SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 27, 2013

Moving the Chains: Marblehead, Swampscott meet early this year

Moving the Chains
Matt Williams

---- — North Shore football fans won’t have to adjust their dials if they find themselves craving cranberry sauce on Saturday night.

After watching a Marblehead/Swampscott football game, the stomach grumbling for gravy and other Thanksgiving accouterments is perfectly understandable.

But for the first time since 1909, the Big Blue and Magicians will be playing on a day other than Thanksgiving. This year they will meet at noon tomorrow, at Blocksidge Field in Swampscott.

There are several reasons for the change. Because the state’s new playoff system awards automatic bids to league winners, the Northeastern Conference opted to have two rivals play twice: Swampscott/Marblehead and Winthrop/Revere. This fits in with the league’s unique power-based North/South structure, and those are also the only rivalries in different divisions (meaning they can’t play three times because they can’t meet in the playoffs).

“It’s weird,” said Liam Gillis, one of Marblehead’s captains. “I don’t know how to describe it other than that it feels weird.”

“Marblehead week is always exciting no matter what the date is. This week of practice has (had) a November flair,” said Swampscott captain Toby Hale.

Getting ready for a traditional holiday rival before the leaves turn presents challenges. Then there are the challenges Marblehead (3-0) presents simply because they’ve steamrolled their opponents thus far.

“It’s been different without the pre-holiday festivities, but our guys have played with a lot of emotion and energy in every game,” said Swampscott head coach Steve Dembowski, whose team picked up its first win last weekend and is 1-2.

“We’re going to have to play very well to stop an offense averaging six scores a game. All four of their receivers are good and Brooks Tyrrell, their running back, is outstanding. They present challenges in all phases of the game.”

The Big Blue upset Marblehead last Thanksgiving, and it’s interesting to note that the underdog (according to The Salem News’ staff picks, at least) has won in this rivalry each the last three years.

“Last year was tough. They outplayed us, but we’ve learned from it and we’re working very hard this week,” said Gillis, who as a hockey and lacrosse standout had played his school’s league rivals twice in a season before. Now, he and his teammates are getting used to the idea of doing that in football.

“I’ve never thought about that in football,” he said. “We have to treat this like any other game.”

The game has big playoff implications for Swampscott in a crowded Division 4. A win against Division 3 Northeast Marblehead would be worth 12 points, and even more in the long run when you factor in the number of games Marblehead will likely win this year. That, and the historic rivalry, have the improving Big Blue ready to go.

“It’s strictly business because we respect Marblehead’s good coaching and play ... and that drives us,” said Hale. “We both know what these games mean to us and to the towns.”

Marblehead quarterback Matt Millett is completing passes at an alarmingly efficient rate of 74 percent and his four targets, Brian Daly, Jeremy Gillis, Will Millett and Dylan Cressy, are all outstanding. On top of that, Tyrrell has accounted for 453 yards rushing and five touchdowns.

For the Big Blue, Hale has played well on the defensive line and Jordan James has emerged at linebacker. Mike Faia’s also been playing well at safety, but Swampscott will need strong efforts from the entire defense this week.

“Marblehead’s not afraid to throw it to their third (receiver). Their possession passing game is much improved, so we have be prepared for everything,” said Dembowski. “We need a big game from the defensive line, where it starts, but we really need a big game from everybody.”

Offensively, Swampscott is led by QB Brendan McDonald (474 yards, 5 TD passes), who has improved his efficiency each week and is targeting a variety of receivers including Ben Faulkner (13 grabs, 191 yards), Trevor Kelly (8 for 77) and Anthony Rizzo (7 for 69).

Desmond Wilhelmsen was a revelation for the Big Blue in his first game last week with 199 rushing yards, including a game-changing 85-yard touchdown run.

Sure, these games will have more pumpkin spice flavor than gravy and stuffing. Nine of the last 10 meetings between the Big Blue and Magicians have been decided by two touchdowns or less, though, so regardless of the date on the calendar it should shape up to be a good game.

“It’s a little odd and it’s a break in tradition, but I don’t feel like it takes away from the emotion of our storied rivalry,” said Hale. “This is still Swampscott versus Marblehead and I’m sure it’ll be an emotional, gritty and exciting game.”

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Could St. John’s Prep running back Johnny Thomas make history tomorrow against Everett?

“Guapo” is coming off consecutive 200-yard rushing games. It’s hard to recall any player ever running for 200 yards against the Crimson Tide since John DiBiaso has been coaching. Thomas will be looking to do so when the two teams meet at Cronin Stadium tomorrow (1:30 p.m.).

Everett (1-1) is 37-2 over the last three seasons, all of which ended with Super Bowl titles, and is 8-1 against St. John’s Prep dating back to 2001.

The most yards by an opposing running back against Everett in recent memory belongs to Dartmouth’s Jordan Todman (now a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars), who ran for 199 in a losing effort in the 2007 Division 1 Super Bowl. Locally, you may recall St. John’s Prep’s George Sessoms running for 179 against the Crimson Tide on a Monday night that snapped a lengthy regular season winning streak held by the Tide back in 2008.

Others that come to mind are Tyler Coppola’s 151-yard effort for the Prep in a 2010 Super Bowl loss to Everett. Peabody’s Frank Candela topped the century mark against Everett twice, rushing for 113 yards in 1995 (a 31-26 Tanners win) and 133 in 1996 (a 38-26 Everett win).

Everett doesn’t allow a 100-yard rusher very often, never mind anyone getting close to 200. Yet Thomas, who is committed to the University of Maryland, is arguably the best running back the state has seen in many years. He’s rushed for 200-plus yards in a game seven times and gone over 100 on a remarkable 19 occasions.

It’s clear that Thomas would rather run for 50 yards and win than rumble for 250 and lose. The significance of hitting either of those milestones against what’s become the marquee program in Mass. high school football, however, can’t be ignored.

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Tonight’s Peabody/Danvers contest appears to have major implications in the NEC South chase even though it’s the first game for both schools in league play. The key for the Tanners (1-1) will be the health of their middle linebackers, Cody Wlasuk and Billy Teehan, who both missed last week’s win over Somerville and are considered day-to-day.

Containing the Falcons’ Alex Valles, a tailback and team captain who torched Beverly for 233 yards and four TDs two weeks ago, would be difficult for a veteran defense. It may prove impossible for lesser experienced players, especially since the Falcons (1-1) will be rested coming off a bye week.

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Other nuggets heading into this weekend’s slate of games:

Visiting Beverly (1-2) is looking for its third consecutive win over Gloucester (2-1) tonight, something the Panthers haven’t accomplished since 1992-1994 ... Salem hasn’t beaten Lynn Classical since 2004, a dubious mark they’ll try stopping tonight at Manning Field ... Bishop Fenwick is also looking to take two-in-a-row from Arlington Catholic for the first time since 2004-05. The Crusaders snapped a six-game skid against the Cougars last year ... Pingree and Tilton are tied 3-3 all-time, with Tilton winning the first three meetings and the Highlanders entering tomorrow’s home game (3 p.m.) having won three straight.

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Moving the Chains, a column on North Shore high school football, runs in The Salem News every Friday during the fall season. Contact assistant sports editor Matt Williams at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.