It’s the first legitimately B-I-G weekend in Northeastern Conference North football circles. There are three intra-conference matchups, all of which should leave lasting implications on how the final standings eventually shake out.
There’s currently a three-way tie for first place between Danvers, Swampscott and six-time defending champion Marblehead, all of whom have won their only league contest. Peabody sits at 1-1 but is certainly within striking distance, and Beverly, while 0-2, could still be in the running if it wins its final three league challenges and gets some help elsewhere.
As we gear up for this trio of Friday night conference clashes, let’s take a look at some players who have had positive impacts for their teams, perhaps more so than initially expected.
Danvers (4-0 overall) at Swampscott (3-1)
Blocksidge Field will be alight and feature a matchup of contrasting styles, with Danvers coming in with the biggest group of linemen in the conference and the host Big Blue featuring their patented spread offense.
The Falcons remain unblemished at this point thanks to a pair of 14-13 victories the last two weeks, including last Friday’s road triumph at Peabody. To shut down what can be a very dangerous Swampscott attack, they’ll need to prevent third downs from being converted and get their defense off the field as often as possible.
Two guys who have made a big difference for the Falcons in this area are Mike Leon and J.P. Kelter.
A 6-foot-1, 220-pound sophomore, Leon has been outstanding for the Blue-and-White at both defensive end and tight end. Head coach Ryan Nolan refers to him as “tough as it gets”, and it shows in how hard Leon plays and how physical he is on every snap.
“He looks and plays a little like (DHS all-time great) Mark Bavaro in his No. 89 jersey,” said Nolan, “and while he’s quiet, respectful and reserved off the field, he’s an animal on it.”
Kelter, who has seen varsity time since his sophomore season, has been shining on special teams as well as offense (receiver) and defense (safety). A cerebral athlete, he’s the leader of a young but talented secondary, which obviously will need to be on high alert in this one.
Graham Inzana, the architect of Swampscott’s passing attack, is a senior captain who has thrown for 618 yards and eight scores against only one pick. By not locking in one any one receiver, he can spread the pigskin around — five players (Andrew Augustin, Zack Palmer, Arturo Vasquez, halfback Dylan January and Xaviah Bascon) have all caught multiple passes from him this season.
Most people know that January is one of the area’s best linebackers. In the Big Blue’s 4-3 scheme, they also rely on guys like sophomore Jake Papazoglou at the Mike and senior captain Nick Reiser on the outside to bring down ballcarriers, funnel guys who are trying to break it to the outside back towards the middle of the gridiron and put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. They’ll be tasked with keeping Danvers’ top offensive threats (QB Ezra Lombardi, backs Rich Canova, Chase Eary and Jack Strangie, and Kelter on the outside) in check.
Peabody (2-2) at Marblehead (4-0)
Mark Bettencourt couldn’t be any more right when he says, “Everything in this league flows through Marblehead. It’s their league until someone beats them.” The Peabody High head coach would love for that to be his squad when they travel to Piper Field Friday evening.
Still smarting over that above-mentioned one-point loss to Danvers last weekend — in which they had an extra point blocked, a field goal blocked, and missed two other field goal attempts — the Tanners have switched their focus to the Magicians, who haven’t tasted defeat on their home turf in a regular season game dating back to 2012.
For that to happen, it’s pretty evident Peabody must find a way to slow down Tim Cronin, the big senior tailback who shakes off would-be tacklers with legs that churn like pistons and never seems to go down on first contact. The Tanners also can’t allow sophomore quarterback Josh Robertson to set up shop and scan the field for a fleet of talented receivers at his disposal; putting pressure on him is paramount.
Chris Faraca, a junior defensive end, is one of the unheralded leaders of a Peabody defense that has allowed just 38 points through four games (with 2 shutouts). He’s not at all large for the position (5-10, 175 lbs.) but uses exceptional quickness to get to the quarterback and make other game-defining plays.
Last week against Danvers, he was matched up against an offensive tackle that Bettencourt figures outweighed him by “100 pounds easily”. Yet that didn’t stop Faraca, lined up at left defensive end, from making a tackle at the line of scrimmage on a jet sweep — that was going to the right side.
“Chris is a great student of the game,” said Bettencourt. “His quickness helps him see where the ball is. If we have him slanting or shooting a gap, he’s in that gap before those big offensive tackles can react. He’s already in the hole, chasing down the play.
“What makes Chris special is not only his ability to bring pressure off the edge, but he’s also done just as well, if not better, at stopping the run. He chases a lot of guys down.”
Senior cornerback Freddy Koffi, a first-year Tanner who has picked up the system “remarkably well” according to his coach, will be matched against Marblehead’s top receiver (either Sean McCarthy or Will Twadell). He’s been a lockdown defender thus far, with the ability to lock up on his man or have him in coverage in his third (or half) of the secondary. He also makes a lot of special teams tackles and, as a tall, lanky player, also uses quickness to succeed.
McCarthy and Twadell have shown, though, that they’re receivers who often require coverage over the top to slow down. With so much talent on the outside (including Ryan Freiberger and captain A.J. Russo at tight end), McCarthy has turned nine catches into 117 yards and two scores. His past exploits at the position prove he has the chops to go off in any particular game.
Twadell, who came back to Marblehead as a senior after spending the last two seasons quarterbacking his 8-man football team in Virginia, has raw, natural speed and soft hands that allow him not only to shake his defender, but catch passes both in traffic and down the sidelines after getting past his man. He’s averaging nearly 30 yards per catch (6 receptions for 177 yards) and has crossed the plane twice himself; if Marblehead unleashes him, Peabody will have to put most of its attention on this speedster.
Another name to watch for Marblehead: Devin Romain. A tight end and linebacker, he’s big and powerful who has shown more consistency this season, meaning his game day presence has been large.
Beverly (2-2) at Gloucester (0-4)
No sense mincing words here: it’s a must-win game for Beverly Friday at Newell Stadium, not only to snap a two-game losing streak and right its ship within the conference, but also give an Orange-and-Black club that won its first two games a much-needed shot of victory once again.
Still without some of their top players (tailback Marje Mulumba, athletic Huriel Calice and linebacker/captain Braeden Pratt) because of injuries, the Panthers must continue to employ a ‘next man up’ mentality, which worked well for three-plus quarters last weekend in Marblehead before they ultimately fell, 21-13. The return of Joey Loreti to the backfield after missing last weekend due to an ailment will help; so will the ability for junior Jaichaun Stanton-Jones, who is an absolute burner, to get to the outside and outrun any defenders down the sidelines. Quarterback Danny Morency and his top wideout, Duncan Moreland, will aim to get back to their big-play ways, too.
Linemen play a big part in the Beverly scheme, naturally, and Jonus Pavia and Xavier Copeland have looked particularly good as of late. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Pavia’s versatility — he’s played tackle and guard on offense while moving around from the nose, defensive tackle or D-end — enable the junior to make plays wherever the team needs him most.
Copeland, a 6-foot, 280-pounder who came to the Panthers from St. Mary’s Lynn, cemented his spot as the team’s center early on in camp and has done nothing to dispel the notion that he’ll be there making things happen for the next two-and-a-half seasons. A powerful young man who rotates between nose guard and defensive tackle when Beverly is defending its end zone, he’s become one of the team’s best linemen in short order.
Gloucester, which for only the second time in 34 years has lost its first four games to begin the season, has scored a mere eight points while giving up a whopping 163. Injuries aside, this is a game that Beverly must emerge victorious from.