Football: Returning playoff games know how long the road to a title can be

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  • Easthampton quarterback Shea Healy, left, hands the football to Angel Moody during practice at Nonotuck Park in Easthampton STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Easthampton’s Will Hogan carries the football during practice at Nonotuck Park in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Frontier quarterback Aidan Dredge carries the football at practice in S STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Frontier Regional coach Scott Dredge, right, explains a drill at practice in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Frontier Regional ends football practice with conditioning in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Northampton varsity football head coach Joe Kocot on the first day of practice for the season Friday in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • The Northampton varsity football team runs drills on the first day of practice for the season Friday in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • The Northampton varsity football team runs sprints on the first day of practice for the season Friday in Northampton. FOR THE GAZETTE/DAN LITTLE

  • Belchertown’s Landon Andre and Michael Mascaro battle for the ball in a drill at football practice in Belchertown.  STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Belchertown coach Dan McCarthy addresses the Orioles after football practice in Belchertown STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • New South Hadley football coach Brian Couture throws the football at practice. Couture has coached with the Tigers for a decade and stepped into the head role after longtime coach Scott Taylor left this spring STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • New South Hadley football coach Brian Couture addresses the team after practice. Couture has coached with the Tigers for a decade and stepped into the head role after longtime coach Scott Taylor left this spring STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst’s Jameson Dion runs a drill with assistant coach Jack Putala during football practice in Amherst STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Alex Martinez warms up before Smith Vocational football practice in Northampton. He has started at quarterback for three years for the Vikings. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • South Hadley quarterback Noah Marion throws the football during practice n South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • Amherst Regional football coach Vinny Guiel took over the program this season after spending time as the Hurricanes offensive coordinator last year.  STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

  • The Smith Vocatinoal defensive line works through drills  at football practice in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO / KYLE GRABOWSKI

Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2022 9:43:21 PM
Modified: 9/7/2022 9:39:31 PM

The statewide tournament showed three local football teams how long the road is to a state championship last season. Each of Easthampton, Northampton and South Hadley rode an hour and a half and more than 80 miles on a bus to road playoff games last November. All three ended their season there.

“Having played in Western Mass tournaments lately, it really changed, but I think we know what to expect more this year,” Northampton senior quarterback Ben Sledzieski said. “I think we won’t get hit as hard this year.”

The Blue Devils lost 42-14 as a No. 9 seed at No. 8 Ashland in Division 4. In Division 6, No. 12 South Hadley fell 35-0 at No. 5 Winthrop, and No. 13 Easthampon dropped 27-0 at No. 4 Rockland.

“It was learning experience because we just had to go into it unprepared. When they started recognizing our plays, we got down on ourselves,” South Hadley senior Brayden Harper said. “I feel like we weren't mentally prepared.”

Now all three teams know what to expect should they return. They also all want to avoid making the trip if possible. Their sights are set on hosting a game.

“We know who we are what we have. We have a lot of kids back from last year's team, you know Ashland kicked our (butt), but we were competitive early. We played tough. We had made some early mistakes in that game,” Northampton coach Joe Kocot said. “But our goal, all that being said, my goal, as head coach is to have a home playoff game.”

No one thinks that will happen just by saying it. They all recognize the work and focus it takes to win consistently enough to rise in the rankings.

“We definitely want kids to know like, the work we went through last year, and everything that it came down to when it came down to us not making it past that Rockland game and we've just made it clear this whole preseason,” Easthampton’s Will Hogan said. “We want to win. We want to win more than anything.”

NEW, BUT FAMILIAR FACES – Three new coaches have taken over area programs this fall: Vinny Guiel at Amherst, David Guzman at Holyoke and Brian Couture at South Hadley. Only none of them are new to the players they’re coaching. Guiel and Guzman were offensive coordinators on the staff, while Couture was South Hadley’s defensive line coach.

After longtime Tigers coach Scott Taylor left, the rest of the coaching staff remained in place to keep continuity in South Hadley. They have multiple assistants that have been in place more than a decade.

“We want to keep it in the family,” Couture said. “It was a bonus that the school agreed. It’s been great. I have all the faith in the world.”

Guiel is from West Springfield and coached there against Amherst in the 2019 Western Massachusetts Championship game. He joined the Hurricanes last season under Mike Dublin, who is now heading up the newly formed program at Springfield International Charter. Guiel also has experience at Smith Vocational and Holyoke.

“There’s lots of opportunity here,” he said. ” think just there’s a losing a little bit of a losing mentality here right now. And I think it’s going to take some time to change that but I think we got a good group that we can start making those strides.”

The former lineman wants to get Amherst back to the fundamentals of football. The Hurricanes do up-downs when they put the ball on the ground in practice, no matter if it’s a drill or scrimmaging. They’ll run the double wing offense to marry some unpredictability with their stable of athletes.

“It’s it’s simple, but it’s it’s confusing. It’s confusing to coach against, that’s for sure,” Guiel said. “There’s a lot going on, when there’s not a lot going on. If that makes sense.”

Guzman is taking over for Joe Dutsar, who led the Purple Knights for seven seasons as part of a 30-year tenure coaching high school football in Western Massachusetts.

ROAD WARRIORS – Easthampton’s “home” games this season will only be nominally so. Due to construction at White Brook Middle School taking place on the grounds of their home field and the new field not being ready for play yet, Easthampton is using Smith Vocational as its site for its five home games. The hope is that they’ll at least be able to play senior night (Oct. 29 against Frontier) on their own field. The Eagles aren’t bothered if it isn’t.

“We’ll play anywhere We don’t really care. We’ll go play away every game,” junior Will Hogan said.

South Hadley has a field but will only have three home games there this season: Chicopee on Setp. 30, , Taconic on Oct. 28 and Holyoke on Thanksgiving. That’s in contrast to three away and five at home last year.

“The last game of the year is at home so that’s the only game that really matters to me personally,” Harper said. “The Thanksgiving game’s the last game I’m gonna have on this field, the last memory I’m really gonna have (with South Hadley football).”

ASSEMBLE THE HORDE – Smith Vocational boasts its largest roster since beginning its football program in 2013. There are 48 athletes involved with the program, which includes a co-op with Smith Academy. So many players came out that the Vikings didn’t have enough helmets and shoulder pads and needed to order more.

“it’s really great to see everyone here, especially the younger kids, it really sets the future for the school,” Smith Vocational junior quarterback Alex Martinez said.

NAMASTE – Once a week, the Frontier Regional football team gathers in the gymnasium instead of on the field, and health teacher Kate Blair leads them through a series of yoga exercises.

“I wanted to bring in the program is kind of beyond thinking about beyond football. Being an administrator in the school, we saw a lot of kids and serious need of social emotional support, including our student athletes,” Frontier coach Scott Dredge said. “The benefit there physically is that we’re doing body strengthening and stretching, but I think spiritually and physically and mentally it’s what we can offer it to help ground them to themselves and be present and focused and hopefully help out throughout the course of the season.”

The Redhawks endured an uncharacteristic 3-7 season last year, but three of those losses were by two scores or fewer. They won three of their final five games to build into 2022.

“I don’t know if I need to remind them. I really do think they’re in a good head space and the leadership on the team is motivated,” Dredge said. “We did not get blown out. It’s just about finishing that job. They’re motivating themselves to do that, which kind of makes it a little easier on me.”

THE INTERPRETER – Northampton quarterback Ben Sledzieski will man the Blue Devils offense for the third season in a row. He threw for nearly 1,000 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago while rushing for another nearly 300 yards and four scores.

“It’s crazy. It all happened so fast. It’s my last year, so I’ll try and make the best of it. I’m pretty sure that’s what every senior – I mean, I hope that’s the mentality,” he said.

He’s manned Joe Kocot’s offense the entire time, which can sometimes need a dictionary. Not for Sledzieski this year. The Blue Devils are largely calling plays with hand signals from the sidelines rather than needing to huddle and draw everything up.

“Our whole offense is you know, is this second language,” Kocot said. “And the guys have learned it.”

BTOWN BACK TO BASICS – Orioles coach Dan McCarthy admits he may have thrown too much at his team last season, tried to do too much. He’s taking a more focused, fundamental approach in 2022.

“We kind of knew we’re going to be young. So we figured you know what, guys, let’s break it down. We’re going real basic with the run playbook, real basic with the defensive playbook and I was talking with a coaches, self reflecting – I tried to do too much last year,” he said. “If I was as basic as I was this year, we probably would have had a little more success.”

GET THAT KID THE BALL – Junior Jameson Dion played quarterback at Amherst in the Hurricanes spread scheme. He’s moving to running back this season to give him a larger role in the new offense.

“The goal is to get the ball in Jamison’s hands as much as humanly possible,” Guiel said.

Kyle Grabowski can be reached at kgrabowski@gazettenet.com. Follow him on Twitter @Kylegrbwsk.

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