DALTON -- High school football's brave new world in Massachusetts begins tonight at Wahconah High School.
The Warriors will host South Hadley in a first-round Western Mass. football Division IV playoff game, with the winner taking a first step toward playing for the first state football championship in state history.
"There's a poster [in the locker room] that shows the road to Gillette [Stadium]," Wahconah coach Gary Campbell Jr. said of where the Warriors will end up if they win three more football games.
Wahconah earned the top seed in the Western Mass. Division IV tournament, and will host the fourth-seeded Tigers tonight at 6 p.m.
"We're so excited to host a Western Mass. game," Campbell said after practice Thursday night. "Our team and our school are truly excited."
Wahconah earned the top seed in Division IV with a 17.75 power rating. South Hadley finished third in the Suburban League and ended up with a 5.71 power rating.
The other Division IV matchup features Agawam (16.0) hosting Northampton (8.75). Agawam won the Suburban League and Northampton finished second.
If the Wahconah-South Hadley matchup sounds familiar, that's because it is. The two teams played at Gillette last year in the Western Mass. Division II Super Bowl, and the Warriors escaped with a 24-21 win.
In that game Wahconah came from behind three times in the first half. The final time came on a 1-yard run by Ethan Wells as time expired in the first half, giving Wahconah a 22-21 lead. Wells then ran for the 2-point conversion, upping the Warriors' lead to 24-21. The key play of that touchdown drive was a 41-yard pass from Lane Grogan to Jordan Fiske. Fiske ended up on the Tigers' one-yard line, setting the stage for Wells' touchdown run.
The second half was scoreless, and Campbell's team had its fourth Super Bowl title.
"Both of us made great adjustments to stop the bleeding," Campbell said.
With the new football playoff system, it seems like that Super Bowl was light years away.
Campbell said last year, with the Tuesday-Saturday playoff system, the Warriors had only three days to prepare to play the Tigers.
"We have prepared longer," said Campbell. "That's going to make a big difference."
South Hadley is led by senior running back T.J. Fitzell. Fitzell has 934 yards rushing and has caught 20 passes. He has scored 18 touchdowns, 14 on the ground. The Tigers quarterback is Pat Sears, who is 50 of 91 for 675 yards.
Campbell said that with all the statistics available on the internet, Fitzell is no secret to the Wahconah players. That, the Wahconah coach said, will help prepare his team.
"The kids know he's their leading rusher, receiver, scorer and leading tackler," Campbell said. "Every other teams that plays them knows he's their whole team -- and he still produces."
The Wahconah mentor, who has long been a champion of this state playoff, said he gave his team a few days off after beating Mount Greylock in the regular-season finale, and they're ready.
"I think so," he said. "I think [the layoff] helped. We got to regroup and totally focus on ourselves."
To reach Howard Herman:
or (413) 496-6253.
On Twitter: @howardherman.