SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

August 19, 2013

On Football: What to expect as football teams strap on the helmets

On Football
Matt Williams

---- — Early this morning — before or after you thumbed through this newspaper, depending on when you rise — hundreds of boys around the North Shore were doing jumping jacks wearing football helmets and shorts.

The joy that comes with such a seemingly mundane activity can be explained in three words: It’s football season.

Much work will be done between today’s sessions on the dewy grass and the season opener. Teams will install offenses and defenses, learn techniques, get in shape and discover which underclassmen can contribute. Lots of things can change, but with the unofficial beginning of the fall sports, lets look ahead to what you can expect from the teams on the North Shore.

Since this is the first time the Bay State is employing an official playoff system, lets run through the local teams in order of their divisional placement.

Defending D1 Super Bowl champion St. John’s Prep headlines the field in Division 1 North, a field with 12 large schools. Returning Salem News Player of the Year Johnny Thomas is undoubtedly the best running back in the state, probably in New England, and the Eagles return four of five starters on the offensive line.

Repeating as Super Bowl champs has proven impossible in the immediate area, though Gloucester has done it several times. As the Eagles look to make history, the team in their way would be one that knows plenty about back-to-back Super Bowls: Everett. A titanic match between the Prep and the Crimson could punctuate the D1 North final.

The other local entry in D1 North is Peabody, in their first season under coach Mark Bettencourt. After going 0-10 for the first time ever, there’s no where for the Tanners to go but up. The Blue-and-White started so many young players last season — Ryan Collins, Mike Raymond, Tanner Moquin, Billy Teehan and Cody Wlasuk among them — that it’s easy to imagine improvement simply by virtue of maturity.

A playoff berth might be a reach for Peabody, but it isn’t impossible. For this year at least, you have to imagine the Tanners will measure themselves on competitiveness, however.

There are no area teams in D2 North, though Lynn Classical and Lynn English are out of the Northeastern Conference.

Division 3 Northeast is loaded with the North Shore, however. Defending Super Bowl champion Beverly would also like to go back to back, but the Panthers are rebuilding the offensive line and looking for depth behind lead running back Isaiah White. Excellent defense has been a Panther staple under Dan Bauer and that should continue and help any growing pains for the Wing-T without Brendan Flaherty and Kenny Pierce.

The biggest challenger should be Masconomet, a team with a dynamic offensive one-two punch in Mac Cashin and Mike Tivinis. The Chieftains are always strong, disciplined and well-conditioned, and back in the Cape Ann League look like a playoff lock. Marblehead should also be in the mix.

There are just 12 teams in D3 Northeast, with eight of them making the playoffs. Those numbers gives teams like Salem and Danvers hope for making the postseason for the first time in some time. Salem returns a lot of speed and Danvers appears to have all kinds of offensive skill. Both teams will need to be more consistent to contend for the sectional crown. Don’t overlook Gloucester, either, especially if the Fisherman stay healthy.

Tewksbury could contend, especially coming from the rugged Merrimack Valley Conference, but the preseason prediction here is Masconomet against Beverly for the D3 Northeast crown in November.

Division 4 is similarly loaded, but just eight of 16 teams will qualify for the tournament. That could put a team like Swampscott, playing a fairly difficult schedule, at a disadvantage. Stil, the Big Blue are playing against like-sized teams, so if they get into the bracket they should be very dangerous as QB Brendan McDonald gets his feet wet.

Ipswich could improve under new coach Greg Brotherton and Hamilton-Wenham will have to get used to life without Trevor Lyons, though the return of running back Cam Macri should help ease that transition. Beyond the immediate area, its easy to like Triton and Lynnfield in the Division 4 North section. Winthrop, always tough under coach Sean Driscoll, could be a surprise team once the tournament begind as well.

It seems the most difficult thing about D4 will be qualifying, because of the increased number of teams that don’t. There will be good teams that don’t squeak in.

In Division 5, the Catholic Central League appears to have a leg up on the competition. I figure the two best teams on paper coming in are Bishop Fenwick and St. Mary’s; another rendition of last year’s classic something football fans can salivate over. With Rufus Rushins and Nick Bona as foundational pieces, it feels like the Crusaders are primed for a run at their first Super Bowl in a decade.

North Shore Tech is the entry in Division 6 North, and the 19 teams along with these are some of the usual suspects for Bulldogs fans: Chelsea, Mystic Valley, Minuteman, etc. Coach Paul Worth has done a fine job keeping his team in the mix since he returned to the sidelines and this year should be no different.

Once a team wins its sectional, they’ll face the winner of the South in Division 2, 4, 5 and 6, before advancing to the state final against a team from Western or Central Mass. In the case of D3 and D1, the Super Bowl would be against a South opponent.

So much can change between today and Halloween, roughly when the playoffs begin, that these predictions might mean nothing. Still, it feels great to know that the time to make them is finally here.

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Matt Williams is the assistant sports editor of The Salem News. You can contact him at MWilliams@Salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.