All systems go: Western Mass. football tournaments kick off Friday night
Four county teams begin their hopeful quests to Gillette Stadium as the Western Massachusetts football tournaments kick off tonight. Of the teams in the field, just Wahconah enters as a defending sectional champion. Hoosac Valley and Lee missed the postseason last year, while Mount Greylock lost in the Division IV-A championship game. Here's a look at the three tournament games, and a quick look at the county teams playing in consolation games.
Western Mass. Division VII
No. 4 Palmer at No. 1 Wahconah. 7 p.m. Friday
Wahconah (7-1) enters the postseason coming off a 47-28 loss to West Springfield. The Warriors allowed over 300 yards rushing to Terriers running back Vaunell Hill, but West Side is a division above Wahconah, so the Warriors do not have to worry about seeing them again this season. The last time Wahconah faced Palmer (6-2) was in the Division IV title game last year. That Palmer team centered around mobile quarterback Ryan McCarthy. McCarthy was dangerous on designed runs and once he escaped the pocket. This Palmer team is led by a more traditional passer in Jeff Pardo. While Pardo may not be the running threat McCarthy was, the Panthers do a good job using the run to setup play-action passes for big gains. Wahconah coach Gary Campbell Jr. said his defense must be sound when making its reads in order to limit the big play.
"Instead of out of the pocket, running around and creating as you go, now they're more methodical," Campbell said of Palmer's offense. "They're very good with the run. Their whole offensive line and tight end is back. They have good running backs and so they set up the pass with great play-action.
"Our point of emphasis is to read your key, to understand what they're doing and what they're setting up. Based on their keys, making the correct run fills, or recovering to your pass zones or man."
Campbell added that Pardo is an accurate passer, but he's got an accurate passer of his own in Dalton. Quarterback Tim Clayton is playing his best ball heading into the postseason. The junior threw four touchdowns last week and it's clear his chemistry with his receivers is at an all-time high. Add in the fact that tight end Tanner Hill had a breakout performance against West Side, and Wahconah's offense looks even more dangerous.
Western Mass. Division VIII
No. 4 Mount Greylock at No. 1 Hoosac Valley, 7 p.m. Friday at Renfrew Field
This game is a rematch of a Week 1 contest that Hoosac won, 36-22. Greylock led 22-16 after two quarters, but Hoosac's defense kept the Mounties (7-1) off the scoreboard for the remainder of the game. All the way back in Week 1, the teams had fresh legs and were completely healthy. Now, injuries on both sides will make this game a much different beast than the first. In the season-opener the 'Canes (8-0) used a Steve Stodja 38-yard touchdown run to take control of the game. Stodja has been out since Week 3, taking some speed away from the rushing attack. The 'Canes have made due with a platoon of backs featuring Matt Hall, David Critelli and Donald Monsees. Each back has a different strength, with Monsees and Hall being more big-play threats than between-the-tackles runner Critelli. For the Mounties, they've been dealt the biggest blow with quarterback Michael Wellspeak suffering a collarbone injury against Amherst last week. Cal Messina took over at QB, but the ripple effect of moving their top rusher to quarterback will be tough to overcome. In addition to Wellspeak, linemen Reece Gillette and Spencer Zheng have also missed time, making it hard to create room in the running game. In total, Greylock is missing eight key players.
Greylock coach Andrew Agostini said morale remains high, even with such a banged-up squad.
"We're in the playoffs, the kids are excited. We get to play Hoosac Valley," he said. "I think it's as good as it could be. We had a good practice [Tuesday], it's obviously tough missing those kids, but we've got to go about this like any other week. Prepare, compete and we'll see what happens Friday night."
The Mounties will need to get creative on offense to overcome the absences. Sean McCormack, Cal Messina and Cole Wojtkowski are dynamic athletes, so Agostini will try to get them the ball any way he can, even at quarterback. For Hoosac, their strength and size up front should allow it to lean on its running game. All three backs should be ready to pound away, and quarterback Vance Eugene will sprinkle in a few scrambles, as well. Agostini said stopping Eugene's scrambles are key. Playing sound defense and not over-running plays will limit the QB in that area.
No. 3 Ware at No. 2 Lee, 7 p.m. Friday
This game features two teams playing great football heading into the postseason. Lee (7-1) has not allowed a point in four games, outscoring opponents 157-0 over that span. Their lone loss came by two points to Mount Greylock in an action-packed, back-and-forth affair. Lee coach Keith Thomson said team speed makes for a swarming, physical defense. From Shane Cloutier and the defensive line, to Omar Pichardo and Andrew Ruef in the linebacking corps and Lukas Loehr, Ben Harding and company in the secondary, the entire defense is playing well as a unit. Ware has also dominated its competition, taking an 8-0 record and a Tri-County title into the postseason. The Indians hold a staggering 386-32 scoring margin. They've won each game by an average of 48.25 to 4. The numbers are impressive, but it should be noted that Ware played just two teams that ended the regular season with winning records. Other foes like Pathfinder did not earn a single win, while McCann Tech and Belchertown had one win each. Lee and Ware met last season and the Indians earned a commanding 34-12 win. In that game, quarterback Ryan Johnson and running back Hunter Milliard combined for all five scores. Thomson said shutting down that duo remains the key to victory.
"They really wore us down and took it to us in the second half last year," he said. "The focal point has got to be slowing down Hunter Milliard and Ryan Johnson. Hunter we've seen going all the way back to his freshman year when he was a QB. ... Johnson gave us fits last year. He can run, he can throw, he's fast, he's elusive. It's kind of like a two-headed monster over there."
Offensively, Lee has one of the most balanced units around. Homer Winston is coming off a four-touchdown performance against Monument Mountain. Winston's ability to spread the ball around prevents defenses from focusing too much attention on Loehr and the running game.
Agawam at Taconic, 5 p.m. Friday at Wahconah Park
Jared Durocher is a skilled running back with big-play ability for Amherst. Taconic must continue to pound the ball in the running game behind an improving offensive line.
Drury at Pathfinder, 7 p.m. Friday
Pathfinder was overpowered by a young McCann Tech team last week. Drury has shown the ability to produce big plays at times. Can the Blue Devils avoid the costly turnovers and penalties that have plagued them all season?
Easthampton at Monument Mountain, 7 p.m. Friday
Easthampton likes to spread the ball around with quarterback Nick Pellegrini. Monument must sharpen its pass defense after giving up four scores through the air to Lee last week.
Putnam at Pittsfield, 7:45 p.m. Friday at Wahconah Park
Putnam is led by quarterback Cecil Villa and versatile running back/receiver Edrick Santiago. Pittsfield must limit turnovers and focus on stopping the run.
BYE WEEK: McCann Tech
Akeem Glaspie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @TheAkeemGlaspie on Twitter and 413-496-6252.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.