SENIOR Ryan McCullough (7) and the Hornet football team will kick off the 2021 fall season on Saturday, 10:30 a.m. at Northeast Metro Tech. The home opener is Friday, Sept. 17, 6 p.m. against Greater Lawrence Tech. (File Photo)
By DAN ZIMMERMAN
NORTH READING — Cooler weather is already upon us and that can only mean that the return of North Reading football can’t be far behind. For many, the renewal of this autumn institution, which has been splintered by the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years, is a welcome occasion.
While most would agree that this year’s abbreviated spring replacement season was a resounding success, others might argue that the substitution was missing several key elements. While in large part, the weather cooperated for the six games held during March and April, there’s something to be said for chilly breezes and the crisp air of fall. And what’s better than the atmosphere of a high school game under the Friday night lights?
“We’re all excited that we’re back to the regular season taking place in the fall,” said fourth-year head coach Ed Blum, who wrapped up spring football with a respectable 4-2 record. “We’re glad to get back to aspects that we’re used to, including Friday night games and playoffs. It’s exciting to return to something more normal than we’ve seen over the past couple of years.”
While the games played during the spring were a bit of an anomaly, Blum acknowledged there was a benefit of actual competition at that time of year. Namely, there was a much shorter turnaround to the current season and many of the players arrived for practice in better condition, mentally and physically, due to less downtime.
“The spring definitely helped out,” the coach agreed. “The core of this team gained some really good experience and good lessons and they’re coming into the fall armed with added confidence. We’ve seen that in the energy they’re bringing to practice.”
Recently, Blum and his staff put the forty-eight man roster through their paces during a series of preseason scrimmages, starting with a team-building trip over to Nantucket and concluding with a visit to neighboring Wakefield. Scrimmages, for the most part, provide a means to identify talent and assign newcomers to positions where they can best serve the program. With a proven contingent of 13 seniors and 18 juniors at his disposal, Blum is in an enviable position.
“Some of the kids took on special team tasks and spot opportunities during the spring and they’ve earned the opportunity to take on bigger roles, particularly on offense,” he explained. “(Brian) Heffernan had been our quarterback for the better part of two-plus seasons and now Alex Carucci will have an opportunity. Some familiar names will make up the offense, including senior receivers John Jennings and Ryan McCullough, who has done good things for us.”
Blum went on to name sophomore Will Batten as a tailback candidate, as well as junior Craig Rubino, who is a return transfer from St. John’s Prep. The coach agreed that the team will certainly benefit from internal battles as unproven athletes jockey for skill positions.
Defensively, the Hornets will turn to junior Anthony Pino on the line, as well as Sam Morelli, who was an All-League player last year as a sophomore. Blum also expects good results from first-year senior Casey O’Connor and senior Ryan Long.
Other Hornet senior players who will be expected to contribute include Daniel Ancri, Justin Bailey, Adam Bakr, Spencer Beane, Luke Benecke, Daniel Oliveira, Andrew Powell, Aidan Smith and Devin Tran.
“We’re very fortunate to have a senior class made up of kids who are willing to fill any role necessary to help this team,” said Blum. “While we lost a number of quality athletes last year, they left a fairly young team that had ample opportunity to play in the spring. Many of these players will now shift to new roles and take on leadership responsibilities.”
One of the departing seniors, Robert Tammaro, took with him one of the most reliable kicking legs in the Cape Ann League and beyond. While Blum agrees it will be difficult to replace the output of this premier kicker, he is confident junior Matt Guidebeck will step into the job and excel.
Typically, a full football season features 11 games, followed by playoffs. In the case of North Reading and the Cape Ann League, there will only be games played within the league itself. The Hornets will face Northeast Metro Tech in the season opener, at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, September 11. Following will be consecutive Friday night matchups with Greater Lawrence Tech, Pentucket, Ipswich, Triton, Amesbury, Newburyport and Hamilton-Wenham. A Thanksgiving trip to Lynnfield will follow the playoffs. Blum explained that the CAL has been restructured from two divisions to one which makes each individual contest all the more important.
“We’re playing an eight-game regular season followed by the MIAA playoffs,” said Blum, who said he is personally excited about the opener with Northeast and the realization that fall football is back. “So, week nine would be round one and week 10 would be the second. If you lose the first round, there is still the opportunity to play a consolation game or if the team chooses, opt out of it.”
“As in every year, we have high expectations,” said the coach. “Each game provides the opportunity to learn new things and see if we’re in a position to do what we hope to do later on in the season. I’m excited to get back, get in the groove and play football.”