Updated: Sep 7, 2018
Practices have yet to officially start for the MIAA football season, but it's August, so we're going to start looking at the best teams across the state, anyway.
Starting with, alphabetically, the 15 teams that just missed out on the statewide top 25, we will profile a different team each day, with the top four in the state released on the Thursday and Friday of opening weekend. That Friday, we will also release statewide divisional top 10s, and sleeper lists of teams in every division.
In September, we will add a separate, non-PG NEPSAC/MIAA combined poll to the site, but that won't be unveiled until after the MIAA season begins.
Why the Crimson Tide are No. 1: Few teams around the state will be more stout at the point of attack. The skill positions are even better. Wide receiver/running back/defensive back Mike Sainristil is probably the best player in the state, and he's far from the only one on the team who poses a threat to take it to the house when he gets the ball in his hands. Watch for Robbie Riobe to be effective not just in the secondary like he was last year, but at wide receiver. A few transfers — including a major one in the form of running back Isaac Seide from Melrose — have bolstered the losses to graduation and by defection. We won't have to wait too long to see how good this team is when it travels to Westwood to face Xaverian in Week 1.
Why this team is too high: There is still a strong foundation, but the Crimson Tide lost a boatload. Head coach John DiBiaso left for Catholic Memorial, as did offensive line coach Mike Milo. Defensive coordinator Carlos Ruiz is also no longer with the program. Mega-recruit and safety Lewis Cine transferred to a school in Texas. Quarterback Jake Willcox transferred to Milton Academy. The Tide also graduated a supremely talented group. First-year head coach Theluxon Pierre has reasons to be confident, but has to navigate a lot of new pieces through a murderous slate that includes four top-10 teams.
Why this is too low: It's been a crazy offseason around the state; transfers and coaching changes have ruled the day. But there are some bedrock reasons to like the Division 1 South Kings. Xaverian will be terrific on the offensive line with returning starters Grant Laws, Lucas Ferraro and junior Liam Peck. On defense, especially at linebacker, the Hawks are solid, as well, headed by Michael Masse and Mike Saliba. Running the ball and stopping the run will still be a hallmark of this program, and coach Al Fornaro showed last year he can do what his predecessor, Charlie Stevenson, was able to do for years: weather a brutal schedule and get the team to play its best come playoff time.
Why this is too high: The Hawks don't have any starting experience at the most important position on the field: quarterback. Teams will have trouble matching up with them inside the tackle box, but there are a number of teams who can make it a perimeter game and hurt them. Finally, with the schedule the Hawks play, it would be a shock to see them run the table. The in-state competition is top-shelf, and Archbishop Stepinac out of New York has become one of the best programs in the Northeast.
3. Catholic Memorial
Why this is too low: Let's face it, when a legendary coach like John DiBiaso goes anywhere, he wins and he wins big. There's no reason to think that trend will slow down now that he has moved from Everett to Baker Street. Although the team picked up some transfers over the offseason, the returners offer a solid base from which to work. Hunter Tully can play either defensive back, linebacker or wide receiver. Khari Johnson is the fastest player on the team and one of the state's best cornerbacks. He also doubles as a receiver. Linemen like Lucas Folan and Hunter Salmon can also be a force on both ends, and watch for sophomore Owen McGowan to take the next step after a terrific freshman campaign.
Why this is too high: In the first year, DiBiaso has to get used to his new surroundings, which are not the same as they are at Everett. Many coaches around the state believe that although DiBiaso is building something big, his best teams may not fully flourish until a year or two down the road. That's not to say the Knights won't win the Div. 1 Super Bowl this year, only that perhaps it might take a while before he truly loads the wagon. That day may come sooner rather than later, but is still up for debate. For now, though, the Knights have everyone a little nervous.
4. King Philip
Why this is too low: With its winning streak now at 25 games and counting, doubt the Warriors at your own peril. You must have a better team to beat the Warriors, because they won't beat themselves. The offensive line graduated a lot, but there some juniors moving up to fill some of those roles, and the size up front will be improved for one of the best OL coaches in the state in Jay McGuire. The defense, as usual, will be stout, led by linebacker Jack Webster. Twin brothers Tyler and Tim Nault will both be a big part of the Warriors' plans on defense, as well, and Terrell Jacobs Baston is the team's best returning lineman. Coming off back-to-back Div. 2 state championships, don't fool yourself: the Warriors could play with anyone in any division.
Why this is too high: You won't see a player like Shane Frommer (Yale) come around too often. The running back/linebacker ran angry and downhill on offense and was simply a playmaker. That isn't easily replaced. The Warriors also play in the one of, if not the toughest, divisions in the state, the Hockomock Kelley-Rex, with programs like Mansfield, Attleboro, Franklin, Oliver Ames and much-improved Taunton. The Warriors open at North Attleboro, which will again be right in the mix for the Div. 3 state title. Finally, lurking on the North side of Division 2 could be a loaded Lincoln-Sudbury squad.
Why this is too low: This is about as loaded a squad as it gets this season from the perspective of returning starters. Coming off a year where the Warriors were oh-so-close to winning the Div. 2 Super Bowl, they have the experience right where you want it to take the next step: up front. L-S started five juniors on its offensive line last year, and players like Mike Ciaffone and Cal Kenney are all-state caliber performers. The Wing-T offense is in the very capable hands of quarterback Braden O'Connell. Running back/linebacker James Dillon, at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, is big, strong, fast, and physical. And coach Tom Lopez is one of the state's best.
Why this is too high: It really isn't, but since we have this category in our rankings, let's give it a shot. Andrew Marshall is a tough loss at running back. The Warriors went out and put together a tough non-conference schedule, as they open with Springfield Central, followed by a trip to Melrose. Central should again be the Western Mass. representative in Div. 3, and Melrose, even with the loss of Isaac Seide to Everett, is one of the most consistent programs in the state. The Dual County League schedule includes nice tests against Acton-Boxboro and Wayland, and any hopes of a Div. 2 title could likely include rematches with North Andover and King Philip.
6. St. John's Prep
Why this is too low: This is one of the most experienced teams in Division 1. The Prep returns playmakers and starters on both sides of the ball, and it would be a surprise to see the Eagles have anything other than a solid season. Like BC High, size is never an issue with this team, and once again the Prep will be able to maul a lot of opponents up front. The return of Wes Rockett from last year's season-ending injury gives the team a speedy weapon both at wide receiver and defensive back. Aise Pream is one of the quickest running backs in the state, and the defense should be one of the best in Division 1.
Why this is too high: There are not a ton of reasons to doubt the Prep this year, but one would be how the end of last season played out. The Eagles simply did not look strong as they finished the schedule, and were blown out by Xaverian on Thanksgiving. Also, even though this team is never hurting for linemen, losing a major college prospect like Zak Zinter, who transferred to BB&N, hurts. In the bigger picture, the Prep has not measured up well against the true giants of the state, Everett and Xaverian. The Eagles have only beaten Everett twice since 2008, and last topped rival Xaverian since 2012.
7. BC High
Why this is too low: Every year, you can count on a few things in this state, and one of them is that the Eagles will be huge and physical up front. Even when they don't have tremendous speed, the Eagles' size at the point of attack puts them in a position to compete with just about anyone. That won't be any different this year, as tackle John Freeman and center Jack Cahill anchor what should be another top-shelf offensive line. On the defensive line, look for tackle Keith Henderson to again be strong in the middle. There are some young, promising pieces at the skill positions, as well.
Why this is too high: Any time there's a coaching transition at a school with such high expectations, the pressure is ramped up, and that will be the case with new head man Jonathan Brillo, who takes over for Jon Bartlett. From a personnel standpoint, even though the Eagles are not hurting in the talent department, they did suffer some major graduation losses. Quarterback Will Bowen (North Carolina for lacrosse) and running back Danny Abraham (Harvard) were the central pieces of a dominant running game last year. Replacing them won't be easy. The schedule is brutal, and the opener with Mansfield should reveal a lot.
Why this is too low: In a state full of quality coaches, it is hard to find many on Mike Redding's level, and he has a talented and experienced team coming back both this year and for 2019, as the Hornets have a tremendous junior class. And, not for nothing, when you schedule BC High and Everett for your first two weeks, you feel like you're going to be pretty tough, which the Hornets will be. Quarterback Damani Scott returns for his second year under center, and although he lost a few weapons, he brings back some good ones, like receiver Khristian Conner. Running back/linebacker Vinnie Holmes will be one of the best two-way players in the state.
Why this is too high: As has been the case for the last few years now, the Hornets won't be all that big up front. That does not always make a huge difference, but when you open with BC High and Everett, then face teams like King Philip in league play, it sort of does. And when it comes to KP, the Hornets have played well enough to stay close recently, but have failed to get over that hump both in the regular season and Div. 2 South playoffs. For years, it was the other way around. For Redding and Co. to get back to where they usually are, the Hornets have to clear that hurdle.
9. St. John's (Shrewsbury)
Why this is too low: By the end of last season, there were very few teams in the state that could hang snap-for-snap with this electric offense, and the Pioneers have the pieces to put together another very good one. Look for junior Eamonn Dennis to have a huge year, as he already has multiple FBS offers, and that total should climb throughout the season, as his speed and hands are only matched by his toughness. Jay Brunelle is another speedy option on the outside, and the Pioneers are always tough up front. This year, look for players like Liam Daley and Andrew Stolberg to lead the way there. Teams rarely know how to catch up to the speed of the St. John's offense until it's too late.
Why this is too high: Even though the Pioneers return a solid core, they did lose some outstanding players, including quarterback Steve Buccaglia, who is now a freshman at Assumption College. Buccaglia was deadly accurate, and knew the offense in and out. His production won't be easily replaced. Although the offense should be strong again, some teams found success moving the ball against the Pioneers defense last year, and St. John's will face some good offenses again. The opener against Catholic Memorial, followed by a trip to Springfield Central, are two huge tests before the Pioneers get into Central Mass. play.
10. Central Catholic
Why this is too low: It's pretty simple, really. Since the new playoff system was implemented in 2013, the only Div. 1 North team to either win a Super Bowl or make it to Gillette Stadium other than Everett has been Central Catholic. Maybe that says something about the lack of parity, but it should also tell you something about the consistency of coach Chuck Adamopoulos' program. Every year, the Raiders lose key contributors, and every year they keep winning. This season, look for the Raiders to depend heavily on their defense early on, as their best players, defensive back Joe Howshan and linebacker Cam Boes, are featured there. The offense will come along in due time.
Why this is too high: The Raiders simply lost a boatload to graduation, and had another major contributor leave for the ISL. Three-year starter Bret Edwards is off to the University of New Hampshire to leave a massive void at quarterback. The entire offensive line graduated, and the Raiders may start as many as four juniors there. Overall, this is just a young, inexperienced team, and with most other programs, would not be expected to rebound as quick as Adamopolous' groups usually do. The schedule offers no favors, as the opener against Dartmouth is followed by trips to St. John's Prep and North Andover. As usual, the North features an Everett team that just reloads.
Why this is too low: The Highlanders played St. John's of Shrewsbury extremely tough in the Div. 3 Central playoffs last year, perhaps tougher than anyone outside of North Attleboro at Gillette, and they return enough key contributors from that team to take the next step this season. You have to start with running back/defensive back Tajon Vassar, who is one of the most explosive players in the state. Look for sophomore quarterback Noah Callery to throw early and often to John Forson. The line play will be strong, too, with players like Chris Yeboah and Charlie Payson providing a push.
Why this is too high: Although the Highlanders always have speed, sometimes they have been pushed around a little by squads that have a little more size, although that does not seem to be as big of a weakness this year. We should have a much better read on that after the first game against Wachusett, a program that consistently moves opponents off the ball on either side of the line of scrimmage. Other regular season tests include Leominster, St. Peter Marian and improving Tantasqua. The road to the Div. 3 Central title still goes through St. John's of Shrewsbury, and the Pioneers are far from the only ones who can bounce the Highlanders come playoff time.
12. Springfield Central
Why this is too low: The Golden Eagles have speed everywhere. Basically, they can make it into a game of catch me if you can, and most teams won't be able to. The offense is really what drives this machine, and junior quarterback Isaac Boston returns from an injury that kept him off the field last season to direct the attack. He has one of, if not the best, receivers in the state to throw to in Myles Bradley, along with a host of other speedy playmakers. The defense has as good of a back seven as anyone in the state with a secondary that includes Elijah Ayers and Keshaun Dancy, and linebackers Tyson Thornton and Terry Lockett.
Why this is too high: Right now, this program is still in prove-it mode. This is a team that has shown to be the latest king of Western Mass., an honor that once belonged to Longmeadow. But the Golden Eagles still do not have that signature win over an Eastern Mass. power, or a state title appearance. Central will have the chance to do both this season. The opener at Lincoln-Sudbury gives the Golden Eagles a shot at one of the best Eastern Mass. squads, and St. John's of Shrewsbury comes to Springfield the next week. Also, out west, Westfield has the makings of a team that can knock Central from its perch. No matter what happens, the Golden Eagles will know where they stand in the statewide pecking order very soon.
13. North Andover
Why this is too low: You won't see too many teams — regardless of division — with more returning firepower than the Knights, who made a strong step forward last year and are experienced enough to push favorite Lincoln-Sudbury for Div. 2 North supremacy. It starts at the quarterback position with Jake McElroy, who can spin it just about as well as anyone in the state. His favorite target at receiver, Gabriel DeSouza, is also one of the top kickers in the state. Multi-purpose weapon Darren Watson is a threat to take it to the house from anywhere on the field, and running back Joseph Allen can also make teams pay. Last year's run to the Div. 2 North final should give this team confidence as it moves forward.
Why this is too high: For all the skill position talent the Knights return, they do lose a fair amount up front. The Merrimack Valley Conference Small Division will be brutal this year, as Tewksbury, Dracut, Billerica, and even improving Chelmsford offer major challenges. The nonleague slate includes Lowell and Central Catholic out of the Large, and the opener against Woburn will not be easy, either, as the Tanners bring back one of the best signal-callers around in Ryan Qualey. And, of course, if the Knights make a deep run in Div. 2 North, Lincoln-Sudbury brings back a ton.
14. North Attleboro
Why this is too low: The Red Rocketeers were dominant for most of last season, losing only to Division 2 champ King Philip and Division 3 title winner St. John's of Shrewsbury. This is as consistent a program as you will see, and the Red Rocketeers bring back enough key performers to make another deep postseason run. Nick Raneri should take over the starting quarterback position after pulling down running back and linebacker duties last season. Two-way lineman Ryan Clemente is as good at his position as it gets in the state. There is speed in the right places, and the defense will just reload.
Why this is too high: Although the offense should be strong again, the loss of quarterback Chad Peterson to graduation is significant. Peterson gave this team a downfield passing element that allowed the Red Rocketeers to score quickly and often. Even though the defense should be stout, it did lose a fair amount of starters, so inexperience could be an issue there early on. The schedule again is brutal, as the Red Rocketeers open with King Philip. The Hockomock League's Davenport Division will be even tougher than normal, as Stoughton, Foxboro, Milford and Canton should all be solid.
Why this is too low: Scoring points again will not be an issue for the Dolphins, who under coach Paul Funk have consistently executed on that side of the ball at a high level. Sophomore Geoffrey Jamiel might already be the best route-runner in the state, and he has the wheels to make defensive backs pay for losing him when he creates separation. Payton Doyle is going to step in at quarterback, and in addition to being an accurate thrower, he's also a threat with his legs. The wide receiver group is deep and talented, and, for the most part, young, as the unit is littered with standout sophomores and juniors.
Why this is too high: What made last year's team so tough was that the Dolphins had the size up front to push teams around on either side of the ball. They graduated their entire offensive line, so Funk will have to develop some new faces there. The defensive front seven also needs reloading. Overall, when D-Y struggles, it is because its defense can't make stops. The Dolphins lost enough there to be concerned in that regard. And even with the quarterback position looking fine, losing a three-year starter like Jacob McCarthy is never easy.
Why this is too low: Really, any time Duxbury takes the field under coach Dave Maimaron, the opponent will have to deal with a few things that it doesn't get everywhere else. One is height. For whatever reason, Duxbury seems to have enormous players up front, out wide, everywhere. The other is speed. The Dragons don't just have fast players, but they know their assignments and execute at a pace that is difficult to keep up with. Duxbury will have all those qualities again this year, as Quinn Murphy (6-6, 305) leads the way up front, and fellow captain and quarterback Jon Roberts returns for his second year as the starter. He has two 6-1 receivers who can go up and get it in junior Will Prouty and senior Jack Jacobson.
Why this is too high: The Dragons did lose some good players, including relentless running back/linebacker Joe Gooley. Also, the schedule, as usual, offers no favors. Whitman-Hanson and Hingham offer huge challenges within the league, and the opener with Brigewater-Raynham is followed by another whopper with Patriot League crossover opponent Scituate. The Dragons are basically a lock to make it to the postseason every year, but Div. 3 South has so many talented, well-coached teams that getting out of the section will be a nightmare for anyone.
Why this is too low: Every year, you can expect a baseline consistency out of Dan Buron's program that can be hard to find elsewhere. The Trojans always feature outstanding offensive line play, tough defense, and a relentless ground attack that sets up play-action. In each of the last two seasons, the Trojans have made it to the Div. 1a/2 South finals only to fall to eventual Super Bowl champion King Philip. B-R owns wins over perennial powerhouses like St. John's Prep, Xaverian and Duxbury over that span, and returns one of the top tight ends in the state in Jeff Ciccio.
Why this is too high: The Trojans lost nearly every starter from last year's team. They return a handful, but this will be an inexperienced group on the whole. Buron's system is tried and true, but it's never easy to maintain the level the Trojans have against their schedule with such roster turnover. Linebacker/running back Bryce Shaw (Navy) was one of the best players in the state. The opening games, while at home, against Duxbury and Xaverian, will be tough. For as well as the Trojans have played in the postseason recently, King Philip is in reload-mode and will not easily be leapt in that Div. 2 South pecking order.
Why this is too low: For starters, you can never really count the Redmen out when the postseason rolls around. Tewksbury has won at least one playoff game every year since the new playoff system was implemented in 2013, when it won the Div. 3 state title over Plymouth South. The Redmen were nip-and-tuck the entire way with North Attleboro in the Div. 3 state semifinals last year, as well. Tewksbury returns one of the top quarterbacks in the state in Jay Connolly, and linebacker/defensive end Trace Trant will lead the defense.
Why this is too high: Overall, this is a young team that might have some growing pains early. The Redmen will have to lean on the experience of Connolly and Trant while the new starters get their feet wet. The third game of the season at Boston College will be tough, and that will be followed by a trip to North Andover. The Merrimack Valley Conference Small Division will be especially difficult this season, and may be a tick better than the Large. Still, this is a team that should be fine by the time the end of the season rolls around.
Why this is too low: The Middies began to figure things out toward the end of 2017, and enough of their key pieces return to expect a breakthrough this fall. One of the personnel moves that seemed to spark a positive turn was putting Devin Lambert at quarterback. He returns, as do two of the best weapons in the Merrimack Valley Conference in Allyn French and Cam McCullough. Both players are also factors on the defensive side of the ball. This is a team that other coaches in the MVC pointed to all summer as a sleeper, so a lot of this is based off their recommendation.
Why this is too high: This is a bit of waltz out on to the limb because the Middies put up a mediocre 4-6 record last season. Maybe they make the leap many expect, but there's a chance that they just take a smaller step forward. Also, the MVC Small has some terrific teams this year, and in addition to those opponents, the Middies have to deal with an Acton-Boxboro squad that will also be on an upward trajectory this fall. Div. 4 North is pretty wide open, as teams like Marblehead, Melrose, Wilmington, North Reading and Wayland will all be in the mix to emerge there.
Why this is too low: The Wildcats have the type of personnel that coach Steve Dembowski can turn into a special group. Quarterback Luke McMenamin is back for his second year in a row leading the offense. He has one of the fastest players in New England at his side in running back Smith Charles. There are no shortage of weapons on the outside, and although 7-on-7 results should be taken with a grain of salt, the Wildcats were consistently solid there all summer. Linebacker Nick Griswold makes a living in opposing teams' backfields. This might be Dembowski's best team at Milton since his first year with the Wildcats, a 2015 Div. 3 state semifinalist.
Why this is too high: It's hard to find a ton of flaws, but if an opponent can find a way to take the air out of the ball and play keepaway a little, the Wildcats can be taken out of their game. The schedule brings on some interesting challenges with the Bay State Conference realignment. and the third game on the schedule, a trip to Dartmouth in a rematch of that 2015 Div. 3 South final, will be a nice litmus test. Div. 4 South has some quality programs, and Hopkinton, which eliminated the Wildcats last season, is good enough to do it again.
21. Lynn English
Why this is too low: The Bulldogs were a few plays away from taking down Tewksbury in the Div. 3 North final last year and have the firepower to make another run. Quarterback Mathieu Severance also plays linebacker and he's effective at both. When he wants to throw, he can target one of the best in the state in senior receiver Prince Brown. Watch for sophomore Mathias Fowler on the outside, as well. Even though crosstown rival Classical brings back more starters, the Bulldogs showed more consistency over the course of last season. The difference between the two right now is razor-thin, though.
Why this is too high: Basically, the Bulldogs lost a lot up front and will have to piece things together there. Outside a handful of players, there is not a ton of overall starting experience. If the Bulldogs returned a bit more on the lines, then one could be a lot more confident in moving them up this list to begin the season, although captain Alex Brenes should help out there. As it stands, though, it might take some time for this team to mesh. Still, by the end of the year, this should still be one of the best teams in Div. 3 North.
22. Lynn Classical
Why this is too low: Coach Brian Vaughan's charges have experience in all the right spots to build off last season's 8-3 campaign, where they lost to Danvers in the postseason after beating the Falcons in the regular season. It all starts with quarterback Keith Ridley, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, but looks even bigger than that. He can spin it and has the feet to hurt defenses that way, too. He returns one of the best receivers in the state in Nashaun Butler, and the defense should be solid, as well. Safety Chase Buono is a four-year starter with an outstanding feel for the game.
Why this is too high: It comes down to consistency. It was difficult to fathom the same team that played so well throughout the course of the season lose the rematch to Danvers, then take a 38-0 drubbing from crosstown rival English on Thanksgiving. It would be a surprise to see the Rams reach October with anything other than an undefeated record, but after that, big tests loom with Danvers and improving Somerville, two teams that beat the Rams a year ago. Div. 3 North has the same teams to be wary of.
Why this is too low: Although former coach Chris Arouca left for Marshfield, the roster is stacked for new coach Jim Connor to have immediate success. Connor did an excellent job at Norwell recently and should carry the torch just fine. He brings over an offensive philosophy that caters well to Hingham's returning talent. The Harbormen have great height at the receiver spots, with tight end Spencer Cassell and junior receiver Cole Finney each standing at 6-foot-6. Quarterback Jack Johnson also returns, and junior linebacker Sean Ryan can lay the wood. Keep an eye on two-way lineman Trevor Smith, who is an athletic force up front.
Why this is too high: It won't be easy to navigate either the Patriot League's Keenan Division or Division 3 South. Duxbury is a perennial power in each, while Whitman-Hanson also figures to be tough this season. Hingham nearly knocked off Duxbury in one of their two meetings this season, but need to get over that hump. Connor should be a great fit, but there isn't anything easy about any coaching transition. The opener against Foxboro should be telling. Last year, the Warriors handed Hingham a 7-3 defeat.
Why this is too low: For as dominant as St. John's of Shrewsbury was for most of last season, it's not as if the Pioneers were the only good team in their own town. The argument could be made that the two best teams in all of Central Mass. were right there. And, not to dwell too much on one player, but the biggest reason why Shrewsbury has a chance to make it to Gillette in 2018 revolves around its terrific signal-caller, Drew Campanale. A playmaker who knows how to distribute the ball effectively, and when to take off and run, Campanale is the maestro of an offense that put up 30 or more points in all but three games, and there is enough around him to expect similar production this season.
Why this is too high: This is not a team that is going to blow you away with its size up front. That doesn't always matter, but against some of the teams the Colonials face, it will. A team like St. John's (S) has huge bodies blocking at the point of attack, as does Shepherd Hill. The Rams held Shrewsbury to its lowest point total of the season in 2017, and the former's style of play lends itself to taking the Colonials out of their comfort zone. There are only seven teams in Div. 3 Central (SJS, Doherty, Shepherd Hill, Wachusett, Leominster and Algonquin are the others), but they will all be strong this year.
Why this is too low: One coach who played the Sailors last year raved about how coach Herb Devine's offense was able to find mismatches and exploit them all game long. That should be the case again, as quarterback Aidan Sullivan returns and should again have another terrific season. The receiving corps has good size, and Tommy Greene is a top offensive lineman to watch. The defense returns linebackers Josh McKeever and Sean Tobin, and defensive backs Daniel May and Jack Ruble. This team was the only one to score more than 30 points on last year's loaded Dennis-Yarmouth squad.
Why this is too high: Although Greene comes back, there are some losses on the offensive line to fill. Also, the team's most explosive player, Abel Lopes Jr., has moved on to Bentley. Standout middle linebacker Jason Dwight (Salve Regina) is also gone. The schedule off the bat will be against two of the best teams on the South Shore, as the Sailors take on Norwell and Duxbury in back-to-back weeks. Division 5 South rivals Div. 3 South as one of those "Group of Death"-type sections, with Falmouth, Dennis-Yarmouth, Holliston, Foxboro, Medfield, Hanover, and up-and-coming Canton likely in that mix.
Why to buy in: The Blue Bombardiers have good size up front on both sides of the ball and will be able to win the battle at the point of attack more often than not. The front seven has two of the best defensive end/outside linebackers in the state in senior Nick Evans and junior Jason Weir, who has some experience at quarterback, too. Junior running back Joe Llanos and senior Alex Rodriguez had some impressive performances a year ago, and receivers Desmond Woodson and Justin Cote should also be threats.
Why to be skeptical: Attleboro plays in the Hockomock League's Kelley-Rex Division, where King Philip and Mansfield are a step ahead of the Blue Bombardiers right now. Nonleague tests against Milford and Dartmouth to start the season aren't layups, either. Even though Weir shows promise, replacing Cam Furtado at quarterback won't be easy. The Blue Bombardiers should be good enough to make the postseason, but Division 1 South looks to run through the Catholic Conference trio of Xaverian, Catholic Memorial and BC High.
Why to buy in: For one, any time Duane Sigsbury is walking the sidelines, you have to give his team a puncher's chance against basically anyone, as evidenced in Billerica's 24-21 overtime win over Everett two years ago. More than that, though, Sigsbury has a big smile on his face lately because he knows he has a strong group of talented young players coming up the ranks. Rob Moore is a running back who should carry the load early on, and Sigsbury beams about receivers like Shawn Blute and Sean Colby. This is a team that can work its way into Division 3 contention quickly.
Why to be skeptical: There is plenty of talent here, but much of it is in the junior and sophomore classes. That doesn't necessarily mean that it will take a long time to reach its potential, but inexperience and youth usually doesn't translate to instant success. Also, this will not be an easy schedule to navigate. The Merrimack Valley Conference's Small Division has teams like North Andover, Tewksbury and Dracut set for promising seasons, and Billerica will also host Catholic Memorial. Gaining the requisite amount of playoff points for a high seed will be difficult.
Why to buy in: The Boxers have a nice blend of experience and young talent that could either turn into big results this year or in 2019, depending on how quickly their sophomores and juniors mature. Both lines will be senior-laden, and the offensive skill positions should be well-rounded. The receiving corps has an impressive blend of size and speed, and an already-deep running back stable got a boost over the offseason from the arrival of a transfer out of Tennessee named Ahmik Watterson. Two-way lineman A.J. Walker is one of the best in the state. Four losses last season were by five points or less.
Why to be skeptical: Simply put, Brockton hasn't lived up to its storied tradition lately. Over the past two seasons, the Boxers have won just eight games. Since the current playoff system was implemented in 2013, the Boxers are 5-16 against Catholic Conference opponents and with zero wins over Div. 1 South pace-setter Xaverian. Coach Peter Colombo had to reshuffle his staff this offseason after some turnover with assistants. Also, for a team that usually boasts a stout defense, Brockton didn't tackle well in 2017 and needs to improve on that side of the ball to contend.
Why to buy in: For one, Falmouth's 6-5 record last season was not as mediocre as it may look on the surface. The only two blowout losses were to Division 5 state champion Dennis-Yarmouth and perennially-strong Marshfield. The defeats at the hands of Catholic Memorial, Medfield and Somerset-Berkley, all solid teams in 2017, were by one score. The option game is in the strong hands of speedy quarterback Kyle Connolly and the return of leading rusher Trevor Nunes. The latter doubles as a defensive back, and two-way lineman/tight end Kyle Cardoza is one of the best in the state.
Why to be skeptical: The Clippers once again have a tough schedule. Dennis-Yarmouth lost a lot up front, but it will still have one of the best passing attacks in the state. Even though Marshfield lost brothers Jackson and Casey Phinney, both of whom started both ways, to Nobles, the Rams usually reload. Catholic Memorial comes off the schedule after last year's close loss, and has been replaced with Hanover. Should the Clippers make the playoffs, Division 5 South remains one of the deepest brackets in the state.
Why to buy in: The lack of success for the Hillies in 2017 can basically be chalked up to inexperience. They lost nearly every starter from their 2016 team and battled through a difficult schedule. Now, however, this is a team with some reasons to feel that a move up in the Merrimack Valley Conference Large Division and Division 1 North could be back in the cards. David Carreiro is a multi-purpose weapon on offense, while receivers like Dante Cadeus and D.J. Cunningham also give the Hillies solid options to move the ball downfield.
Why to be skeptical: Any team out of the MVC will be going up against a difficult schedule, and the Hillies are no different. The first two games are at St. John's Prep and an improving Chelmsford program, and the third is at home against a Westford Academy team that should be stronger than last year. Although the Hillies return a good core, there is still a fair amount of inexperience on what should grow into a good offensive line. How quickly the younger players mature will decide the Hillies' fate.
Why to buy in: The Hillers posted an 11-1 record with a Div. 4 South title last season, and there is enough coming back to expect another deep run in 2018. They allowed 20 or more points just twice last season, so it would be hard to see them top that, but that side of the ball returns enough playmakers to be capable again. The offense is effective out of the spread and returns signal-caller Ryan Kelleher. Last season's success should pay dividends from a perspective of overall program momentum.
Why to be skeptical: Although the offense returns plenty to make opponents pay, the Hillers lost Kelleher's favorite target and Tri-Valley League MVP Will Abbott. Abbott, who was also the league MVP in hockey, is about to start his Div. 1 lacrosse career at Quinnipiac. In other words, he is special athlete who won't be easily replaced. The Tri-Valley League Large will again offer little in the way of off weeks, and nonleague games against Wayland and Needham will also be tough. Division 4 in general has depth across the board, and the South, where the Hillers reside, have a number of teams trending up from 2017.
Why to buy in: The Merrimack Valley Conference's Large Division is way more up for grabs than it was last year, where Central Catholic was the clear-cut best team. Lowell has some strong reasons to feel it can not only emerge on top, but make some real noise in the Division 1 North bracket. The Red Raiders have four of the best players in the conference in running back/linebacker Justin Villanueva, wide receiver/defensive back Brendan Tighe, defensive end/outside linebacker Rashawn Settles and offensive lineman Brian Callery.
Why to be skeptical: The offense should be fine, but quarterback Curtis Gentles won't be easy to replace, not just as a thrower, but as a breakaway threat when the pocket broke down. The first two games — at home against Billerica and at North Andover — will present big challenges. The Red Raiders are in a bit of the same boat with another Div. 1 North team like Acton-Boxboro and Andover, as the two should put up big points, but need to improve on defense.
Why to buy in: At this point, it would be silly to overlook or underestimate the Magicians at the start of any season, regardless of graduation losses. It's a credit to coach Jim Rudloff that now, in his 10th year at the helm, Marblehead is counted on as one of the most consistent programs on the North Shore. Since the current playoff format was introduced in 2013, the Magicians have won at least two postseason games in all but one season. The defense should again be solid this fall, and captains Jack McGrath (cornerback), Aidan Michaud (offensive and defensive line), and Chris Gally (quarterback/defensive back) should provide steady leadership for a team with a lot of talented young players.
Why to be skeptical: Even though the Magicians have about as solid a recent track record as one can find in Division 4, they do have a fair bit of roster turnover to overcome. The Magicians lost an impactful senior class that included linebacker Aidan Gillis and do-it-all quarterback Andy Clough. This is a program that keeps churning out winning seasons and deep playoff runs, but has a number of juniors who may be its most talented players, so the Magicians could be a year away from true state title contention.
Why to buy in: The Falcons under coach Matt Triveri have been one of the best programs on Cape Cod and should be considered the favorites to repeat as Div. 7 state champions. The top-end talent on this team matches almost anyone in the Commonwealth. Running back/defensive back Devaun Ford is a tremendous weapon on either side of the ball, and you can say the same about tight end/defensive end Xavier Gonsalves, who already holds a UMass offer. Receiver Cam Kergo is a speedy option on the outside, and junior quarterback Ian Miller has plenty of untapped potential.
Why to be skeptical: It basically comes down to one thing. The Falcons have all the speed and skill position talent one can ask for, but its entire offensive line from last year graduated. It was a unit that rivaled any in the state, and there is not a lot of size waiting in the wings to replace it. This is a team that will go as far as its new faces on the line can take it. The schedule is also about as tough as it gets for any Div. 7 team. In the first four weeks, the Falcons have road trips to Nantucket, South Hadley and Abington.
Why to buy in: This was one of the best teams in the state last year, losing only to Div. 3 Central finalist Shrewsbury and then Melrose in the Div. 4 state title game. In the latter, quarterback Sam Bolinsky went down with an injury early on, and the Chieftains' hopes of winning dropped with that unfortunate break. This program always has good, physical offensive line play, as evidenced by its ability to push around a terrific Reading team in the 2015 Div. 2 Super Bowl, and should set its sights on another deep run.
Why to be skeptical: Although Bolinsky returns, he loses his favorite target and one of the top receivers in Central Mass. in Breese Hill. The defense should be strong again, but losing a linebacker like Kyle Hume makes that more difficult. The schedule will not be a breeze. There are roadblocks early in the season, too, but the final two games are on the road at Wachusett and Shrewsbury. Finally, to get out of the Div. 4 Central bracket, the Chieftains will likely have to go through either Westboro or Marlboro at some point, two mauler-type programs that will challenge their depth if they advance through the section.
Why to buy in: The Redhawks had a solid 2017 before they were dismissed from the Div. 2 South playoffs by Bridgewater-Raynham. But after that, Natick will be a bad matchup for teams that have smaller linemen, which contributed to their shutout over Mansfield in a consolation round game. For starters, the Redhawks have one of the best up-and-coming linemen in the state in Josh Atwood, a 6-foot-2, 300-pounder. Natick will also possess decent speed on the perimeter, and sophomore quarterback Will Lederman started in the win over Mansfield last year.
Why to be skeptical: The Redhawks lost a good portion of their best players to graduation. Malik Williams, in particular, will be tough to replace, as the running back/linebacker was a force on both sides of the ball. This is a talented team, but not all of it is experienced. The schedule is not for the faint of heart with an opening trip to Needham before a home game with Brockton. Also, Division 2 South right now is King Philip's playground, so Natick has some ground to make up there.
Why to buy in: Needham made some nice inroads last season with a win over Brockton in the Div. 1 South quarterfinals before it bowed out to eventual sectional champ Xaverian. There is optimism for a deeper run this time around behind an offense that should be one of the more explosive around. Whoever plays quarterback will haeve a wealth of receiving talent in Duke-bound Matthew Smith, Jack Murmes and junior Odhari Hibberts, who is poised for a breakout campaign.
Why to be skeptical: The retirement of coach Dave Duffy puts new head man Doug Kopcso in a spot where the Rockets will have to adjust to a new main voice after a long and successful run from the former. Also, where the offense looks to be dangerous, the defense does not bring back many returning starters and will have to grow up fast. The Rockets open with Natick, then take a trip to a very formidable Hopkinton team. The newly-aligned BSC Herget Division features the Rockets, Walpole, Milton, Braintree and Weymouth.
Why to buy in: Injuries hit their toll hard on the Rams last year, who had to play a slew of young players. That experience should pay off, as four offensive linemen return, including bulldozing junior Alec Ambrosia to block for running back Ben Carpenter, among others. The defense has front seven strength, too, with junior linebacker Anthony Oriente and linebacker/tight end Kristian Gruszecki. Defensive backs Cody Adams and Kobe Jean-Guillaume lead the secondary. As usual, the Rams can mow down opponents on either side of the ball and grind out wins with their run-oriented attack.
Why to be skeptical: For one, the Rams graduated hard-hitting linebacker Zack Magdis, who will do a PG year at Worcester Academy. Also, the way Shepherd Hill plays on offense does not lend itself to coming back from a big, early deficit. At the moment, it appears that teams like St. John's (Shrewsbury), Shrewsbury and Doherty could be the class of the Div. 3 Central bracket. Still, this is a program that has produced so many Division 1 players lately that it could really find a special season around the corner if it gets a few breaks.
Why to buy in: The Black Knights, year-in, year-out, regardless of of who is coming back, have tough, resilient players who can physically make opponents work for every inch of grass (or FieldTurf, whatever the case may be). There are not many programs in the state that are as consistent in that regard. This season, one player to keep an eye on is linebacker/running back Malachi Green, while other players in the backfield with potential to have big years are Alex Iverson and Jeff Grier. Offensive linemen Matt Piana and Evan Jackman return, and Cian Swierzski is one of the best cornerbacks in the Hockomock League.
Why to be skeptical: Right now, coach Greg Burke does not know who will play quarterback, as his returning starter transferred out. The replacement will likely come from a younger player, but passing the ball early on will be a chore. The schedule, as usual, won't be easy coming out of the Hockomock's Davenport Division, as North Attleboro, Foxboro, plus rising Canton and Milford programs never make for easy pickings. Div. 3 South again is the deepest bracket in the state, so the passing game must develop in time for the Black Knights to truly contend.
Why to buy in: The Panthers led Stoughton for much of the way during their Div. 3 South quarterfinal before the Black Knights rallied and came away with a 30-21 victory. However, a deeper run could be in the cards for this Whitman-Hanson squad, as there is experience almost everywhere on the field. For starters, quarterback Ethan Phelps is a threat with both his arm and his legs, while fullback/linebacker Mike Connors is a bruiser who also has nimble feet. Defensive end Quinn Sweeney is one of the best in the state, and there is solid talent up and down the roster.
Why to be skeptical: There are not too many holes, but there were some graduation losses on the offensive line that could be difficult to fill. Other than that, the difficulty for this team will be navigating a very tough Patriot League Keenan Division schedule, with teams like Hingham and Duxbury poised to be strong again this season. Also, the nonleague schedule off the bat will be difficult with Marshfield and a New Bedford team that returns three- and four-year starters all over the roster.