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Mahar seeking salvage job

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  • Athol 10 Jerry Parker yarage pf

    Athol 10 Jerry Parker yarage pf

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    Athol 10 Jerry Parker 2PF-Gr-102712

  • Athol 10 Jerry Parker PF-Gr-102712

    Athol 10 Jerry Parker PF-Gr-102712

  • fbAthol21JohnRobertsonTackledForLossPf-GR-102012
  • Athol 10 Jerry Parker yarage pf
  • fbAthol10JerryParkerPf-GR-102012
  • Athol 10 Jerry Parker 2PF-Gr-102712
  • Athol 10 Jerry Parker PF-Gr-102712

For the first time since 2008, there will be no Intercounty League title implications when Athol High School and Mahar Regional School collide today in their annual Thanksgiving Day showdown at O’Brien Field in Athol. Game time is 10 a.m.

But records and titles never matter, anyway, when the Red Raiders and Senators square off for what will be the 77th time in their storied history. The Athol-Mahar football rivalry dates back to Nov. 27, 1894, when the two teams met for the first time and Orange won, 18-4. The schools met again three years later and Orange won 4-0. Then they played six more times prior to 1944, when they played on what was known as Armistice Day (now Veterans Day) and the annual tradition began. The game was moved to Thanksgiving Day in 1953 with Athol picking up its first win, 26-0. Despite winning only once (2010) in the past four years, Athol still holds a 46-29-1 series edge.

The fact that the game was being played with title implications the past three years was only icing on an already sweet cake. Regardless of records, nearly every season produces a memorable game in this series. Whether it’s a great play as time expires (in 2007 Athol’s Evan Armentrout blocked an extra point after Mahar scored a touchdown with no time left on the clock, as Athol won 14-13), a wild fourth quarter (in 2009 the teams traded leads three times in the final 10 minutes with Mahar scoring the winning touchdown with just over a minute left), or a major upset (Athol ended Mahar’s 24-game winning streak on Thanksgiving 2010), the game is almost always worth attending.

So the fact that today’s game features 6-4 Athol against 3-7 Mahar should matter little. In fact, with neither team worrying about the postseason, this game serves as its own makeshift Super Bowl.

Turn Over

Many people say that football games can be won and lost on turnovers, but it’s a different type of turn over that has hurt both Mahar and Athol this season.

Both teams have lost significant numbers of players over the past few seasons, giving both squads a bit of a rebuilding phase. Athol got off to a fast start this season, winning five of its first six games, but since then the Raiders have lost three of four. Still, after finishing last season 5-6 overall, the Red Raiders have assured themselves of a winning record. Athol coach Matt Gauvin said that adding a win in this game would make it a successful year.

“No doubt,” he said. “The best competition we played was the three games we lost in a row. We had to get over that hump. Sometimes when things are not going your way you force some things, and we struggled for three games. Last week, we bounced back and finally put some points on the board and hopefully got our confidence going again.”

Mahar has other plans and, for the first time since 2006, the Senators enter the Thanksgiving Day game with a worse record than Athol. This season has brought all kinds of change in Orange, beginning with the man in charge. Coach Greg Scotland, who has been involved in Turkey Day games at Mahar previously as the defensive coordinator, will be calling the shots.

“You have all the added planning to do and you have all the other distractions,” Scotland said. “It’s a lot of fun. I like the added responsibility, I like the added challenge and I just look forward to the whole thing.”

This season has been especially tough on the Senators because last year the entire starting offensive unit was seniors, while the defensive unit had all seniors but two. The result has been that Mahar is 3-7 overall and will suffer its first losing season since 2006. A win would go a long way toward what Scotland hopes is a a bright future.

“It’s a building block for next year,” he began. “Regardless of what happens, it’s still a building block because of the inexperience that we had when we started the season. Just the whole offensive scheme that we have and everything we do has been building for our kids, and it’s been getting better. Even if it doesn’t always look that way on the scoreboard, but there are positive signs in there that we see.”

In Jerry we trust

The Red Raiders offense goes as does QB Jerry Parker, and both have had up-and-down seasons.

The junior signal-caller has shown more than flashes of brilliance this season, looking downright dominant at times. He passed for an area-high 272 yards in one game against Narragansett Regional High School, and threw for 171 and four touchdowns to beat Palmer High School.

The problem has been that Parker has also had some tough games. He threw five interceptions in the Red Raiders’ Week 7 loss to Turners Falls High School, and was picked off three times in a win over Mohawk Trail Regional High School. Parker enters this game having thrown just one touchdown with eight interceptions in his past four games, leaving him with 11 touchdowns against an area-high 15 interceptions. Thus far, he is 48-for-121 (40 percent) for 900 yards, ranking him second in yardage among area QBs.

“You take away the Turners and the Mohawk game, and you might be talking about him as an All-WMass player,” Gauvin said. “He’s that close. It’s his first full year at quarterback. We’re working a lot on mechanics and decision-making. That Turners game is one that I’m sure will haunt him for the rest of his career, and that’s not always a bad thing. It may help him to make better decisions. But he’s had a great season and he’s an absolute playmaker.”

One area the Red Raiders do not have to worry about is the receiving department, where a trio of players have been dominant. Senior Dakota Melanson is a load at tight end, leading the team in both receptions (17) and receiving yardage (383). Junior wideout Andrew Poor is just behind Melanson with 16 catches for 197 yards, while senior fullback Jake Lajoie has 11 catches for 267 yards and leads the team in scoring with 69 points. Lajoie has kicked 19 extra points and is second on the team in touchdowns with eight.

The Athol rushing attack is led by Parker, who has scrambled for 651 yards on just 110 carries, leading the team with nine touchdowns. Senior Matt Summers is the team’s main running back and is second on the team in rushing with 444 yards on 97 carries. Lajoie has picked up 229 yards on 49 carries from fullback, while senior captain Jon Robertson has added 217 yards on 30 carries in spot duty.

Offense reversal

For the past four seasons, the Mahar offense has struck fear into opposing defenses.

There was no real secret to teams playing the Senators. Mahar came at you with a giant offensive line and running backs as quick as the line was strong. The result was that the Senators have been at or near the top of the league in scoring every year since 2007. The team has produced some talented running backs, including Brian Beauchemin and Isaiah Jones, both of whom went on to play in college. Last season the team was led by Trent George and Jesse LaCroix, but all four of the backs are now former players. Even more detrimental to the offense has been the loss of its entire line. Throw in first-year junior quarterback Logan Barrett and you can understand why the Senators rank seventh in the IL in scoring.

“Logan has a very strong arm, he’s got as strong an arm as most college quarterbacks,” Scotland said. “It’s just his accuracy that he needs to work on, his touch and his knowledge of the game. We have worked on those things since Day 1. Once he becomes more of a student of the game, he’s only going to get better.”

Barrett took over at quarterback this season and has struggled, completing just 60-of-158 (38 percent) of his passes. The junior also has 11w interceptions against just five touchdown passes. His leading receivers have come out of the backfield in the form of junior Troix Adams (16 receptions for 224 yards) and senior Rafael Silva (13 catches for 320 yards). Senior wide receiver Zach Watson has 12 catches for 178 yards, and junior wideout Charles Verheyen has 10 catches for 199 yards, leading the team with two receiving touchdowns.

The running back situation has been handled by three players and it has been fairly balanced in terms of touches. Junior Tristan Merchant leads the team in carries with 84 and sits third in yardage with 311. Classmate Troix Adams is second on the team in both carries (76) and yardage (374), while senior captain Rafael Silva is third in carries (73) and leads the team in rushing with 430 yards.

“Troix and Rafael are able to run outside, and Tristan is built to be more of an inside-the-tackle guy,” Scotland said of the backs. “But I always want to be balanced, so we have plays for all of them to run between the tackles. Because I don’t want anybody to say, ‘OK, he’s exclusively an outside runner.’”

Defense the difference?

The biggest edge Athol appears to have on paper is defense. The Red Raiders have only scored 35 more points in league play than Mahar has this season, but the Senators have allowed 96 more points in seven games, an average of more than 13.7.

The Red Raiders have been solid on defense and it starts up front. Melanson enters the game with eight sacks from one defensive end position, while Lajoie is solid on the other end. Senior Adrian Sexton is just behind Melanson in the sack department with four from one tackle, and classmate Christian Currier has been solid at the other tackle.

“In this league, usually if you win the battle up front, you win the game,” Gauvin said. “Our front five and the guys we have in those places have really come to play.”

Mahar, meanwhile, will need to be better on defense. The Senators have allowed 35 points or more in five games, including four of their previous five games. Scotland said that the biggest issue with the defense has been the propensity for giving up the big play.

“We really didn’t get blown out by a team other than Narragansett but we gave up a lot of big plays,” the coach explained. “I mean blown out in that other teams didn’t control the game. There were a lot of big plays throughout the season that put us in holes.”

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