The Lowell High School football program has never experienced a postseason game.
But senior captains Jack Galvin, Tom Smith, and Alex Quintero aim to alter history this fall and guide the Red Raiders to their first playoff appearance.
In fact, the three have been planning it since they were in fifth grade.
“Growing up, that’s all we talked about, was being the first team to win a state championship out of Lowell,” said Galvin, a two-way threat at receiver and safety who is a returning Merrimack Valley Conference All-Star.
Added Smith, a linebacker and receiver: “It would just be awesome in our senior year to be the first team to do it.”
And their senior season could not have come at a more opportune time, as the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s complete overhaul of the playoff system will give Lowell a grand opportunity to finally reach its goal.
Last October, member schools, in a 161-131 vote, approved a new system that will cut the number of Super Bowls from the 19 spread across Eastern, Central, and Western Massachusetts to just six. Each division will have one state championship.
‘Last year we felt we were one of the best teams and we didn’t get in, but this year it should work out.’
Although there will be fewer Super Bowls, there will be vastly more playoff teams, increasing the number of EMass participants from 32 to 112.
After Week 7, on Oct. 27, the playoff teams will be determined by power ratings, which are calculated based on a team’s value plus its opponents’ value.
The postseason will begin the following week; if a team loses, it will be eliminated from Super Bowl contention, but will continue to play out the remainder of the season, including its Thanksgiving rivalry matchup. Teams that do not qualify for the playoffs will continue to play a full schedule as well.
The six Super Bowls will be held on Dec. 7 at Gillette Stadium.
The new system seems complex to Lowell High coach John Florence, but he is excited to see how it plays out for his team, which finished 9-2 last year but failed to make the postseason.
“I’m sure it’s going to be as confusing as can be the first year,” said the third-year head coach. “Hopefully it gets more teams into the playoffs, versus just having that one league champion being able to get in there, so it should definitely cause some excitement.”
And although it may be exciting, Florence still recognizes concerns with the new format, such as the fact that he has no idea who he will be playing following the seventh week.
“It’s kind of weird not seeing a full schedule all set out for you before the season starts,” he said. “A lot of times you’re familiar with the teams you play — whether you’re playing crossover games that are still in your league — but now we have no idea who it’s going to be.”
But his players do not seem to care who they play, as long as they play well and have the opportunity to make the playoffs.
“The best teams will play,” said Quintero, an offensive guard and defensive end. “Last year we felt we were one of the best teams and we didn’t get in, but this year it should work out [if we do well].”
While Quintero and his Lowell High teammates were preparing for the coming season, Lowell Catholic was doing the same on the west side of the Concord River.
Like the Red Raiders, the Fighting Crusaders were robbed of their first-ever playoff berth last season, following a program-best 10-1 record.
“I thought the old system was unfair,” said coach Rick Sampson. “With the new system we would’ve been in the playoffs [last year].”
One 24-16 loss to Cathedral was all it took to knock Lowell Catholic out of playoff contention last season, yet the Fighting Crusaders put up far better numbers than the Panthers on both sides of the ball.
“Last year with the way they did it, we just had one off night and didn’t make it,” said the third-year head coach. “Under this [system] you get a chance, because they don’t just take the top team.”
Lowell Catholic led the Catholic Central (Small) in points per game (36.4) and points-against per game (9.9), while Cathedral finished with a worse regular season record (9-2), yet took the league title.
“It was frustrating, for sure,” said senior captain Kevin Paige, a linebacker and receiver, “when you work your butt off and win the good majority of your games and at the end of the season we had nothing to show for it.”
Chris Tamukedde, also a senior captain, sat at home in front of his television late last fall and watched Cathedral win the Division 4A Super Bowl title at Gillette Stadium, wishing the playoff change had been made one year earlier.
“We just wish that the rules for the playoffs [were changed] last year and we maybe could’ve played at Gillette,” said the 5-foot-8 running back-linebacker. “If we had [the new system] last year we definitely would’ve made the playoffs . . . but you know, we’ll have another chance this year.”
Malden High will be seeking its first playoff berth too, but coach Joe Pappagallo does not believe the new system will allow his team to prepare as well.
According to the fifth-year head coach, English is a second language to about 70 percent of his team, and most of the kids just started playing football in high school, so they are new to the fundamentals.
“I enjoyed taking the first four or five games of the season and making it a preseason type of situation, and then the [Greater Boston League] games counted after that and whoever won the GBL championship went to the playoffs,” Pappagallo said. “By the fifth game in general I have these guys understanding the rules and regulations of the game. . . . We have them fairly coached up so they are competent enough to be competitive.”
But now, each game counts toward the power rating, and because of it, the coaches have had less time to prepare the team, causing them to shrink the playbook to simplify things
But he still acknowledges the opportunity for his players to finally have the opportunity to have postseason exposure.
“I wouldn’t take anything away from the student athletes,” he said. “For our student athletes to be able to experience a playoff game would be something special for them.”
It would be a special experience for senior captain Ray Sainristil, who has had several family members play for the Golden Tornadoes, none of whom could make it past Everett into the playoffs.
“The whole thing with us having to beat Everett to go to the playoffs was kind of wack,” said the running back, who also plays safety. “It should’ve just been that any team that has a winning record should be in the playoffs by default.”
Other than Everett, only one team in the GBL has won the conference title: Medford, in 1978.
“Every team is hungry, and they know they have a chance at making it to the playoffs. So we’re looking forward to meeting the new competition now that we’ll have new teams on our schedule,” said Sainristil, nursing a mildly sprained ankle as he watched his teammates prepare for the upcoming season.
Less than 2 miles down Route 60, Malden Catholic was also preparing for its season, and also hoping for its first-ever postseason berth. MC shared a league title in 1984 with Xaverian.
Neither the Lancers nor Catholic Memorial have ever been able to get past the brick wall of BC High, St. John’s Prep, and Xaverian to win the Catholic Conference, but now at least two teams will be guaranteed playoff spots, while the remaining three could potentially earn wild cards.
Coach Jeff Smith, like other coaches, does not think the new system is perfect, but sees it as a great opportunity for his young team to finally find a route around the three powerhouses, as it has not won a conference game since 2009.
“I think there’s still a decent amount of kinks that need to be worked out, but I think it gives more teams a chance and could definitely be seen as a positive,” said the third-year head coach, who captained the Lancer team in the mid-1990s. “I think it just gives more teams an opportunity at that elusive state championship.”