It’s finally time. Football season kicks off on Thursday night with a handful of games and it’s safe to say we’ve been waiting a long time for this.
While we all wait until Wednesday when the Hometeam Magazine Football Preview is out on newsstands, the first Hometeam Magazine Football Media Poll has just been released and St. John’s takes the top spot, sweeping all 10 first-place votes. That’s a nice honor, but as anyone who watched last year knows, it doesn’t matter who leads off the poll, it’s who’s on top after the playoffs. Right, Wachusett?
The Pioneers took the top spot because they return quite a bit on an already explosive offense. They have probably the best player in Central Mass. in Cal-bound Richard Rodgers. He collected numerous Division 1 football offers last year before deciding last week to accept a full scholarship to California. However Rodgers won’t have to do it alone this year. The Pioneers have a tremendous back on John Vassar and a new quarterback in southpaw Dan Light. I’ve been a fan of Light since I saw him torch Wachusett as a sophomore (not even on the roster) for two touchdowns. He’s just an athlete and he’s shown he can throw a deep ball, which should keep the offense going now that Griffin Murphy has graduated.
A big question will be the defense for the Pioneers. They play a brutal schedule, so it will be interesting to see if they can replace key cogs like Troy Moore and keep teams out of the end zone. St. John’s has looked dominant for the past three seasons, but for one reason or another they seem to falter a little and lose key games down the stretch and that’s cost them some postseason glory.
Wachusett comes in at No. 2 to start the season. The Mountaineers are reloading on offense – bringing back three starters (QB Matt LeBlanc, RB Eric Darko and C Alex Goodhile). While coach Mike Dubzinski might be concerned, Wachusett has done a great job rebuilding the program and they have the numbers to plug in the guys to fill the holes. I think they’ll be right there in the mix until the end.
Holy Name checks in at No. 3, as the Naps are looking good thanks to an influx of young players last year like RB Quron Wright and WR Dan Kegbeh. Those two lit it up as freshmen last year and they’re going to get even better with another year under Mike Pucko and his staff. Combine them with seniors like Nick Fritz and Kevin Donohue and the Naps should be fighting for another Super Bowl berth.
Fitchburg gets ranked No. 4 and that’s an interesting position for the Red Raiders. They were out of the playoffs last year and they’re switching to the spread offense. I also heard that three-year starter Kyle Phillips may be out at quarterback in favor of senior Anthony Figueroa, which could be interesting to watch heading into the Nashoba game this Friday. Fitchburg gets Quinton Perkins back this year, as Perkins was in sort of limbo last year after leaving Fitchburg, but found himself unable to suit up anywhere else. Perkins had an outstanding freshman season two years ago and it will be interesting to see how he fits into this offense, as he was a favorite of coach Ray Cosenza. Pair him with guys like DJ Wilson, Tyrie Osby and Step’fon Teague and that offense is going to be dangerous if the Red Raiders can learn it in time. One rival coach estimated it takes about three years to successfully install the spread – and even then there still are bugs to work out. It will be interesting to see how patient Fitchburg is before they start running from the I again.
Auburn leads the Division 2 contingent at No. 5. The Rockets are a perennial title contender, but they’re refilling plenty of holes left by some big departures this year. Like Wachusett, I think Auburn has the program strength to find the athletes to replace some big cogs, but they have a stiff test right away on Thursday against Shrewsbury. Marcus Backlin steps in at QB and Steve Wallace returns as the top WR, but Auburn will rotate about four backs in the mix until they find their stud. They’re going to have some good competition in a very tough Division 2.
One of those teams that will be knocking on their door is Northbridge. The No. 6 Rams return Tom Murphy at quarterback – and for coach Ken Lachapelle that may be enough. Lachapelle puts Murphy up there with great Northbridge QBs like Danny Brown and Jeff Altieri, so Murphy would love to add some of his own hardware this year to take his position among those legends. I’m certain the Rams, led by Greg O’Donnell, will have a solid defense and I’m interested to see what Colby Brochu does at RB.
They were higher in my ratings, but the voters put David Prouty at No. 7 in the poll to start the year. Like many other teams, the Panthers have some big shoes to fill on defense – but with perhaps one of the most explosive running backs around in Zach Grasis, the Panthers might not need a dominating defense to get the job done in Division 2B this year. Grasis is one of those rare backs that just needs a sliver of light from his blockers before he scoots by and leaves would-be tacklers in the dust. He should have the linemen in front of him to get the job done and keep Prouty among the favorites. Don’t be surprised if they make a run at another perfect season this year.
One of the more interesting teams this year is Shrewsbury and the Colonials check in at No. 8. Shrewsbury replaces a lot of skill position players this year and face plenty of question marks in 2010. They have a nice quarterback battle between sophomore Mike Coggeshall (who is battling lingering injuries from baseball season) and senior CJ Butt. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Butt under center Thursday but with Coggeshall waiting in the wings to take over as soon as he’s healthy. I think Alex Paulina will be a good fit at RB to replace Hunter Beckmann and help the Colonials win enough games to be competitive in the Division 1 race for the top seeds.
I like Clinton a lot this year and the Gaels check in at No. 9 in the first poll. Clinton finally turned it around last year and took the Division 3 Super Bowl crown and while the offensive line is pretty much gutted from graduation, the Gaels return a spectacular rushing corps including Joe Rice, Philip Nobrega and the returning-from-injury Craig St. Cyr. Rice and Nobrega rushed for nearly 2,000 yards last year and should be even better in 2010 and keep Clinton as one of the best Division 3 teams out there.
One of the best young teams around gets ranked at No. 10, as St. Peter-Marian rides that strong sophomore class of a year ago into the first poll. Jordan Knowles burst on the scene last year and helped turn the program around under Tom Henrickson and his coaching staff. The Guardians return captains Lamar Edmonds (QB), Gavin O’Neal (WR/DB) and Mike Reynolds on the line. SPM also has top-flight juniors Knowles, Steve Flynn and Tre Watson coming back and they should be a team to watch. The Guardians finished 7-4 last year and missed the playoffs because they didn’t get enough power rating points. SPM won’t let that happen again and this year needs to prove they belong with the big boys by taking down a Fitchburg or Wachusett or a Holy Name.
Because really all we do for the first poll of the year is throw random stuff on the wall and hope it sticks, there are a handful of teams that just missed out on the Top 10. Remember, Wachusett was No. 11 last year and ended up going 13-0. So it just shows what we know.
Is this year’s best team one of the “OTHERS?” Nashoba, Leominster, Narragansett, Marlboro, Southbridge and Oakmont all got votes from pollsters and they all could be playing for a Super Bowl title this year. That just shows how close things are in Central Mass. football this year. Everyone is 0-0 and everyone has a shot.