EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 6, 2013

Two thumbs up for new playoff system

Sunday Morning Quarterback
Hector Longo

---- — Sports We’re a bit past the halfway point in the newly-revamped Massachusetts high school football regular season, and if the early returns mean anything, many of the system’s detractors have run for cover.

Now, we’ll hear plenty around Turkey Day, about how tradition has taken a pounding, but in my eyes for now, the expanded playoffs and shortened regular-season sprint are just what this state needed.

Teams with one and two losses still have plenty to play for. Three-loss teams are working out the formulas for their ways to muscle in to that last “at-large” bid. And even the teams that have struggled can look to a November against teams of similar ability, not blowouts against some overwhelming Super Bowl-bound foe.

Players are keeping their heads up, even in defeat, knowing there is a tomorrow, and coaches are pouncing on that.

Case in point, I give you Tom Ryan and his gritty Methuen Rangers after Friday night’s emotional 17-0 loss to Haverhill.

You had to be at Nicholson Stadium to understand these stakes were high. These two cities are nurturing a wicked rivalry -- one that spilled over the line last year in hoops/hockey but stayed clean Friday night -- and it was a competitive and entertaining game.

On this night, the Hillies made the key plays and prevailed, but that wasn’t about to taint Ryan’s optimism.

“No matter what happened tonight, we’re still playing for a league title in my eyes (Saturday, at Tewksbury, 1:30),” said the first-year Ranger boss and ex-Redmen defensive coordinator.

With tight time and space restrictions Friday night, we didn’t get much time to focus in on the Rangers, but Methuen’s defense was as good as the Hillies’ until the final five minutes.

Mike Golio, Christian Monserrat, Jamie Comerford, Johnny Maginnis and the cast all had big nights, right up until the decisive drive that saw the Hillies put it away on Tommy Maguire’s 29-yard TD midway through the fourth.

Up until that drive, which saw the Rangers hit with a controversial 15-yard personal foul at midfield (in my eyes, Maguire was well in bounds when he was grabbed then flung out of bounds), Methuen had surrendered barely 150 yards of offense.

“They finished, and we didn’t,” said Ryan.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE GAME

With all due respect to the brilliant late running of Maguire (21- and 69-yard TD runs in the 4th), the offensive star of the night was Haverhill senior John Ramsdell, who caught 5 balls for 50 yards.

Ramsdell’s 30-yard catch goes down as one of the great high school grabs I’ve ever seen. Fully-extended, hands to the sky, defender right there, it was just money.

It set up another ice-cold Hillie moment, Pat Yale’s 36-yard field goal that was true right off his foot.

But back to Ramsdell for a minute. He’s not big. He’s not incredibly fast, but the kid keeps making big catches.

ANOTHER BIG NIGHT IN THE BACK

The Haverhill secondary might also have played its best game of the season.

Playing mostly man-to-man, they put the clamps on the Ranger air game and a pretty good one in QB Austin George-Williams.

Safety Josh Dion and corner Chiedozie Onwuka each had picks and Dion lowered the boom a couple times. Yale was strong on the corner and had a near-pick of his own.

EAGLE-TRIBUNE FAB 5 POLL

1. Central 3-1

2. Pinkerton 4-1

3. Haverhill 3-1

4. Methuen 4-1

5. Pentucket 3-0

Honorable Mention: Pelham 4-0, Sanborn 3-2, Whittier 3-2, Windham 4-1

Quick look ahead: Biggest Friday night of the year lies ahead. First, Pentucket is at Masconomet for the inside track on the Cape Ann Large title. Central and Lowell each look to keep their hopes alive in the MVC large when they play in Lawrence. Pinkerton puts its reputation and important seeding points on the line at home against a rugged Concord squad, while Londonderry can take possession of its playoff fate with its home date against Merrimack.

Meanwhile, on Saturday, Methuen is at Tewksbury for a 1:30 p.m. matinee in coach Tom Ryan’s homecoming.