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Hurricanes need win to keep postseason alive

JERREY ROBERTS
Kieran Presley of Amherst Regional, center, runs for a gain before being brought down by Quinn Barbeito of Westfield, left, on Saturday. Amherst won 46-14.

JERREY ROBERTS Kieran Presley of Amherst Regional, center, runs for a gain before being brought down by Quinn Barbeito of Westfield, left, on Saturday. Amherst won 46-14. Purchase photo reprints »

There are three things the Amherst Regional football team has to play for on Thanksgiving morning.

First, the Hurricanes will seek to win their third consecutive “Battle of the Bridge” over Northampton. Second, beating their archrivals would likely knock Hamp out of the Division 1 playoffs.

But the third reason is the most important for Amherst — the ’Canes are still very much alive for a postseason berth of their own, the program’s first in 13 years.

“We haven’t had this opportunity since 1999, and it’s great for our seniors to be able to experience this type of success,” coach David Thompson said. “To have the chance to get into a playoff in their final season is even more motivation.”

Amherst hosts Northampton at Community Field at 10 a.m. It will be the first matchup in recent years that isn’t contested just for pride and yearly bragging rights.

The Hurricanes (5-3, 4-2 Suburban) need considerable help to beat out Commerce for the fourth and final Division 2 playoff spot. Heading into the final week of the regular season, Amherst (10.00) sits nearly two full points behind last season’s D2 runner-up Red Raiders (11.82).

But after where they sat four weeks ago, a chance to make it a great Thanksgiving is all they could have asked. Since a 49-7 loss at South Hadley on Oct. 20 left them at 2-3, the ’Canes have reeled off three in a row. They’ve looked impressive in victories over Putnam, Chicopee and West Springfield.

“After the South Hadley game, I challenged the entire team,” Thompson said. “Each individual had to look in the mirror and answer the question if he left it all on the field. Our playoffs started against Putnam, and we’ve been able to win them all so far. So this is playoff game No. 4 for us. We let a couple games slip away early in the season that put us in this situation.”

Amherst has assured itself of a winning record for the first time since 2004.

“It was tough after we lost those games, especially since we got off to a good start,” quarterback Justin Carey said. “The past three weeks have probably been the best experience of my high school football career, because I don’t think we’ve had a three-game winning streak. And our practices are better than they’ve ever been. That Putnam game was a confidence-booster, being able to win on our senior night. We’ve carried that momentum into the last two games.”

One of the main reasons for the turnaround has been the explosive play of running back Kieran Presley. The senior has rushed for 562 yards the last three games, including a career-high 359 with four total touchdowns in the 42-20 win over Chicopee. His 10-yard score in overtime to beat Putnam saved the season.

With 166 yards on Thursday morning, Presley will reach the 1,000-yard mark in only the team’s ninth game of the season.

“He’s that type of athlete, a guy who can take over a game,” Thompson said. “But he’s not our only guy, we have a ton of other weapons. Kieran will get his opportunities, but we like to spread the ball around. It just happened recently that he’s gotten loose.”

But the ’Canes are also one of the better passing teams in the area with targets Austin Cunningham, Taj Torres, Isaiah Davis-Toledo as well as Presley. Carey has surpassed 1,000 yards through the air for the third consecutive season.

“We’ve watched a ton of tape of Northampton and they like to send a lot of pressure,” Carey said. “So I need to get rid of the ball quickly. I trust my receivers to make the plays, so I’m not worried about putting the ball in a perfect spot. And we have to keep our run game going to set up the pass.”

The Amherst defense has shown great strides over the last month, culminating with a shutout of West Springfield in its last outing. The unit will need to contain the three-headed rushing attack of the Blue Devils with quarterback RJ Ramsden and running backs Danny Mam and Nate Bones.

“They’re a very disciplined team, a very strong team,” Thompson said. “We’ve got to be in the right positions and wrap up. Whatever each guy’s responsibility is, he has to do the job. We can’t allow any big plays.”

The last 12 Amherst football campaigns have concluded on Thanksgiving morning, but in his first season Thompson feels it’s the Hurricanes’ time to extend the season past the holiday.

“We’re not planning on the season ending on Thursday, we’re really hopeful that we’ll still be playing next week,” said Thompson. “If we take care of our business, we believe the rest will take care of itself.”

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

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