Division 1 Outlook

There are plenty of teams in the mix for the Division 1 title this year, and with eight spots up for grabs it should be a big fight to the end for the playoffs. Here’s how I see things shaking out over the next few months. Because I had this written last week (we held it a few days so it wouldn’t get lost in the regular season shuffle), I added some new notes at the end of each entry. It’s like a director’s cut.

Division 1A

St. John’s is number one in our poll and they have a lot of expectations this year. The Pioneers were called the best team in CMass. quite a long time last year, too, but St. John’s lost the wrong games at the wrong times and were left on the outside looking in come playoff time. You think that made them lift a little harder in the offseason? You bet. St. John’s has plans to make sure that it won’t come down to that this year. The Pioneers return quite a few offensive weapons in quarterback Griffin Murphy and WR Richard Rodgers. Murphywas hurt for a good chunk of last year and really gave SJ a great option under center. His arm was tailor made for the burners at WR like Rodgers and James Lizotte – so when the Pioneers lost Murphy, they had to go with Zak Kofos, who was a good QB, but didn’t have the arm to run a spread-type offense and throw the ball downfield past defenders. With new offensive coordinator Chris Moriarity in the fold, you’re going to see a lot more of that in effect. Murphy is healthy and expected to be a dominant QB while Rodgers has spent so much time in the gym working in the offseason, he should have an outstanding system and should be fighting with Northbridge’s Casey Hippert for the WR lead.

The Pioneers also have an outstanding two-way player in Troy Moore, who might be the best lineman in CMass. He’s dominant on defense and will shore up an offensive line at center, as that might be their only weakness. With Moore around, that might not be the case anymore. I think John Vassar will be a great option on the ground for the Pioneers and keep teams from focusing solely on the pass. They have a tough game in week one against Holy Name – one of the better rivalries in the area – so we’ll know soon if the hype is legit. Especially with a classic bout in week two on tap against Longmeadow.

So obviously the game did live up to the hype, and so did the Pioneers. St. John’s won a “closer than it looked” game against the Naps, 25-8. The Pioneers utilized the pass and caught a few breaks, namely two tipped passes that fell into the hands of Rodgers for TDs that could have easily gone the other way for pick-sixes. They’ll still be my No. 1 team in the poll, but Holy Name established themselves as a big threat as well.

Fitchburg is a team that could contend this year, despite losing a good chunk of last year’s squad to graduation and other factors. The Red Raiders are always dangerous and have some outstanding skill players and I think it’s going to all rely on how good QB Kyle Phillips can utilize the talent around him. Phillips looked very impressive last year as a sophomore and should only get better. Getting the big issue out of the way early, losing Quinton Perkins is going to hurt. Coach Ray Cosenza raved about his sophomore sensation last year and he, Phillips and the Teague boys would have made the Red Raiders a favorite this year, but with Perkins heading to St. Peter-Marian (where he is ineligible), Fitchburg has a big hole to fill. Fitchburg will have to rely on RBs Byron Teague and Steph’fon Teague to step up, which they should do. I also like Jamison DiGeronimo and Tim McNamara on defense, while keep an eye on sophomore linebacker Eric Myles.

So in a squeaker, Fitchburg escaped with an 8-7 win over Nashoba on Friday. Byron Teague showed he was legit with over 200 yards rushing and the Red Raiders showed they will compete this year. Their schedule won’t let them rest, so Fitchburg will have to grow up fast this year.

Leominster is a team I’m really high on this year, because while they lose QB Pat O’Connor, they return quite a bit of their skill positions and should be a strong team in Division 1. I even think they could snap the streak against Everett on Friday, which would turn quite a few heads in the area. Running back Malik Daniel should be one to watch, while the Blue Devils had an interesting mix at QB in camp between RB-turned-option QB Curtis Ludden and drop-back passer Alex Carignan in the mix. Whoever gets the job will blossom under QB coach Dave Palazzi. WR Jared Wilbon should continue to improve this year, too. I think the Blue Devils will fight for the top Bowl spot.

The Blue Devils gave Everett a scare on Friday, but it wasn’t enough as they fell, 14-6. It was still a moral victory for Leominster, which usually finds itself overmatched, but it wasn’t the case. They are probably the best 0-1 team in the area.

Shrewsbury is a team I like to compete as well. The Colonials will have a great running attack led by Hunter Beckmann and Adrian Harters. Shrewsbury also has a great QB in Nate Theodoss and those three weapons should keep the Colonials competitive this year. Matt D’Amico and Brad Diamantopoulos should shore up the line, but the Colonials are going to need to have some WRs step up if they want to compete in a tough division. Shrewsbury doesn’t play any D1C teams this year, so they’re not going to have a chance to regroup after a tough game against the likes of Auburn, St. John’s, Marlboro, etc.

Well, how about that Auburn game, huh? I had my take on the game last Thursday on the blog, but how snake-bit is Shrewsbury? Well, dog-bit is more the phrase. The night before the game Theodoss got bit by a dog on his non-throwing hand. It got infected and he was forced to miss the game. So much for things changing for the Colonials this year. Last year the Shrewsbury staff did an outstanding job putting a team – that quite frankly was not a playoff team – into the postseason. The Colonials lost Theodoss and Beckmann at different times last year and each week Terry Walles and his staff drew up a game plan to beat the team they were playing that weekend – and then threw it away and started over on Monday. Hopefully they won’t have to do it this year too much, but asking them to work a miracle the night before facing a top team like Auburn is just too much to ask. If Theodoss is ready to go next week against Westboro – and he probably will be – look for a much different result.

Wachusett is a team I have a hard time getting a read on. They could be the best team in Division 1 or they could take a step backward this year. I love their running game, because I think Matt Pedone, Gary White and the returning Eric Darko will be legit. They’re going to win a few games for Wachusett this year because while they lost a lot of linemen, they always find nice big suitable replacements. The Mountaineers are going to have a tough test on Friday against Doherty and that will show which Wachusett team will show up this year. Casey Devereaux and White will lead the defense, while Connor McDavitt will continue to emerge as the best kicker in the league.

So I guess we know what Wachusett team will show up this year. The Mountaineers smoked Doherty on Friday, with the running game blowing up against the Highlanders. They might not have Cam Brigham to gain 150 yards per game, but they do have three different backs that will do just that together. The defense proved that they found the seven players to fill in the holes and they didn’t let Yawin Smallwood get into a rhythm all night. They blitzed all night and came away with a 23-8 win.

Algonquin is a team I was banging the drum for the past few years and they just couldn’t get over the hump. I like them to compete this year because it’s the second year under new coach Bill Long and they return 14 starters. They have a nice QB in Kyle McGinnity and Eric Taggart should be a capable back. Beyond that, there are a lot of question marks in camp for the Tomahawks and if they can find the players, they might sneak into the playoffs.

Whoops. Not a great opener for the Tomahawks at all, as SPM stuns them with a 13-7 defeat that must have led to a lot of shouting in the locker room after the game. Algonquin couldn’t stop RB Daiquan Yarrell and looked lost at times. The Tomahawks are going to have to go back to the drawing board, because you can bet Marlboro was loving watching them struggle.

Division 1B

This league is wide open, as there doesn’t seem to be a dominant team in the bunch. I like Milford to be one of the top teams in the division. The Scarlet Haws return nearly their entire offense, including QBs Tommy Leung and WRs Brett Kane and Matt Cristino. I like returning all-star Jake Brucato at DL and I think Milford should be there at the end.

The Scarlet Hawks started strong, shutting down Bellingham, 34-0, on opening night. Leung was 10 of 15 for 125 yards and two scores, while Cristino caught two TDs and got 62 yards passing. They look impressive early.

Marlboro will be another team to watch, as the Panthers bring back 15 starters, including top college prospect A.C. Carter. He’ll team with Adrian DeJesus for a great backfield. A.J. Scerra will slide into the QB spot and I think Marlboro would have been a slam-dunk pick with WR Canaan Severin, but he moved on to Worcester Academy. If the Panthers can fill his spot, which they should be able to, I think they’ll fight for the league title.

Marlboro took down Central Catholic, 14-0, on Friday. Carter showed he’s in line for a good season, rushing for 135 yards while Scerra proved to be a double threat, 89 rushing yards and 40 passing yards on a rainy night. The Panthers rolled up 232 yards on the ground and should be in good shape the rest of the way.

Nashoba has one of the best lines around, led by 6-foot-5 lineman Peter Hagermoser. He should combine with Sam Leandres, Nick Lemay and Mike Vittorioso to form a capable unit. The Chieftains need to replace RB Travis Patterson and will look to Billy Lombardo do handle that task. Nashoba has a winnable non-league slate, so they could pick up the points to fight for a postseason spot. I think coach Ken Tucker will have these guys in the mix.

The Chieftains lost to Fitchburg, but had a good showing – especially once you figure with an injury to Lombardo put them at their third-string back and FB Luke Cressman most of the night. They can build from that and I don’t think they’re any less of a threat at 0-1.

Gardner is an interesting team this year because the Wildcats seem ready to make a run if the right things fall into place. I think Gardner’s running attack will be in good shape with Julon McCoy and Jamison Craft part of a RB committee that should get some yards. I like QB Steve Guercio and if they can find some WRs to balance it out, Gardner could be one of the eight playoff teams.

The Wildcats started well with a win over St. Bernard’s and will have another test next week against Shepherd Hill

The thing I’ve noticed about Westboro is they’re always well coached with Mark Ellis and Jan Gebo on the sidelines. The Rangers were 4-7 last year, but weren’t really blown out of any games. The Rangers have a lot of positions up in the air in camp, so I’m interested to see what Westboro puts on the field this year. Running back should be a strength with Sam Silverman and Sam Nicols in the mix.

Westboro scored four times in the third quarter and rolled up 231 yards on the ground to beat Burncoat. If that offense can get on track early, watch out.

North Middlesex is a team I root for just because they have a 22-game losing streak. I’d love to see Sandy Ruggles get back on the winning track, but they’re going to have to do it quick. Stoneham is a winnable game, but the Patriots will have Fitchburg, Wachusett and Leominster the next three weeks. Yikes. Their players are going to have to grow up fast if they don’t want to take their lumps. Evan Woollacott should be a good quarterback, while Colin Cenadella, Tom Kanan and T.J. Schools will carry the ball.

The streak is over. North Middlesex got on the winning trackwith a win over Stoneham. Woollacott rushed for two TDs and passed for another to lead the Patriots.

Division 1C

I think this is Holy Name’s league to lose. A lot of people are counting the Naps out, as they just keep losing players and their numbers get smaller, but they just keep winning Super Bowls. RB Billy Derosier is an animal who runs 4.46 40s and knocks people down for a living. He’s going to be one of the top backs this year, especially with a kid like Sean Kelly in the backfield with him. It may not be Price/Igwenagu, but it will be close enough. Mark Oct. 30 down on the calendar for the match against Doherty in what should be a classic.

The Naps nearly walked out of Assumption Saturday night with a win, but fate – in the form of two tipped near INTs – wasn’t in the cards. They still will be one of the best teams around if they stay healthy.

Doherty will be another team to watch, as the Highlanders have been getting better every year. I think with Yawin Smallwood at his peak, Doherty should fight for the league title with Holy Name. They have a winnable league and a good non-league slate to compete. Running will be different this year, as the Highlanders will look to Will Franco to help out. Tim Bushey will share the snaps with Smallwood as they run a spread/Wildcat hybrid attack. Get the ball into Smallwood’s hands every play and things will happen. I like Curtis Hickson at LB, as he and Smallwood will lock it down on defense. They need to start winning those big games if they hope to compete. Last year they couldn’t get it done and that’s something they need to shake if they want to be considered among the elite programs.

Well, that didn’t go well. In a steady rain the Highlanders got thumped by Wachusett. It wasn’t even close. The line couldn’t stop anyone from coming through and Smallwood couldn’t get into a rhythm. I’m not ready to write them off yet, because I can chalk it up to a first night thing, a good Wachusett team and the rain. But they can’t afford to lay anymore eggs this year.

St. Peter-Marian is a team that is on the rise. I’m going to miss Justin Ball on the sidelines, but the Guardians’ loss is Clinton’s gain. A few coaches have told me in the offseason that SPM has the numbers this year. They’ve been getting some athletes into the program and could be a surprise this year. I like Daiquan Yarrell a lot at RB and I think Lamar Edmunds will be a strong player at QB. Kyle Brenner and Dan Zenevitch are all-star level returning starters and give new coach Tom Henrickson someone to build off this year. They have a rebuilding league and could take advantage of that.

It seems the Guardians wasted no time surprising people as they nip Algonquin in their opener. Yarrell scored twice and showed that SPM is back in the mix. Keep an eye on them this year.

North has some strong players in RB Humphrey Souza and linemen Albert Munoz and Steve Naranjo, so the Polar Bears won’t be pushovers this year. They have another year under coach Dan Boyle and run the double-wing, so you know they’re going to hit hard. They could upset a few teams before the season is over.

Health was an issue in their opening day loss to Bay Path (Hello, bonus points for the Minutemen beating a D1 team), as Souza and a few other key players were on the sidelines. Hopefully they’ll be back in time for this week’s game against Southbridge, which should be a good fight.

Burncoat is on the right track, as I like what coach Jim Pisegna is doing over there. The Patriots have a dynamic running back in Jonathan Winbush. They will put in Kenny Bates at QB and will take another step toward rebuilding.

Take that third quarter away from the Westboro game and the Patriots are in good shape. They’re getting there and hopefully they keep plugging away.

South will have a new coach in Hampton Clarkson and I think he’ll have the Colonels in the fight sooner rather than later. Clarkson will make sure the line is tip-top. Evan Earls was a captain last year as a sophomore and he’s a player to watch. They might be a few years away, but South will rise again.

They got banged around by a strong Worcester Tech team in week one, and things don’t look much better next week against Holy Name, but is South keeps its heads up and listens to Clarkson, the Colonels will be strong down the stretch.

So who will be the eight teams in the playoffs? If I had to guess, I’ll go like this:

1. St. John’s

2. Leominster

3. Holy Name

4. Wachusett

5. Milford

6. Shrewsbury

7. Marlboro

8. Doherty

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