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Belchertown relies on experience against St. Joseph in Division 3

James Ryan of Belchertown, right, runs for a gain as teammate Jake LaFleche blocks Charlie Tirrell of Frontier Friday in Belchertown.

James Ryan of Belchertown, right, runs for a gain as teammate Jake LaFleche blocks Charlie Tirrell of Frontier Friday in Belchertown. Purchase photo reprints »

If postseason experience proves to be a major factor, the Belchertown football team should hold the upper hand in its Western Massachusetts Division 3 playoff game tonight.

The top-seeded Orioles (9-1) will play in their third consecutive sectional semifinal at 5:15 p.m. at Holyoke High School. Belchertown lost in this round to Athol in 2010 and Lee in 2011.

Their opponent, No. 4 St. Joseph-Central of Pittsfield, completed an 8-3 regular season for its first winning campaign since 2005.

“For most of our seniors, this is the third playoff game they’ll play in, and those guys are anxious,” Belchertown coach John Mayo said. “It won’t be nervousness, just a bit of anxiousness like any player would feel. So it’s invaluable to have that playoff experience to draw from. Hopefully, that helps us win the game. If you made a list of pluses and minuses for each team, that would certainly be a plus for us. But talent, effort, toughness and how the ball bounces will be big factors too.”

Longtime St. Joseph coach Gary Bianchi’s squad saw its only losses come to other playoff teams in Wahconah Regional, Hoosac Valley and Mount Greylock.

For the Orioles to advance, they’ll need to bounce back quickly from their only setback of the season, a one-sided 30-8 loss at the hands of Division 4 top seed Pathfinder on Thanksgiving. The Pioneers controlled the game up front and Belchertown uncharacteristically lost the turnover battle.

“We learned that you can’t make mental mistakes,” Mayo said. “We made almost as many of those Thursday as we have the rest of the season combined. In the Pathfinder game, those mistakes didn’t just cause us yardage but cost us points. If we do that again (Tuesday), we’ll be in trouble. And losing the turnover battle is always a problem in any football game. I think we’ve only lost it twice all year.”

It’s a fast turnaround with only four days in between Thanksgiving Day and the first playoff game.

“Our kids are pretty resilient, and we’ve practiced really hard (since Thursday), but it’s impossible to tell how that will translate to the game, especially with only a few days in between,” Mayo said.

Belchertown first-year starting quarterback Nick Leduc has enjoyed a fine season under center. The junior has completed over 50 percent of his passes for over 1,000 yards with 18 touchdowns and only five interceptions. Two of those picks came in the Pathfinder loss.

Leduc displays a deft touch on the deep ball and also has the ability to scramble and escape trouble. His top target is senior receiver James Ryan with 544 yards and nine touchdown receptions. Ryan is also the team’s leading rusher with 609 yards on the ground and eight more scores.

Running back Joe Sarno as well as receivers Jake Bradway and Jake Mastorakis are also playmakers for Mayo’s offense.

“We’re a big-play passing team,” said Mayo. “We haven’t thrown the ball a ton this season, but we’ve been very efficient. We’ve debated whether we need to get the running game going, but we’ll see how the game plays out and what the defense gives us. We hope to be able to throw the ball, and hopefully the weather cooperates where it’s not too cold or snowy.”

Defensively for St. Joseph, Cam Evon is a destructive force with 11 sacks and 92 tackles on the season for a team that’s allowed 15.4 points per game and forced 18 turnovers.

The Crusaders are led in all three units by senior quarterback Jon Bianchi, who’s rushed for 594 yards and thrown for 561. As a defensive back, Bianchi has team-highs in total tackles (166) and interceptions (three), causing six fumbles and recovering two. Bianchi also punts at roughly a 40-yard clip.

St. Joseph possesses a pair of major threats out of the backfield. Leading rusher Lavante Wiggins ran for 1,171 yards during the regular season and scored 11 touchdowns. He’s averaging more than 6 yards per carry and over 100 yards a game. Tank Roberson is ever better than Wiggins in terms of yards per attempt (8.2) and rushing touchdowns (12). Both have the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.

“Wiggins is a very quick back, and they also have (Roberson), who’s a 240-pound fullback,” Mayo said. “Their quarterback is also a very strong runner out of their option-type offense. So it’s going to be a tough matchup. We’re going to have to tackle well, especially in space. Their defense is pretty good, and they also do some exotic things on special teams that we’ve seen and worked on in practice.”

The Crusaders score nearly 26 points per game, while the Orioles defense is allowing just 8.1. That average jumped three full points after the loss to Pathfinder. The Orioles had only given up double-digit points one other time the entire season.

Senior linebacker Tony Pellerin, senior lineman Alex Clair and Ryan in the secondary lead the defensive effort.

“We’re likely going to have to play our best defensive game of the season on Tuesday,” said Mayo. “And those guys are pretty eager to play this game. Our defense didn’t play very well (against Pathfinder), but the offense and special team put them in some tough spots. And the defense seemed to be on the field the whole game.”

Belchertown finished the past two seasons with nine wins. A 10th victory Tuesday would mean the program’s first Super Bowl appearance since 2003, when the Orioles won the Division 3A title.

Michael Wilkinson can be reached at mwilkinson@gazettenet.com.

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