With a healthy mix of talent, leadership, and sound coaching, the North Attleborough football team has pulled within a game of its first Super Bowl appearance since 2003.
After dropping its season opener to Division 2 Super Bowl-bound King Philip, the Red Rocketeers (9-1) have reeled off nine straight wins and look to keep it rolling in the Division 3 state semifinals against Tewksbury on Saturday morning in Weymouth.
Was there a turning point? The players point to their Week 6 meeting against Hockomock League rival Stoughton.
The Red Rocketeers had just allowed a 65-yard touchdown run to the Black Knights right before the half, resulting in a 14-14 tie at intermission.
In the locker room, the team’s captains — seniors Chad Peterson, Sam Bullock, and Zach DeMattio — called upon everyone on the team to elevate their game.
“We let up kind of a cheap one right before half,” said DeMattio, a middle linebacker. “We had made a lot of mental mistakes, but we tried to band everyone together there at halftime. From that point on, everyone started supporting each other a lot more as opposed to just caring about their individual success.
“From there, we’ve just been winning.”
Following the 35-21 win at Stoughton, the team’s performance quickly went from lukewarm to red-hot. A balanced mix of run and pass have the Big Red averaging 34.5 points per game in their last four outings, while the defense hasn’t allowed more than two touchdowns since that Oct. 13 triumph over the Black Knights.
North Attleborough defeated Stoughton in the Div. 3 South semifinals, 35-12, then shut out a dangerous Duxbury offense, 35-0, in last weekend’s sectional final.
“To come together and dominate in the second half of that Stoughton game really set the tone for the rest of the season to this point,” said Bullock, who starts as an offensive and defensive tackle. “The guys have really bought into cleaning up some of the mental mistakes, communication issues, and it’s allowed us to play at a high level.”
Just how far has North Attleborough come? Though they are a perennial playoff team, the Big Red’s tournament run came to a dead end in Duxbury the past two seasons. But the sight of the scoreboard following this year’s resounding South sectional final victory over the Dragons left little doubt the time had come for the Red Rocketeers.
“To be able to respond to some adversity early in the season in a convincing fashion definitely gave the guys a great deal of confidence going forward,” said coach Don Johnson. “The earmark of this team is doing whatever it takes, whether it’s film study or the hard work on the practice field, to improve every week.”
Peterson, a three-year starter at quarterback who has thrown for 12 touchdowns and run for nine this season, could not have agreed more.
“As the season progressed, we’ve truly gotten better every week,” he said. “For a lot of these guys, it’s our 10th or 11th season playing together, and we all know it’s either now or never.”
As the players have progressed, Johnson has entrusted his players with more responsibilities, primarily on defense.
“The coaches have gotten to the point where they want to make it as simple as they can, so that we can do what we do best, which is fly around and play physical football,” DeMattio said. “Not having to think as much as other defenses might gives us an advantage to just go out and play.”
“They have totally bought into what we do and what we expect of them, and we expect a lot,” said Johnson. “Those kids, they like to be challenged, and so we’ve been able to challenge them with a number of different offensive and defensive schemes, and they’ve handled everything we’ve thrown at them.”
Johnson, who graduated from North Attleborough High in 1979 and has been a part of the coaching staff for 35 years, says this year’s team embodies a lot of the Big Red football tradition.
“There’s always been great leaders here, both in athletics and in general,” said Johnson. “They all had a very positive influence on me in my days as a student, to the point where I wanted to be a part of it on a professional level.
“When I took over, I really inherited something that got started 40 years ago, and just tried not to screw it up. I’ve had a lot of guys along the way to help me out in that regard.”
Here’s a brief look at the three state semifinal football games scheduled for Friday night:
■ Division 5: Dennis-Yarmouth vs. Watertown — The Raiders are hot as of late, but must find a way to slow down Rob Evans (21 total TDs) and the potent Dolphins’ running game.
■ Division 6: Stoneham vs. Middleborough — Middleborough’s Jeremy Soule (10 rushing TDs) and Stoneham’s Tre Pignone (21 rushing TDs) are poised to put on a running back clinic.
■ Division 8: Millis vs. Cathedral — Millis, the defending D8 champ, have to limit the production of the division’s leading scorer, Khalil Blair (194 total points) to advance to their second straight Super Bowl.
THIS WEEKEND’S FOOTBALL SCHEDULE