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Blue Devils buy in early, turn fortunes around

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Northampton quarterback R.J.Ramsden, right, tries to evade Minnechaug defenders Jacob Tamasy, left, and Brian Gingrass, second from left, Friday in Northampton.JERREY ROBERTS

Northampton quarterback R.J.Ramsden, right, tries to evade Minnechaug defenders Jacob Tamasy, left, and Brian Gingrass, second from left, Friday in Northampton.JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

NORTHAMPTON — According to junior John Grimaldi, it took one preseason practice for first-year coach Pat Sledzieski to win over the entire Northampton football team.

“From the first day, I think we realized he was taking us in the right direction,” said Grimaldi, the team’s defensive leader at linebacker and a running back on offense. “We really do like him a lot. He’s a great coach and we’re doing great things this year.”

Those great things have come more quickly than expected and the Blue Devils (6-4) enter Thursday’s “Battle of the Bridge” rivalry game against Amherst Regional (5-3) having clinched their first winning season in six years and with a shot at reaching the postseason for the first time since 2004.

“I had seen some games, but more importantly, have heard a lot of feedback from people and the air around the program was bad,” said Sledzieski, who previously was the head coach at Ware and Belchertown. “It’s hard for me to imagine how these seniors have felt being not just bad, but last place or second-to-last place. I know it’s been really rough on them.

“This year, we’re not the biggest team numberswise. We have some talent, but I don’t think we are the most talented team around. I just think hard work has paid off for us.”

Sledzieski was hired in July after Ken O’Brien, who had coached the team 40 years, including the last 12 as the head coach, resigned. The team struggled in recent years, winning a combined three games in the last two seasons.

The late hire put the coaching staff in a challenging spot, but Sledzieski credited the seniors’ leadership.

“I think the seniors need a lot of credit. When I took the position, I was hired in middle of July and we didn’t have any time to evaluate what type of talent we had. We couldn’t get them on any type of weightlifting program. We just had to go with what we had and (the seniors) really bought into everything we were doing and they’ve provided fantastic leadership.”

Not surprisingly, athletic director Jim Miller is quite pleased with his new coach.

“I knew we had a good team, it was just how it would come together with a new coach,” Miller said. “The kids bought into his methods of doing things. ... He’s always thinking, always analyzing ways to improve. He always has a play and tries to execute it.”

According to senior running back Danny Mam, simplifying things on the offensive end has helped the Blue Devils become more dangerous.

“Everyone knows their jobs and what is expected of them,” said Mam, whose squad almost never passes the ball. “We had so many formations last year, we literally had 10-12 formations last year and now we have two. Everyone knows where they are going, everyone knows what they are doing.”

The consensus among the players is that they’ve all taken to the upbeat outlook exuded by Sledzieski and his staff in practice and during games.

“They brought a positive attitude and that’s what we needed,” Grimaldi said. “We were one of the worst teams the past few years and we really needed a positive attitude. If someone messes up during practice, Coach tells us what we did wrong and just corrects it instantly.”

Mam added, “He’s definitely built up the team chemistry and the mindset to never lose hope. He doesn’t get down on us if we make a mistake. If there is a problem, we fix it. The coaching staff gets us prepared for game day.”

Key in having the team buy in early was starting the year well and when the Blue Devils opened with a victory over West Springfield, it began the positive momentum that has helped the team roll with the punches through some hard times — including a three-game losing streak — and enter their Thanksgiving Day confident they’ll snap Amherst’s two-game turkey day winning streak.

“What really opened my eyes was when we lost our first game to Minnechaug,” Sledzieski said of the fifth game of the season. “We won our first four games, but with the exception of Wahconah, those teams (West Springfield, Agawam, Cathedral) for one reason or another were down this year. Wahconah was a good team. But Minnechaug is one of the iron teams and defensively, we shut them down. That proved to me we were tough enough to compete with the big boys.

“Since then, we’ve played Longmeadow and Central and the scores might not be very close, but there were points during both games where we were very close, very competitive. We’ve had a brutal schedule in the AA and we’ve come out of it OK. We’ll just see what we can shake out of it for Thanksgiving.”

The Blue Devils clinched their winning record with a 28-22 win over Westfield on Nov. 11 and now get a chance to extend their season with a win Thursday along with a South Hadley victory over Chicopee Comp.

“It definitely gives us a big boost and be more motivated to come to practice and work hard,” Mam said. “We have a winning season this year, so everyone is happy to come to practice and having fun instead of dwelling on coming down (to the practice field). Everyone wants to be a part of the team. Walking around town, everyone is wishing us luck. It’s a great feeling.”

Jim Pignatiello can be reached at jpignatiello@gazettenet.com.

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