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High school football: Amherst dealing with quirky schedule

Just about every high school football team in western Massachusetts has endured an altered schedule thus far, but there’s no question that Amherst Regional has had the quirkiest beginning to its season.

While the majority of teams in western Massachusetts will play their fourth game this weekend, the Hurricanes take the field Sunday afternoon at Holyoke for just the second time. The contest will break a string of 41 days since the start of practice with only one game played.

“It’s frustrating for the guys, they’re ready to play and they see all the other teams playing,” coach David Thompson said. “We have hard practices every day, which makes it more frustrating because those aren’t leading up to a game day.”

Amherst was highly impressive in a 46-14 victory over Westfield in its season opener and Thompson’s debut on Sept. 15. With preseason high hopes only increased by the performance, the Hurricanes needed to wind down for two more weeks.

“We came out firing against Westfield, and we certainly wanted to carry that over into the next week, but it turned out we didn’t have a game the following week,” quarterback Justin Carey said. “But even though we aren’t playing actual games, we don’t have time off because we practice hard.”

With just nine games on the schedule, Thompson spoke about the added urgency the team needs to put into each game. The ’Canes take on their six Suburban League foes, plus three independents.

“It makes us want to take every game a little more seriously, because we feel we can’t afford to lose one,” he said. “Hopefully, if everything works out for us, one or two losses won’t hurt us.”

Amherst athletic director Rich Ferro said he tried to fill one of those bye weeks, mentioning he reached out to Gardner and Cardinal Spellman, but couldn’t make it work.

“We were looking all over the place, but football is so huge that it’s hard to line up these dates so late,” Ferro said. “When I took the job last October, I thought I could get something done in the spring. But there’s only so many openings and so many teams. There isn’t a lot of room to move around. The process was clearly a learning experience for me.”

Amherst was also presented with an opportunity to take on perennial power East Longmeadow to kick off the season, but Ferro decided against finalizing the matchup.

“In retrospect, maybe I should have made the call to play that game, but I talked to some of the assistant coaches and they suggested not to play that game,” Ferro said. “With the possibility of a new coach at that point, we didn’t want to start the guys off with an opponent of that caliber.”

Last weekend represented the normal off week in the schedule after a two-year commitment with Belchertown wasn’t renewed. The Orioles won a 14-12 decision last September in Amherst.

The win over Division 1 Westfield vaulted the Hurricanes into the No. 2 spot in the initial Division 2 power rankings. With games against other AA Conference opponents in Holyoke and Northampton on the schedule, Amherst will be presented with opportunities for impressive victories.

“We’re high in the power rankings right now, but it doesn’t mean anything because we’ve played just one game,” Carey said. “Now we want to prove that Westfield game wasn’t a fluke and that we’re a really good team. We’ll have those chances, but we can only control what we can control.

“The coaches are doing a great job preparing us, because we knew the schedule we have with the early bye weeks,” Carey added. “As players, it’s tough to wait this long without playing games, but I think we’re doing a great job handling it.”

Carey and Thompson agreed that a little extra practice time served the squad well, considering Thompson was hired to replace Glenn Jackson in early July. Thompson, the former standout lineman for UMass, installed slightly different schemes.

“It definitely helped to have some time with a new head coach,” Carey said. “Even though most of us know Coach Thompson, he still runs different stuff than Coach Jackson did. So we played pretty well that first game, even though there are still areas we need to clean up.”

Thompson put the ’Canes through a demanding preseason practice schedule, which included a three-day NFL-style minicamp from Aug. 23-25. After two-a-day practices, the players spent nights locked in the school, learning the playbook, watching film and performing team-bonding activities. The camp culminated with a scrimmage against Frontier Regional.

“We had a good time in camp to put the system in, so the guys know what we’re doing,” Thompson said. “The extra time has helped us straighten ourselves out and see what we like and what we don’t like.”

Six of their final seven games are scheduled for Friday nights, some of which may need to be moved with the ongoing EEE and West Nile threats. That’s just another minor nuisance to Carey and his teammates.

“For the seniors, it being our last year, we’re frustrated to lose games on Friday night,” Carey said. “We have a great tradition under the lights, and it stinks to play on Sunday with NFL games and family business people have to attend to. But we’ll play whenever we have to and do our best.”

Once Amherst faces Holyoke on Sunday, the Hurricanes will finally be able to settle into the season with games on eight consecutive weeks.

“I think it will be easier for us to focus, because we know we’ll have practice Monday through Thursday leading up to a game Friday,” Thompson said. “We’ll be able to get into our routine and game-planning for a specific opponent.”

Many of the teams the Hurricanes will be competing with for a Division 2 postseason berth have 10 or 11 games on their schedules. That’s at least one more chance to earn valuable points for the power rankings.

“If the guys play like they can, (playing fewer games) shouldn’t hurt them,” Ferro said. “But it could, the possibility exists that it might hurt their chances. Hopefully, it doesn’t.”

FRONTIER’S LONG WAIT — No team has had more time off than Frontier Regional, which hasn’t played in 20 days heading into tonight’s game against Sci-Tech at Central High at 5 p.m.

The Red Hawks (1-0) defeated Pioneer Regional 12-6 on Sept. 8 and then had a scheduled bye week heading into their Sept. 21 home opener against Ware.

However, that game was postponed to Nov. 16, giving coach Scott Dredge’s team a second straight week off.

Frontier will now play nine straight weeks to round out its regular season.

NEW AND OLD — The Northampton-Wahconah game features a pair of first-year coaches. Sort of.

While the Blue Devils (3-0) are thriving under first-year coach Pat Sledzieski, the Warriors (3-0) have also started out well under Gary Campbell, Jr., who is back for a second term with the Dalton program.

Campbell coached 10 years at Wahconah through the 2005 season, when he decided to take over at Berwick (Pa.). After posting a 46-25 record with the Dawgs, Campbell returned to Dalton to become the Wahconah co-athletic director and take over his old coaching gig.

In his first run with the program, Campbell’s teams went 85-23-1, reached six Super Bowls and won two of them.

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

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