NORTH ANDOVER — No detail is too small, there are no missteps, every route is run with precision.
If Merrimack coach John Perry calls for a 12-yard pattern, with a 45-degree cut, Isaiah Voegeli breaks off his route at exactly 12 yards, to the inch. (Perry will call out a 14-yarder for others, knowing they likely will cut it off at 12).
“So meticulous, like [former Redskins great] Art Monk, so detailed, sometimes it’s like he has a protractor out there,” said Perry, a wide receiver of note in his playing days at Swampscott High and later for Bill Bowes at the University of New Hampshire, where, at one point, he reeled in passes in 42 straight games.
Perry knows offense, and he knows wide receivers. And in his fifth season in charge at Merrimack, he knows what he has in his 6-foot, 185-pound senior captain, a preseason first team Division 2 All-American, one of two in the Northeast-10, joining New Haven quarterback Ryan Osiecki.
“He’s a perfectionist,” said Perry. “He is just a kid who constantly shows teammates how to do things the right way . . . He does not take the little things for granted.”
The sure-handed Voegeli, who snared a team-leading 59 catches, with 1,251 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns in the Warriors’ somewhat disappointing 6-4 campaign in 2011, only has to be reminded of his first game in the starting lineup his sophomore year against Slippery Rock.
“Without question, the worst game of my life,” he recalled, summing up a one-catch (for 6 yards) effort in a 45-26 loss.
He had been a three-year letter winner and senior captain at Barnstable High, forming a prolific 1-2 receiving tandem with current Stonehill senior John Gomes during their final season with then-freshman D.J. Crook under center.
As a college freshman, though, he ran mostly on the scout team. His performance against Slippery Rock was a wake-up call. The soft-spoken, yet confident Voegeli was humbled.
“That game changed my life. After that game is when I really developed the attitude to continually strive for the top. It really opened up my eyes to a new level.”
He points to the incomparable Jerry Rice, “who didn’t take a play off in practice, and wasn’t going to be outworked.”
The following week, Voegeli responded with six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown against Bryant. And then he took off: 804 receiving yards, 18.1 yards per catch, and six TDs that sophomore year.
He credits Merrimack receivers coach Dan Curran, who carved out a stellar high school (Chelmsford) and collegiate (New Hampshire) career, along with three seasons in the NFL (Saints and Seahawks) as a hard-nosed fullback.
Curran introduced, among other workout routines, the pole drill, in which, standing 5-7 yards away, he fires balls to receivers positioned behind a soccer goal post: right, left, high, low, with the post serving as a blind spot.
“That helped me immensely,” said Voegeli, who will haul in from 20 to 70 balls in the drill before or after practice. “It forces you to catch the ball with your hands, and the pole could be interpreted as a defender’s hand in your face.”
His relentless work paid off when he soared to snatch a ball between a pair of Bentley defenders in the third quarter of a Northeast-10 matchup last October, turning a 30-yard route into an 80-yard catch-and-run to the end zone in a 33-29 win.
“It was not a perfect ball,” acknowledged the thrower, Merrimack senior QB Joe Clancy, who steps in as the full-time starter with the graduation of record-setting James Suozzo.
“You look to him for big plays, and he does not disappoint. And he makes everyone else better. He is the hardest worker I have ever played with in any sport. And he is always putting his teammates first.”
Voegeli, says Curran, wants to “win every route.’’
“It’s amazing to see how he has developed,” said the coach. “He is a very good blocker, a complete player, and that wasn’t always the case when he first got here. He doesn’t have bad days. He understands that every workout has a purpose.”
A health sciences major with a desire to attend medical school down the road, Voegeli points to his offseason work every Saturday morning, running every route crisply at least three times on each side of the ball.
This summer, subletting an apartment across the street from the college, he also worked with the grounds’ crew on campus, volunteered for two to three overnight shifts per week at the Lazerus House Ministries in Lawrence, “and then was pulling a sled working out in the morning,” said an impressed Curran.
All in preparation for a senior season, in which Merrimack, selected to finish fourth (along with Bentley) in the NE-10 preseason coaches’ poll behind 13th-ranked New Haven, Southern Connecticut, and American International, is determined to put last year’s 6-4 finish in the rear-view mirror.
“This group has really meshed, we are ready for this,” said Voegeli, his voice rising with enthusiasm. He is passionate about taking a shot at the pros (“My dream since I was 7”), following the path of former teammate Shawn Loiseau, who is making his mark in the Texans’ camp on special teams. But his main focus is winning the NE-10.
And that starts Saturday afternoon, on the blue turf in New Haven. “It’s a great challenge for us,” said Perry. “ We want fast starts, to practice, to games, and to the season.”
. . .
With the 6-4, 240-pound Ryan Osiecki (36 TD passes) at the controls for his final season, New Haven has reloaded after last year’s 11-2 run to the Division 2 national quarterfinals. Elsewhere, Rich Cavanaugh always has Southern Connecticut in the hunt, AIC is attracting attention even without back Rashaad Slowley, and Cory Bailey believes his Assumption squad will be a legitimate contender. The NE-10 has added a new wrinkle this season, with a championship game slated for Nov. 10.
“I love this league, it keeps getting better and better,” said Bentley coach Thom Boerman, who returns a veteran group on offense at every position except for quarterback, where junior Danny Guadagnoli steps in. “[The championship] ensures that the conference will be represented in the regional playoffs.”
There will be no shortage of contenders in the final edition for the New England Football Conference as a 16-member unit before eight programs break off into a MASCAC football league in 2013.
With sophomore QB Matt Silva (foot) healthy again and junior Melikke Van Alstyne (1,579 yards, 21 TDs) a few pounds stronger, Framingham State is the co-favorite in the Bogan Division with Bridgewater State, which has 18 starters back from a 7-3 campaign. In the Boyd, defending champion Western New England has an All-American in fleet receiver/special teamer Michael Graham; Salve Regina continues to build under Bob Chesney; and Endicott will be a major factor despite the graduation of defensive force Kevin Eagan and prolific QB Phil Konopka. “Everyone is getting better,” said Framingham State coach Tom Kelley. , who opens against Endicott Saturday.
In the NESCAC, Amherst (8-0) ripped off its second perfect season in three years, but 16-year coach E.J. Mills said this season “is a blank canvas.” That starts with a new quarterback, with junior DJ Petropulos and sophomore Max Lippe in the mix. John Ceccio, a four-year anchor at center, leads a veteran group. Sophomore backs Evan Bunker and Ben Crick form a lethal 1-2 running threat at Trinity, Williams will be “very good,’’ according to Mills, and sophomore QB McCallum Foote will have Middlebury on the move.
With the return of run-pass threat Kris Sabourin, Norwich is the overwhelming favorite in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference.