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Stirring the pot

Last Friday’s high school football preview brought a prompt and critical email response from a loyal reader.

Every Friday, co-worker Mark Durant and I put together the weekly football preview, in which we highlight the biggest game of the week and provide a few fun-facts about each of the other games involving local teams.

As I wrote the lead story featuring the huge Intercounty League matchup between Athol High School and Greenfield High School, I mentioned that multi-talented Green Wave quarterback Zach Bartak was the likely frontrunner for the annual IL Most Valuable Player Award. Can you blame me?

Well, some took immediate offense. Upon opening my email, I noticed a message from a familiar source, someone I am friendly with. But this person was not happy with me, not in the sense that he was actually mad, but he had a little bone to pick. In his email he writes, “Oops! You did it again. The Recorder Sports Department just can’t help themselves. You have anointed Greenfield’s Zach Bartak, as you put it, the ‘likely’ Recoder Most Valuable Player Award.”

The problem that the emailer had was that he felt like I had slighted Turners Falls High School running back Ryan Wilder, who is having a monster season in his own right. I had mentioned that Wilder was Bartak’s closest competition in the football preview, but apparently the way it read was that I was already handing the award to the Green Wave signal-caller.

“So, please keep your prognostications to the weekly pigskin picks,” he wrote, which I should mention in the full context was clearly meant in a joking fashion.

Well, I have nothing to hide, so I responded to the message, made a few points I felt were valid, and ended the e-mail by mentioning that I’m very open to discussion about the topic. In fact, it’s what makes sports so wonderful: The fact that they solicit debate.

The email did get me thinking. If the season ended today, who would be the MVP? There are probably three candidates at the moment, with Bartak and Wilder joined in the discussion by Belchertown High School QB Nick Leduc.

Yes, Leduc has put together a solid season in helping the Orioles (7-0 overall, 6-0 IL) to their current unbeaten record, but I now have him third in the race. In nearly any other season, Leduc would be the league’s top QB, but Bartak still gets the likely nudge because, while Leduc is a solid passer, he is not the threat to run the ball that Bartak is. Still, his passing numbers are impressive. Leduc has thrown for 683 yards this season and, more impressively, has at least one TD pass in every game. His 13 passing touchdowns put him second in the league, behind — You guessed it! — Bartak. He has also rushed for two touchdowns, and possesses a trait that neither Bartak nor Wilder can boast of: the ability to kick field goals. So far, Leduc has two field goals — the game-winning kick in the season opener against Easthampton from 27 yards out, and a 34-yarder this past week against Frontier.

I should also mention that I have yet to see Belchertown play this year. But I still think Leduc is third in the race, and the main reason is no fault of his own. Fact is that while Belchertown has been in the hunt for the IL crown in recent seasons, it has been quite some time since either Greenfield or Turners Falls has enjoyed the kind of success the programs are having this season. That does give Bartak and Wilder the edge in my opinion.

I have Wilder second in the race despite his incredible performance. Wilder has currently run for 1,307 yards, which leads the area but is easily more impressive when you consider that Bartak is second in area rushing with 888 yards. Wilder also leads the area in scoring with 116 points.

But that alone does not tell the entire story. Anyone who follows football knew coming into the season that he was going to be one of the league’s top players, but he has really burst into the MVP debate with his eye-popping performances in the month of October. It began on Oct. 5 when Wilder scored four touchdowns and rushed for 215 yards in a win over Sci-Tech. He followed that up by rushing for 145 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over Frontier. Two weeks ago, Wilder scored five touchdowns as Turners scored a huge 45-6 upset win against Athol in which he rushed for 290 yards on just 24 hauls. He followed that up this past Friday by rushing for 132 yards and two scores in a win over Mohawk.

Those numbers are worthy of an MVP consideration, but Bartak is set apart by two factors. First, while Wilder is putting up massive rushing numbers, we typically see these kinds of numbers from one player every year. Whether it be Matt Zalenski from Mohawk, Isaiah Jones from Mahar or some other player in recent or past history, there have been plenty of great running backs through the area. This is not a knock on Wilder. Far from it, in fact. To be grouped with some of these names should be a badge of honor. And if Wilder continues his recent exploits, he could easily surpass these players and put together one of the best seasons a running back has had in some time around here. That would certainly give him even more steam in the MVP race.

Unfortunately for Wilder, Bartak is on pace to do something nearly unheard of for area QBs, which is to throw and rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season. He is coming off a 277-yard passing performance in a huge victory over Athol (the same team Wilder went wild on), which gives him 1,051 passing yards this season. As mentioned earlier, Bartak also has 888 rushing yards, so he is nearly a lock to join the select club.

The second thing that sets Bartak apart is simply each team’s record. Whenever you have a tight race like his one, the simple tiebreaker could be to look at how each player’s team is doing. In this case, Greenfield is unbeaten and tied atop the IL with Belchertown, while Turners Falls is third in the league, with a pair of losses.

There is still a lot of season left, and anything could happen. Regardless of who wins the MVP award, Wilder and Bartak’s accomplishments are going to spice this year’s Turkey Day Game.

So to my e-mailing friend, take heed: My mind is still open, but leaning.

q

The Giants pulled out a nail-biter against the Giants Sunday, surviving what was nearly an epic collapse. The victory was even sweeter for sports editor Gary Sanderson, who went a perfect 10-0 in our Pigskin Picks. According to self-proclaimed sports historian Mark Durant, Sanderson is the first person to ever have a perfect week in our picks, which means that unlike the 2007 Patriots, the Giants actually helped Sanderson put the finishing touches on perfection. The defending Pigskin Picks champion is now only two games back of yours truly in the season race.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.

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