Baptism by fire for inexperienced squad
Published in the September 7, 2016 edition
By TOM CONDARDO
LYNNFIELD — For the past few years, the Lynnfield football factory has produced talented, experienced teams that rolled off the conveyor belt and chewed up overmatched opponents.
Over the last four seasons, the Pioneers have amassed a 37-9 record, beating opponents by an average of 30-10. They’ve won four straight Cape Ann League championships, a division title, secured four straight playoff berths, and have made a trip to the Super Bowl.
Each season a talented senior class was seamlessly replaced by a hungry group of experienced juniors ready to take over.
This year is different. The Pioneer machine hasn’t seized up by any means because there is plenty of talent on the 2016 model that will jump start the season Friday night in Newburyport. It’s just that this year’s roster lists only a dozen seniors, most of whom haven’t seen a great deal of varsity game action. Pioneer head coach Neal Weidman sees this lack of experience as the biggest challenge of the upcoming season.
“There’s no substitute for experience,” said Weidman, who sports a 64-27 record in eight seasons leading the Lynnfield football program.
“We have a bunch of guys playing that played JV last year. Playing in JV games is a lot different than playing in varsity games and for many of them, (these scrimmages were) the first three times they’ve done it. Only three kids got major varsity experience last year,” Weidman said, adding, “The good news is that with each little bit of experience, they’re getting closer to varsity level.”
Weidman and his staff set up three tough scrimmages to get the young squad ready for the season, first by jumping three divisions to play Masconomet last week, and finishing up this week with Salem and Melrose, both of which compete two divisions higher than Lynnfield.
Weidman wasn’t thrilled with his team’s lackluster performance against Salem last Tuesday despite outscoring the Witches 24-12. He was much more upbeat after last Friday’s tussle with Melrose, the top rated team in Division 2A and a Super Bowl participant last year.
The Pioneers held their own against the powerful Red Raiders, losing the first half 13-0, in the half of the game time scrimmage during which both first teams were on the field.
“I saw some things (in the Melrose scrimmage) where the ‘compete level’ was high enough where we might have a chance if we can fix some things,” Weidman said. “I thought the effort was there. We did some good things. We moved the ball a little bit and defensively we took some strides forward against probably the best competition that we’ve played so far. We’re still just a bit away.”
The Pioneer team that trots out onto the new turf at the refurbished War Memorial Stadium in Newburyport Friday night will have a distinctly junior class flavor. Of the 20 players who figure to see most of the action this year, 13 are juniors.
Most of the team’s experience comes from senior captains Louis Ellis, Mike Stellato, Alex Boustris and Kyle Hawes.
Weidman appears to have settled on junior Matt Mortellite as his starting quarterback after a preseason battle with fellow junior Jack Razzaboni. Mortellite, a junior transfer from Malden Catholic, has shown the ability to put some zip on the ball while featuring speed and elusiveness in the running game.
Juniors Anthony Murphy, Andy DePalma and Tyler Murphy will be the primary ball carriers. Mortellite will have a bevy of receiving targets led by Ellis, Hawes and Boustris along with senior Jared Lemieux and juniors Nick Kinnon, Jay Ndansi, Peter Look and Cooper Marengi.
The only returning offensive lineman is Stellato, who has been shifted from center to guard this year. Junior Zack Huynh will take over snapping duties and junior Ken Babine will man the other guard slot. Senior Nick Contardo and junior Harry Collins will be the tackles.
The all-new defense will have senior Nate Wester at nose guard with Stellato and junior Nathan Drislane at the tackles. Ellis, Lemieux and Tyler Murphy will be the outside linebackers with Marengi, Anthony Murphy, Huynh and Contardo as the inside stack linebackers.
Kinnon, Boustris, Hawes, Look, Ndansi and junior Justin Ysalguez make up the defensive backfield.
Marengi and Stellato will handle the punting duties and freshman Liam Fabbri will step into the huge cleats of all-time leading Pioneer place kicker Dan Bronshvayg.
The Pioneers should create some fireworks on special teams with explosive speedsters Kinnon, Hawes, Look, Tyler Murphy and Ndansi returning punts and kickoffs.
“We definitely have some speed,” Weidman said. “We just have to make sure we use it in games.”
Compounding the challenge for the Pioneers is a decidedly tougher schedule this season beginning with two non-league games against Newburyport and Danvers.
“Our two non-league games are tough and I think we’re going to have a much improved league schedule,” Weidman said. Amesbury, Ipswich, and Manchester-Essex were all young last year and figure to be stronger this year and Hamilton-Wenham has a new coach in Jim Pugh who led powerhouse Masconomet for many years.
“We need to start picking things up a little bit faster,” said Weidman. “In hindsight, I probably wouldn’t have thrown as much at them as I did to start. There are little nuances of each play that we go over in practice and eventually they have to get it. Problem is when you get into competition and things speed up they forget what they’re doing. They go back to old habits. There’s just not enough muscle memory out of doing it because they just haven’t done it enough.”
“That was the plan playing a team like Melrose,” Weidman said. “It’s a way of hopefully preparing us for the season to come.”
This Week: Newburyport
The Pioneers will start picking up that much needed experience when they travel to Newburyport to face the Clippers Friday night. The old stadium was not kind to the Pioneers who were able to win there only four times in 21 tries dating back to 1974.
The Pioneers smashed a 13-game losing streak in the old stadium against Newburyport in 2014 with a 32-0 thrashing, but fans know the Clippers will be inspired to kick off a new season in their new digs with a win.
The Clippers are coming off a 3-7 campaign last year, but they graduated only four seniors and will be playing their first game under new head coach Mike Levine who has taken over for long-time Clipper coach Ed Gaudiano.
Levine is a New Jersey native who played college ball for Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. before heading to Texas where he spent nine seasons in various coaching positions. Information has been limited from up north so it’s not clear what type of offensive or defensive scheme Levine will roll out against the Pioneers. If history is a guide, the Clippers will feature a group of smart athletes with speed and the Pioneers will have to match their intensity.
Game time in Newburyport is 7 p.m.