By Matt Jenkins
---- — Pingree School senior Johnnie Spears sat in the James J. Connolly Memorial Stadium stands Friday night in Woburn getting a personal scouting report on Bishop Fenwick as the Crusaders battled Abington in a Division 5 state semifinal football game.
While watching the team Spears and his Highlander teammates will try to dismantle on Thanksgiving morning (10 a.m.) at Fenwick’s Donaldson Field, the Pingree speedster found himself doing something unusual — rooting for the Crusaders.
“They look like the same exact team as us. They have speed and skill, but (also) have a big running back, Rufus (Rushins), which we don’t have. I’m not sure if he’s playing, but this is like a bowl game for us,” Spears said.
“If we beat Bishop Fenwick, that would be great. When I was at the Abington game I was pulling for Bishop Fenwick to win, just so we can try to beat them when they’re undefeated.”
Spears received his wish: Fenwick defeated Abington (35-8), the Crusaders remained unbeaten (11-0), and Pingree (6-2) will get its chance to get some real North Shore notoriety Thursday morning.
A prep school program in only its eighth season of varsity football, will also be playing its first Thanksgiving game.
“We’re excited for that. We lost our last game (56-26 against Dexter) to not be able to go to a bowl game, so we definitely have some fire under us to win (Thursday),” Spears said. “It’s my last high school football game and I don’t want to end on a loss.”
The Highlanders come into the game with the ability to put big numbers on the scoreboard. Pingree has scored more than 50 points in four games this fall, all wins. It also produced 48 points in a six-point loss to New Hampton.
The Highlanders have speed — particularly in Spears, who can (and has) terrorized teams lined up as a receiver or a running back. Sophomore quarterback Griffin Beal also has a strong arm and plenty of other options outside of Spears.
Spears leads Pingree in rushing (696 yards, 11 TDs) and receiving (32 catches, 616 yards, 9 TDs). Beal is second on the team in rushing with 418 yards and six scores, and has also thrown for an area-best 1,748 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Justin Assad is another dangerous receiving threat for Pingree. Spears’ 616 receiving yards are tops in the area with Assad’s 549 receiving yards ranking third. The Pingree duo has produced those numbers in only eight games.
Alex Salalayko (13 receptions, 329 yards, 2 TDs) is another option for Beal, while Sal Fazio (258 yards) and Tom Zaleski (243 yards) also get carries out of the backfield.
“I think our line is bigger than theirs, which will be strong for us,” Spears said. “I know the last game we didn’t have three of our starting linemen — and they’re back now.”
As strong as Pingree’s offense has been, teams have been able to score on the Highlanders. Pingree is surrendering more than 28 points per game, and Fenwick is a high-scoring team.
Senior quarterback Nick Bona is a threat to run or throw for the Crusaders, Rushins is a power back who has tallied over 1,000 yards on the ground in his first three seasons with Fenwick, and Eric Razney and Charlie Maistrellis are a pair of burners on the outside.
Of course, with a Super Bowl matchup with Northbridge awaiting on Dec. 7 at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, it’s unlikely all of Fenwick’s star players will get a full workload Thursday — especially Rushins, who just returned from a dislocated elbow.
Regardless of how much playing time the Fenwick starters get, Pingree would love to spoil what has been a perfect season so far for the Crusaders.
“Everybody is excited. The practices are going great and it seems like everybody has extra energy,” Spears said. “I know a whole lot about Razney and I’m looking forward to playing against them. The quarterback, No. 5, he hits hard, and I’m looking forward to that, too.”