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South Hadley football team flexes its muscle

The South Hadley football team doesn’t set statistical goals before the season or prior to any particular game. But through the first eight games of the season, the team’s stats are impossible to ignore.

South Hadley is the highest-scoring team in all of western Massachusetts with 313 points in eight games, an average of 39.1. The Tigers’ total is 50 points more than the next best offense in Longmeadow (263).

With two games remaining on the schedule, the Tigers have already surpassed their entire 2011 total of 295 points.

Their 2,330 total rushing yards has them closing in on 300 yards per game. They’ve crossed the goal line on the ground 34 times, which would be enough to outscore more than half the teams in the area.

The Tigers enter their Week 9 bye with a 7-1 record, their only loss coming at Longmeadow on Sept. 22. South Hadley tops the Division 2 power rankings, but has yet to clinch a postseason berth. A victory in one of its final two games would likely assure them a spot.

“We simply try to build on each week and get better,” second-year coach Eric Scammons said. “Some games have been more closely contested than others, but our goal is always to execute to our best regardless of the situation. As the season goes on, the guys become more comfortable with the schemes and the particular plays. So we’ve done a good job building on things.”

A 67-16 victory last Saturday over Cathedral and 494 yards rushing did inflate the team’s stats a bit, but even before that contest South Hadley was averaging over 35 points a game.

Leading the offensive barrage this season has been junior running back T.J. Fitzell, who’s rushed for a team-high 717 yards and has an opportunity for a 1,000-yard campaign. But his biggest contribution has been 16 touchdowns, 14 on the ground.

“It’s a great feeling to be one of the main guys the team counts on to put it in the end zone, then coming back to the sideline and seeing the guys amped up,” he said. “But I can’t do it myself. Our line is the key to us making those big plays. We changed the offense a little bit this season to be more explosive, and we have four dynamic runners, which is tough on any defense. We’re not the typical Wing-T.”

Senior back Bryan Shippee has added 813 yards and nine scores. Outlining the explosive nature of this attack is the fact that seven different ball carriers have a season-long run of 20 yards or longer.

But lately the Tigers’ offensive unit hasn’t needed to step on the field for points to go onto the scoreboard. The defense and special teams, led by senior Anthony Bullough, has put up its fair share of scores. Bullough has eight touchdowns — four receiving, two on punt returns and another pair after interceptions.

“Whenever you can score on defense, that’s a game-changer,” Scammons said. “Turnovers are always an indicator of whether a team wins or loses. We’ve been getting turnovers, and either scoring directly off them or setting up the offense in a good position. So we’ve started to put together complete games with both sides of the ball contributing.”

The defense is also pretty good at keeping the other team off the board, allowing only 12.6 points with 16 forced turnovers. The coverage downfield is assisted by the front, led by senior Ian Hanrahan with team highs of 51 tackles and 61∕2 sacks.

“Our defense has come together lately,” said Bullough, who has five interceptions. “We all go to the ball, it’s a real team defense. And scoring touchdowns the past couple games is huge. To take an interception back for a touchdown, you need to rely on your blockers. It’s certainly not a one-man play.”

Since their 0-4 start to the 2011 season, the Tigers can boast of an 11-3 record and have put up 30 or more points in all 11 victories.

“There’s definitely been a carryover from how we finished last year,” Bullough said. “And the teams that beat us last season, we wanted to get redemption against. We’ve come through strong thus far.”

Following the Putnam game next Thursday, the Tigers will have the customary 13-day break before their Thanksgiving morning showdown with Chicopee Comp, a game that may very well decide the champion of the Suburban League. The possibility exists for a five-way tie atop the league at 4-2 with South Hadley, Chicopee, Comp, Putnam and Amherst.

“Our toughest tests are still ahead in Putnam and Chicopee Comp,” Scammons said. “Both of those games will be a heavy challenge, and both of those teams need to win to make the playoffs themselves. We have many teams in our league fighting for spots, which will make the last couple weeks really interesting. With the time off, we’ll give the guys a few days off away from football so they won’t burn out. Having a bye week when you have momentum may hurt, but hopefully it benefits us.”

Said Fitzell, “We need to continue to be sharp offensively and defensively, every guy knowing his assignments. If we keep practicing hard and smart every day, we’ll have a good chance at the end.”

ORIOLES LOOK TO CLINCH — Undefeated and top-ranked Belchertown (7-0, 6-0 Intercounty) could assure its third consecutive Division 3 playoff berth with a victory tonight at Athol.

Even if they lose their final three games, the Orioles would still likely earn a spot. But with three weeks remaining, the power rankings can’t yet confirm that any team has already clinched.

Wins by Belchertown and fellow unbeaten Greenfield (7-0, 5-0) against Frontier would set up a showdown in Greenfield next Friday night for the league crown and likely the top seed in D-3.

GAME OF THE WEEK — Pathfinder at Easthampton, White Brook Middle School, Saturday, 1:30.

The top two teams in both Division 4 and the Tri-County League square off in a contest likely to determine the No. 1 spot in both.

Easthampton (6-2, 6-0) has lost to a pair of likely Division 3 tourney teams in Belchertown and St. Joseph’s, while Pathfinder (8-0, 6-0) has rolled through its entire schedule with little trouble.

MISC. — Mount Greylock’s Berkshire County record 33-game winning streak came to an end last week with a 20-8 loss to Wahconah. ... Northampton (5-3, 2-3 AA) dropped out of the WMass Media Poll for the first time since Week 2 after last week’s loss to East Longmeadow (4-3, 3-1). ... Putnam (5-3, 2-2 Suburban) has lost back-to-back games and is out of Top 10 for the first time this season.

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

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