By Phil Stacey
---- — TOPSFIELD — There’s a mantra that Jim Pugh has preached to his Masconomet football teams for almost as long as he’s been at the regional high school.
If you put in the time and work hard, we’ll give you a shot.
It’s what the Chieftains promote to their players, a proverbial carrot dangling in front of players both who want to become full-time starters and those who want to scratch their way into the lineup somehow, someway. It’s particularly true on defense, where Pugh and his staff want to rotate fresh bodies into the mix and give younger players valuable varsity experience with little dropoff in the level of play.
Like most things in life it’s cyclical; how hard the players work and how big, fast and talented they are can change from season to season. But this fall, Pugh believes his defensive charges have all the ingredients, both tangible and intangible, to have a season they’ll long remember in Boxford, Middleton and Topsfield.
Cape Ann League Large play begins tomorrow night for the Chieftains when they welcome league newcomer Saugus High (7 p.m. at Bunker Stadium) into the mix. If Masconomet can control the game defensively by dominating the line of scrimmage and dictating the flow of play, Pugh feels like his team will be in good shape.
“We always feel our defense wins us games,” said Pugh, who has 163 victories in this, his 25th year as Masconomet’s head coach. “We get big plays from our offense, but typically it’s our defense that shuts other teams down.”
That’s exactly what happened in the Chieftains’ last outing a week ago against previously unbeaten Gloucester. Coming off of a lethargic opening night loss at Melrose, Pugh drilled it into his team that they not only had to rid themselves of the turnovers that plagued them in Week 1, but also had to come flying off the ball at the point of attack and own the trenches by being more smashmouth than their foes.
Which is exactly what the Chieftains did in a 27-0 triumph. “Shutting down a very good Gloucester team like that was reminiscent of some of our championship-type teams we’ve had,” admitted Pugh.
A large part of the Chieftains’ success when protecting their half of the field goes to assistant coaches Joe Kulis and Gavin Monagle. Demanding and exacting, yet following the team’s credo of giving players who put in the time and effort a shot, the two veterans have developed a formula for success that’s obviously working.
There are playmakers in the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary for Masco; as a group they’re blessed with terrific speed, great size and an inate ability to attack the football and whoever happens to be carrying it on a particular play.
Junior Kyle Taggart, a 6-foot-1, 260-pound two-way tackle, is a perfect case in point. He got his feet wet on the varsity as a freshman, got worked into the rotation even more so as a sophomore and is just now starting to realize his full potential as a junior. Pugh said one of the few highlights in reviewing film from the Melrose loss was watching Taggart making plays downfield, “above and beyond the call of duty. That’s what it takes to win.”
Twin brothers Austin and Mackenzie Cashin are three-year starters (Austin at defensive end; Mackenzie as an outside linebacker). Joining Taggart and Austin Cashin on the defensive line are some big boys: 6-4, 220-pound Jack Butt, 6-5, 215-pound Kevin Zegel and 6-2, 245-pound Ben Rosenbaum, among others.
Mike McKay (6-2, 200 lbs.) and Steve O’Reilly (6-foot, 230 lbs.) are returning starters at middle linebacker; Mackenzie Cashin and Gavin Monagle (5-11, 185) flank them as the outside backers. Pugh said the quartet are all ferocious hitters who can track down — and cut down — ballcarriers who make it through the first wave of D.
In the secondary, Harry Cwik (sounds like ‘Q-wick’) and Corey Tines are back for a second season starting; they’re joined by safety Logan Thompson. Adding to the depth, offensive stars Mike Tivinis (halfback) and Troy Bunker (quarterback) provide relief.
With league play beginning for teams across the Commonwealth this weekend, no one needs to remind the Chieftain players of the implications that begin with tomorrow night’s contest vs. the Sachems. Pugh hopes it’s another step towards where they’d ultimately like to be: playing the first weekend of December for a state title, thanks in large part to their defense.