Frontier-Mohawk should be tight one
It has not been the best season for either team, so when Frontier Regional School travels to Pollard Field in Buckland tonight at 7 to meet host Mohawk Trail Regional High School in their annual Thanksgiving Eve showdown, it will give both teams a chance to go out on a high note.
The Warriors enter the game 3-6 overall, and 2-5 in the Intercounty League, while Frontier sits at 2-7 overall, with a 1-6 IL mark.
Frontier got off to a solid start to the season with wins over Pioneer Valley Regional School and Springfield School of Science & Technology, but since then the Red Hawks have gone in a downward spiral, losing seven straight games. Mohawk, meanwhile, sat at 3-3 after six games this season but has lost three straight games coming into this one. A win in this game would help both teams to end the season on a strong note.
“Seasons like this, a game like this kind of lets you reset the record,” Frontier coach Scott Dredge said. “It certainly means a lot to both teams, especially because we are so evenly matched. If anything, it should make for a good football game — a classic Thanksgiving football game.”
“You win this one and you walk away a champion,” Mohawk coach Jim Smith added. “It’s pretty important to all these kids.”
History with Hawks
This marks the sixth year the teams will meet on Thanksgiving Eve, serving as the warm-up to Thursday morning’s schedule that features three more local games. Frontier owns a resounding 42-30-6 edge in the ancient series, which dates back to 1933 when Deerfield High School took on Arms Academy. For years, the game was played on Veterns Day.
Last season marked the first time in 21 years that Frontier entered a game against Mohawk having lost the previous matchup between the two teams. The Warriors picked up a 22-7 2010 victory and were looking to make it two in a row for the first time since the Warriors won three straight from 1979-81.
Mohawk nearly pulled off the feat when, in the midst of a 20-20 tie, the Warriors drove the ball down to the Frontier 11-yard line with nine seconds left. Mohawk coach Jim Smith sent out kicker Jake Looman to attempt a 28-yard, game-winning field goal that barely made it over the Mohawk line and dropped into the end zone, sending the game into overtime. In the extra frame, both teams got chances to score from the 10-yard line, but Mohawk fumbled on its attempt and Frontier junior defensive end Charlie Tirrell fell on the ball. Frontier then got its try from the 10 and on the first play, Clement Watroba carried the ball 10 yards to punch in the score and give Frontier the 26-20 win.
While the Red Hawks have never really been known as an offensive juggernaut, even in recent years when the team has had successful season, the club has scored enough points to support their typically strong defense. This season, the defense has not been great, ranking third to last in the nine-team IL, but the offense has been worse, scoring just 64 points in seven games, ranking it eighth.
The team has undergone a total transformation at the skill positions and the results have not been favorable. Senior quarterback Rylan Baronas has been sporadic, going 42-for-110 (38 percent) for just 457 yards. He also has more than twice as many interceptions (11) as touchdown passes (5). The quarterback has shown flashes of brilliance, including a 100-yard game two weeks ago against a tough Athol High School team.
The struggles from the quarterback position have forced Dredge to begin working sophomore Oliver Fox into the mix, and the move may help spark the team. Baronas has been receptive to the new offense, and the two players give the team different looks, with Baronas running a more standard offensive set, while Fox runs more of a wildcat style.
“Both guys are available and it’s going to be based on situations,” Dredge said of his quarterback tandem.
When the Red Hawks go to the air, they have multiple options. Brian Goodridge leads the team with 13 receptions for 124 yards. Fox is just behind him in both departments, with 11 catches for 107 yards. Dan Simanski, Dylan Talbot and Jack Hebert are also options in the passing game.
More than any other team in the league this season, the Red Hawks truly have been a running-back-by-committee. Senior Chris Toomey leads the team with 86 carries for 375 yards but has struggled with an injured shoulder, which forced him out of the team’s last game. Toomey will be back in action tonight.
From there, it really has been a who’s-who of sophomores. Matt Ackerman came back from missing three straight games this past Friday and now has 51 carries on the season for 173 yards. Classmate Jack Hebert has been getting more touches lately and now has 22 carries for 69 yards.
“What I told the team since we started prepping for Mohawk is that we are going to do whatever it takes to win,” Dredge said. “I think it’s going to be whoever is doing well and whoever puts us in a position to win.”
Missing in action
For the first time in four years, one person the Red Hawks do not have to prepare for is former Mohawk running back Matt Zalenski, who put up some big Thanksgiving-Eve performances while playing with the Warriors for the past four seasons. His departure, which cost the team over 4,000 career yards in four years, has only affected the Warriors’ personnel but Smith continues to stick with the same offense he’s used for 54 years. Smith uses a double-wingback set, which features a pair of backs flanked to the right and left of the quarterback. From there, Smith can run a number of plays, including simple draws, counters and sweeps. Asking Dredge about how to stop the Mohawk attack warrants a response in which he said the trick is simply stopping what you know is coming.
“Jim could hand me his play card and it wouldn’t make a difference,” he said. “It’s such a well-executed offense and the blocking scheme is why it’s been such an effective offense for so many years.”
The issue Smith has had this season is that his players are dropping like flies. It’s no secret that the key to a solid running game starts up front and Smith came in with some experience on the line but has seen two starters go down with shoulder injuries. Senior captain Jake Lowell and classmate Shane Dupont account for nearly 450 pounds of blocking, and Smith has been forced to fill the gaps.
“In a small school we don’t have a lot of backups who can step up there and really do a great job, so it’s been tough,” Smith said of all the injuries.
As if the loss of blockers wasn’t bad enough, Smith has also lost a pair of backs. Senior captain Jeremiah Jones has served as a solid fullback in his tenure with the team but went down with a broken ankle a month ago, while junior speedster Bryce Macleod was off to a nice start to the season but suffered a concussion in October and has been fighting some post-concussion symptoms that will keep him out.
That has put the onus on a pair of first-year players, sophomore Andrew Doty and senior Ryan Pease, who hadn’t played football prior to this season. Doty leads the team in rushing with 334 yards on 52 totes while Pease has 288 yards on 38 carries. Senior captain Connor Maloney has also seen spot carries this season and has 22 carries for 77 yards. Keith Whitaker and Brian Sullivan now handle the fullback job in Jones’ absence.
“We can still run the ball pretty well,” Smith said. “We’ve got a couple of tough kids up front and we can spell some guys. One thing I will say is that Frontier is bigger and tougher than we are, but hopefully we can hang on with one hand and pray with the other.”
Another area where the team has seen steady production is at quarterback, where senior captain Alex Buntin is in his second year. While his completion percentage falls just shy of 50 percent, Buntin has put up good numbers, passing for over 50 yards in six straight games, including his most recent 127-yard performance in a loss to High School of Commerce. The stat Smith will most appreciate is that while Buntin has thrown only six touchdowns this season, he has also been picked off just three times. His favorite target has been Stephen Reynolds, who comes in with 13 catches for 203 yards, but Luke Looman, Maloney, Doty and Pease are viable options.
Both teams come in with similar defenses by comparing points allowed this season. Against Intercounty League opponents, Mohawk has allowed 143 points, while Frontier has given up slightly more at 168. The last time the Warriors allowed less points in league play than Frontier was in 2004. Since then Frontier has been one of the best defensive teams in the league, but due to a small roster of roughly 20 players and a lot of new faces, the team has slid back a little in the pack.
Frontier’s biggest defensive weapon is its line, where captains Charlie Tirrell and Eric Rubio get a lot of attention. But there’s another player Dredge said has been big for the team.
“Kind of the unsung hero of our line is Jared Fydenkevez,” he explained. “He has done more than hold his own. He is making plays half a field away, tracking down ball carriers. I’m really, really going to miss him in addition to the presence that Charlie and Eric bring.”
Mohawk, meanwhile, is talented in the defensive backfield, with Maloney serving as one of the top backs for the Warriors. It’s the type of game that could come down a mistake, or whichever team can find a way to get into the end zone first.
“We are pretty evenly matched. A game like this comes down to who wants to win it the most,” Dredge said. “Which kids are going to say, ‘This matters to me, and I want to get that trophy.’”