Published in the November 22, 2017 edition


NORTH READING — One big question hangs over the 59th meeting on Thanksgiving Day between the archrival Hornets and Pioneers tomorrow morning at Arthur J. Kenney Field in North Reading: which team can best bounce back from their late season disappointments?

The Pioneers suffered a devastating last second loss in the Division 5 North Final against Watertown a week ago Friday. The Hornets experienced a similar fate in their Division 4 semi-final when they failed to convert a two-point conversion with 16 seconds left in their bid to upset top-seeded Melrose. North Reading followed that up with a 21-7 loss to Wilmington last week. Both teams need to shake off the losses if they hope to finish their season with a win over their rival.

“Sometimes having a game to get it out of your system is better but we’re not in that situation,” said Pioneer Head Coach Neal Weidman, who comes into the traditional holiday clash with a 6-3 mark against North Reading. “So we need to find a way to be ready to go. We don’t have a ton of time to get over (the loss) so we just need to pick ourselves up, prepare the best we can, and put our best foot forward.”

It’s not only a mental hurdle facing the Pioneers. They also must overcome the loss of leading rusher, scorer, and key inside linebacker in captain Anthony Murphy who suffered a broken leg against Watertown. Murphy rushed for 535 yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns and a pair of two point conversions for a total of 70 points.

The Pioneers will have to rely on the running of senior Tyler Murphy (469 yards, 10 TD’s, 60 points) and senior quarterback Matt Mortellite (358 yards, 5 TD’s).

Also look for the Pioneers to unleash their potent passing game. Mortellite has been lethal, completing 99 of 148 passes (67%) for 1,778 yards, 16 touchdowns, and four two point conversions against only five interceptions. He has a fleet of speedy receivers in captain Nick Kinnon (32 catches, 7 TD’s, 2 two point conversions, 67 points), senior Peter Look (21 catches, 402 yards, 2 TD’s, 2 conversions), and senior Jason Ndansi (22 catches, 337 yards, 4 TD’s, 1 conversion). Sophomore John Lee (152 yards, TD) and Murphy out of the backfield (113 yards, TD) bring even more speed into the mix.

Ground and Pound Hornets

North Reading, which captured the Kinney Division championship for the second year in a row with a 4-0 mark, will bring its usual physical running game into the contest. For the past four years, the Pioneer defense has had to deal with one of the hard-running McCarthy boys (Matt & C. J.) but that won’t be the case tomorrow. That doesn’t mean the Hornet rushing attack will be any less effective.

“They have some kids that run like (the McCarthy’s),” said Weidman. “They run the ball very well. Their running backs are very good.”

Jake Bedell leads a bevy of Hornet backs that include Alex D’Ambrosio and Ryan Edison. They also have quarterback Kyle Bythrow who was injured in North Reading’s third game but returned for the Melrose playoff game. He adds a dangerous running and passing threat. D’Ambrosio also gives them a strong kicking game as shown by his winning field goal in the final seconds to beat Wayland in the playoff semi-finals.

Hornets battle tested

The Pioneer offense will be facing a battle-tested Hornet defense that has faced some stiff competition this year in Melrose, Lynn English, Wayland, Masco, Wilmington, and Hamilton-Wenham. The Hornets come in at 6-4 but their losses have come against teams with a combined record of 36-4.

“They played some tough teams,” said Weidman. “They’re physical and very sound defensively.”

In games against common opponents, the Hornets beat Newburyport 32-14 while the Pioneers beat the Clippers twice, 32-0 and 26-7. Both teams beat Wayland, NR taking a 17-14 win with Lynnfield winning 28-26 in OT. The Hornets and Pioneers both lost to Hamilton Wenham, NR falling 28-14 and the Pioneers losing 35-7.

North Reading escaped with a 21-20 win at Pioneer Stadium last year but the Pioneers hold a 35-24 edge in the series. In the last 40 years, however, the rivals are dead even at 20-20.

CAL Baker championship in play

Lost in the playoff disappointment is the fact that the Pioneers can still win their sixth straight CAL Baker Championship. If Ipswich defeats Hamilton-Wenham tomorrow, the Pioneers, Generals, and Tigers will all finish 3-1 in the league and would be co-champs. H-W lost quarterback Billy Whelan in their playoff loss to Stoneham and the game tomorrow is in Ipswich so anything is possible.

As for the Pioneers, they are focusing on getting the job done against North Reading.

“Everyone wants to finish the season the best they possibly can,” said Weidman. “This is the last game of the season with nothing else to look forward to, so you have to get after it in this one.”