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South Hadley, Commerce meet in Division 2 semifinal

The South Hadley football team is one win away from a Super Bowl berth at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, but coach Eric Scammons hopes his Tigers have already learned not to look beyond the game immediately in front of them.

The No. 1 Tigers (8-2) face No. 4 Commerce (8-3) at Westfield State Tuesday at 7:45 p.m. in the Western Massachusetts Division 2 semifinals with a trip to the D-2 Super Bowl on the line.

“When it was announced a few years back that they would rotate the western Mass. Super Bowl through (Foxborough), the kids were excited about the potential opportunity,” Scammons said. “And in talking to players and coaches for Central and Longmeadow (who played in the D-1 game there last year), they were raving about the entire experience. But we’re certainly not looking past Tuesday. All through the year, we’ve been focused on the opponent that is right in front of us. When you start looking ahead, that’s when a team comes up and bites you.”

Scammons admitted that may have been exactly what happened on Thanksgiving Day, when his South Hadley squad saw its six-game winning streak snapped in a 28-10 loss at Chicopee Comp.

“I think the mental rebound is exactly what we needed. We talked to the kids leading up to the (Comp) game that past performance is not a guarantee of future success,” said Scammons, whose team finished second to the Colts in the Suburban League because of the defeat. “But we were banged up going into the game, we knew the game didn’t have any determination on our seeding and we knew we had a game Tuesday. I think the kids weren’t as psychologically prepared as they should have been and that falls on me.”

Scammons said his team has responded the way he hoped.

“Sitting there watching Chicopee Comp celebrate and they hadn’t experienced that since (falling to) Longmeadow (28-14 on Sept. 22) in Week 3. They didn’t like it,” he said. “I think that’s all they needed to refocus them going into Tuesday.”

Now he hopes they can bounce back healthwise and be ready to go.

The squad was missing four of its starting lineman Thursday and Scammons said there were some game-time decisions to be made Tuesday night.

That line of Josh Hooper (left tackle), Brandon Gorman (left guard), Max Dowd (center), Colin Morley (right guard), Bobby Bishop (right tackle) and Ian Hanrahan (tight end) have been the anchor of the team’s wing-T offense and helped standout running backs T.J. Fitzell and Bryan Shippee rush for a combined 1,566 yards and 28 touchdowns.

“All year, they’ve done a great job of getting a body on a body and those two backs are really good at finding offensive space,” Scammons said. Fitzell and Shippee “are two very talented players, but they’d tell you the line has been a big part of their success.”

Commerce has been the likely South Hadley opponent for nearly three weeks, allowing the Tigers to be relatively prepared, despite the turnaround.

“We’ve seen a few of Commerce’s games,” Scammons said. “But with a short week, we have to do our best to be fundamentally sound. You can’t do too much during a short week, so that’s where our approach is right now.”

After a rough start, the Red Raiders have dominated their last six games, outscoring their opponents 185-24 and posting four shutouts.

“On offense, they have really good skill position players, their line is big and they can attack you in a couple of different ways,” Scammons said. “They are a lot like Chicopee Comp. On defense, they are very aggressive. They like to put a lot of pressure on you. They will put eight or nine guys in the box.”

The Commerce defense is led by senior linebackers Sha-ki Holiness and Hassan Graham, who are considered Bowl Subdivision-level players. Holiness is committed to play at the University of Connecticut next season.

“It’s not too often in western Mass. you go against Division I-A talent,” Scammons said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but we’ve got to play our best game on Tuesday to move on.”

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


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