super Bowl, brushing the final stroke in what was a dominant 2012 season to earn ESPN Boston All-State honors. With his long, powerful frame accompanying exemplary arm strength, Belcher was one of the most dangerous dual threats in Massachusetts, bulling through the inside gaps on Tebow-like power plays.
Yesterday afternoon at Bishop Fenwick High School, in the third annual Under Armour Northeast 7-on-7 East Regional tournament, Belcher was breaking in some new targets, what with the graduation of deep threat Ryan Maney. For Belcher, the needle hit the groove early in the day, and rolled in clockwork fashion to the Rockets' second straight East Regional championship, beating Chelmsford 29-12 in the final.
Reading and Chelmsford both earned automatic bids to Tuesday night's New England Championship, at Bishop Fenwick. Andover won last year's New England title at Gillette Stadium by beating Reading, 19-7, in the finals.
"It feels great to win it again. I mean, it was much more important this year, because we had a lot of young guys," Belcher said. "We lost all our receivers, so we had a lot of juniors who were great today. It really helped working routes, figuring out our offense, getting all those guys in with the varsity. That was big."
Belcher found success with targets such as Will Murray and Mike Senfuma, but where he scored biggest was with receiver Rob DiLoreto.
In the semifinals against Buckingham, Browne & Nichols, the Rockets continually exploited a seam over the deep middle with vertical routes. DiLoreto continuously ran posts from the slots, splitting the safeties downfield, and Belcher went to him over and over.
Against Chelmsford in the finals, DiLoreto exposed the sidelines for big gains. On the Rockets' second offensive drive, coming after a tip-drill interception, the Rockets marched the entire 40 yards in one play, DiLoreto running a corner route to the first-down marker at the 25-yard line, side-stepping a defender and reversing direction for an easy scamper into the end zone. On the first play of the next Reading drive, Belcher hooked up with DiLoreto deep down the right sideline for first and goal at the nine; Belcher found a receiver for a touchdown on an inside slant the next play.
"After last year, we really know [each other]," Belcher said. "I can just tell him to run a seam, and I'll know if he's going to stop, I'll know if he's going to keep going, if he's going to break out. We have a lot of flexibility with that route, and we have really good chemistry on it, and it worked well today."
Two plays into the ensuing Chelmsford drive, the Rockets defense came up with another tip-drill pick, and Belcher put on the finishing touches. On the first play, the Rockets ran a post-wheel combination down the left sideline, leaving Murray wide open for the final score of the day.
Some other notes and observations from yesterday's tournament:
Fun and Gun: Lowell is a preseason favorite in the Merrimack Valley Conference, thanks to a well-oiled offense that returns many integral pieces from a season ago, when they finished 9-2.
Plain and simple, this is going to be one of the most entertaining offenses to watch, up there with Natick and St. John's of Shrewsbury. Offensive coordinator Brian Christopher draws up some funky stuff, utilizing pistol sets with spread principles as well as some zone read and an array of screens. In pool play yesterday, they put defenses in a bind with layered route combinations, including a unique “double wheel” set that had two receivers breaking off at different depths from the same path.
For an idea of what all of this looks like on film, take a look at rising senior wide receiver Jack Galvin’s Hudl highlights (take note of the packaged plays, particularly the zone read triple option).
The Red Raiders had a good showing, going 3-1 in pool play with their lone loss coming to Lynn English on the final play of the game. They lost to Arlington in overtime in the “Sweet 16” round, but not before impressing those in attendance with their deep arsenal of quality skill players.
Galvin is the biggest name of the bunch, a precise route-runner whose quick reflexes help him get great leverage on defenders and catch difficult balls in traffic. His speed is also a factor -- Galvin was one of the fastest hurdlers during indoor track season, with a 7.94 time in the 55-meter. But also take note of Musa Mansaray, a two-way player who is pretty physical at cornerback, and has recorded a time as fast as 15.5 in the 110-meter hurdles during outdoor track season. Scatback Ndeiva Mason, a waterbug who is shifty in space, will attract attention as well.
The biggest question mark for Lowell will be at quarterback, where they must replace the dynamic Cam Latta. Keep an eye on senior Brian Dolan, a baseball star who transferred from Lawrence Academy midway through last school year and has plenty of zip on his throws. Latta’s younger brother, Keegan, should have a breakthrough campaign as well.
Nothing new on Belcher recruiting: Scouts seem to be divided on how Belcher projects at the next level. He has heard from a wide variety of Division 1 FCS schools, including Delaware, Villanova and Lafayette. There has also been varying degrees of inquiry at the FBS level, including UMass and Boston College (his uncle, Bedford head coach Jack Belcher, is a former BC player). Still, Belcher has no offers to report at this time.
"A lot of them want to see senior film," Belcher said.
Asked about rumors college scouts would consider moving him to another position, such as tight end, Belcher said, "I haven't been talked to for any other position. I've been talked to only for quarterback."
Dream come true for McCaffrey: BB&N's showing at the tournament came less than 24 hours after senior wide receiver/defensive back Mike McCaffrey gave a verbal commitment to Holy Cross, a school where his last name carries some heavy weight.
Both his parents are Holy Cross alums. His father, James McCaffrey, was a basketball standout in the mid-80's, getting picked in the sixth round by the Phoenix Suns in the 1986 NBA Draft and being inducted into the school's Hall of Fame in 1992. Mike has been to the campus many times over the years, mostly for basketball, and has always been fond of the place.
"It was a place I always wanted to go, ever since I was a little kid," McCaffrey said. "It was just a place that I loved. I went there in the winter, and it was just a place I always wanted to go. It's got great people, great football, great academics, it just has it all."
Of his anticipated role with the Crusaders, McCaffrey says he was told by head coach Tom Gilmore he thinks he can fit at cornerback. But more importantly, McCaffrey said, "after the one-day camp in June, he [Gilmore] said I was a very, very competitive kid, and that's what they like in me."
McCaffrey has been timed as fast as 4.52 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and that speed showed well on Saturday, playing mostly split out wide and beating defenders deep. Speed runs in the McCaffrey gene; his brother, Jimmy, is a defensive back for Boston College, and at BB&N established himself as one of the most dynamic kick returners to come through Massachusetts in recent years.
During summers, when Jimmy is home, the two will often head to the FieldTurf at their hometown Winchester High School and work on a number of drills.
"He's been a real big influence in my life," Mike said.
A number of BB&N players stood out on the day in addition to McCaffrey. Quarterback Cole O'Connor timed his throws well with targets like running back Frank Williams, but on the defensive side Augie Lin was among the more impressive coverage players. In pool play against Watertown, Lin was paired against 6-foot-4 receiver T.J. Hairston, a long, lanky prospect with good agility. Giving up half a foot to Hairston, Lin played him tight in press coverage. Hairston had a great rip move to the outside against his press, and towards the end of the game came up with a tip-drill pick on defense. But most of the time, Lin got good shove off the line and jammed him inside.
Small-school stars show well: Hairston figures to be an imposing target with his slender, basketball-esque frame able to out-reach defenders on 50/50 balls. Several other small-school stars stood out as players to keep an eye on the next months.
Boston Cathedral junior wide receiver/safety Trehme Haney gave defensive backs fits all day in pool play, as the 6-foot-1, 184-poounder routinely reaching over or out-leaping double coverage for jump balls. His teammate Justice Turner, who came in third in Massachusetts in the 200-meter dash last fall, will be tough to man up.
Meanwhile, keep an eye on Bedford running back/defensive back Olan Abner, who passes the eye test with his physical maturity. The 5-foot-10, 190-pounder has heard from UMass, UNH and Central Connecticut State so far, and figures to project at strong safety for the next level.