SOUTH HAMILTON — Chalk this one up to learning a lot about themselves as a team following an early season setback.
Two weeks into the season, the Pingree football team had a 1-1 record following a 27-7 setback to St. Paul's. A change was needed, and both the players and the coaching staff knew it.
"We learned we had to be more physical," said senior wideout Tim Dowd, a 6-foot-4, 205-pounder with strong route running skills who'll continue his career at Harvard. "They ran it down our throats that day. They could pass if they wanted to, too, but they only did so about four times, because they were running it down our throats."
That's not all. When the Highlanders watched the game film, they saw that St. Paul's kept two safeties high the entire game, one locked in on Dowd and the other on junior receiver Harrison Greenslade. Pingree's passing prowess warranted the coverage, but because it couldn't run the ball with authority, St. Paul's got away with the softer defensive alignment.
So a switch was made to more of a zone blocking scheme up front, with the team's linemen worked together to double team defensive linemen at certain points of attack so that primary ballcarrier Billy Stevens could cause damage running up the middle. That, in term, has forced opponents to respect the run game and leave only one safety up high, thus freeing up either Greenslade or Dowd on any given play.
Fast forward to the present, where a tougher, more physical defense and a commitment to the running game has helped the Highlanders (6-1) rip off four consecutive wins, most by comfortable margins. Their final regular season game, Saturday under the lights at home against unbeaten Dexter Southfield (5 p.m.), will determine not only the Evergreen League champion, but a prep school bowl bid as well.
"We're happy with where we are right now, but (also) realize there's still a lot of work to do," said Greenslade, a 6-4, 210-pound junior who has Division 1 college aspirations. "Dexter is going to be a huge game. The biggest thing to me is that for the seniors, this is their farewell tour. I want to get them to another bowl game; that's the most important thing to me."
"We've come together as a team since then and been better prepared," senior quarterback Colton Fahey added, referring back to that early season defeat. "Overall, we've grown from it and become a better team."
Offensive weapons, cohesive line
Pingree has scored 261 points in its seven games, producing at least 33 points in six wins and 40 or more five times. They've allowed 130 points — 39 of those in a wild 41-39 triumph over New Hampton two-and-a-half weeks ago — but many of those have come in the second half of one-sided games.
While there's not a ton of depth with 30 players on the roster, players such as Fahey, Dowd, Greenslade and Stevens have helped carry the team while their younger teammates have followed their lead.
"We grind, we grind, and get those big plays from our high end guys when we need them," said second-year head coach Mike Flynn. "Since that loss to St. Paul's and the changes we made afterwards, we've played much, much better."
A freshman, a sophomore, two juniors and a senior make up the offensive line that has learned to zone block properly and allowed Stevens to run for 896 yards and 11 scores in just seven games. Freshman John Glencross of South Hamilton. a 245-pounder, is the team's center, flanked by junior guards Paul Larrabee (6-1, 240) and Nico Mangano (6-2, 270), with sophomore Joelinn Pimentel and senior Jake Candelino as the tackles.
Another junior, Caleb Clark, serves as the de facto tight end, although his job description is more of a jack-of-all-trades. "Caleb's a really underrated player, but someone who makes big plays for us every time he's on the field," said Greenslade.
As someone who played on the offensive line in the NFL for 11 seasons and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, Flynn is particularly pleased with what his trenchmen up front have been able to accomplish, switching schemes on the fly two weeks into the season. "They've really improved as a unit and been a huge part of our turnaround," he said.
Stevens' ascension as a top flight threat out of the backfield means that Fahey (1,141 yards passing, 14 TDs) has been given time and space to connect with both Dowd (25 receptions, 419 yards, 4 TDs) and Greenslade (20 rec., 415 yards, 6 TDs), among others.
"We have so many weapons that teams can't guard them all," said Fahey. "We've even put some wide receiver screens in to let Tim and Harrison use their physicality to get by kids. That also opens things up for Billy out of the backfield."
Not ready for it to end
Candelino — back out for football after taking last year off — and sophomore Cleto Chol of Salem are the defensive ends in Pingree's 4-3 alignment, with Larrabee and Mangano being the tackles. Dowd, Harrison and Clark are the primary linebackers, and getting junior Steve Massillion back after he missed most of the season with an injury is a "big plus", said Flynn.
Senior Connor Smith and Stevens are the safeties, with senior Zach Manuel, sophomores Jack Feeks and Grady Smith of Beverly, and Fahey all seeing time at cornerback.
Dexter (7-0) is by no means a pushover. Coach Casey Day's senior-heavy squad has put up 269 points and surrendered just 97. They have a physically imposing quarterback in 6-2, 220-pound Luke McPhail, a couple of big bodies to throw to in 6-4, 225-pound Stephen Brooks and 6-3, 215-pound Dan Donato, and some behemoths up front in 305-pound center Ryan Bingham, 300-pound guard John Iannuzzi and tackles Jack Mills (280 lbs.) and Bryan Pacific (275 lbs.).
"They build up for this season," Flynn said of Dexter, "and they're good, really good. This is a big one for us. We're hoping to get that win and get back into a bowl."
"Billy came up to me at lunch (this week) and said, 'Dude, if we lose, this is it'," added Dowd. "I was like, 'Oh wow, I'm not ready for this to be over.' None of us are."