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MIAA D5 SUPER BOWL | NORTH READING vs. SWAMPSCOTT

In the D5 Super Bowl, top-seeded North Reading will face a mirror image in No. 2 seed Swampscott

The Swampscott football team held its penultimate practice Monday before Wednesday night's Division 5 Super Bowl matchup against top-seeded North Reading at Gillette Stadium.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

When the Swampscott football coaching staff started watching film of North Reading, its opponent in the MIAA Division 5 Super Bowl, something felt eerily familiar.

“It’s basically like looking at our team in a mirror,” said Swampscott coach Bob Serino as he drove to practice on Monday afternoon.

North Reading coach Ed Blum agreed.

“I think they’ve relied on their athletes making plays in space and I’d say we’re in the same boat,” he said. “It’s [served] both teams well so far.”

But there’s one big difference between top-seeded North Reading (11-1) and No. 2 Swampscott (11-1) as they prepare for their Super Bowl matchup Wednesday night at 8 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.

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Experience.

The Hornets are playing in their first Super Bowl since 1979, and the program has never captured a state title. In Blum’s first three seasons at North Reading, the Hornets racked up 18 victories, but didn’t win a playoff game, falling in the first round in 2018 and 2019 before the 2020 postseason was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Swampscott, however, is playing in its eighth Super Bowl and is looking for a repeat, of sorts, after defeating Amherst-Pelham, 21-0, to claim the 2019 Division 5 crown. In 2018, when the current seniors were freshmen, the Big Blue won a sectional title before falling in the state semifinals.

Several of Swampscott’s current starters played in that 2019 title game, including quarterback Cam O’Brien, who played safety, linebacker Dylan Dubiel, running back Xaviah Bascon and Jake Papazoglou, who started at guard and linebacker.

“It’s not going to be the first time they’ve been there,” Serino said, noting a few other 2021 starters played on special teams in 2019. “When you go there, you just can’t let everything get to you.”

The Big Blue are also an older team at several key skill positions. O’Brien, a senior, is a two-season starter at quarterback who has thrown for 1,786 yards and 21 touchdowns this fall, while rushing for 350 yards and eight scores. His top targets have been junior Elijah Burns (664 yards, 9 TDs) and senior Cole Hamernick (388 yards, 7 TDs).

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O’Brien’s counterpart, Alex Carucci, a junior, is a first-year starter who has thrown 27 touchdown passes — 11 to junior Craig Rubino — and added seven more rushing scores. But being younger doesn’t preclude Carucci from commanding the helm, as Blum quickly pointed out.

“He’s grown into the leader of the offense, which is what you want your quarterback to be,” he said. “He takes ownership of things. He has a high football IQ and he’s a better athlete than people realize.”

A similar scenario plays out at running back, where Swampscott boasts of Bascon, a senior who broke the school’s single-season rushing record with 1,366 rushing yards and 21 TDs. He added 490 receiving yards and a pair of TD catches and scored on a kickoff return to give him 24 TDs overall on the season.

Swampscott senior running back Xaviah Bascon, who set a school single-season record with 1,366 yards, will engage his North Reading counterpart, Will Batten, in an interesting duel of power backs in the D5 Super Bowl.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

During the early stages of the pandemic, Bascon and Dubiel started meeting at 7 a.m. on weekends to run Bailey’s Hill and Heritage Hill in Nahant. Soon, they had three-quarters of the team joining them.

“He’s a special kid,” Serino said of Bascon. “He works hard. He’s the one you’ll see when you’re walking off the field and you’ll see him still running [sprints].”

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North Reading’s featured back is Will Batten, who is one of the strongest Hornets despite being in the 10th grade. He has 24 touchdowns this season and ran for 159 yards in the state semifinals.

“He came in as a freshman and put up some big numbers in the weight room,” Blum said. “Right away we knew, physically, he was a varsity-capable player. He got a little opportunity and I think it was a wake-up call. It’s varsity football and he needed to learn the mental part. He couldn’t just run over guys. More and more, as the season has gone on, his confidence has grown.”

But North Reading, which is riding a six-game winning streak, still has a sturdy collection of hardened veterans, including senior receivers Ryan McCullough (11 total TDs) and John Jennings (6 TD catches), senior linemen Casey O’Connor, Ryan Long and Justin Bailey and senior middle linebacker Dan Oliveira. Dip into the junior class and there’s linebacker/offensive lineman Sam Morelli, and defensive lineman Anthony Pino

“We’ve had a few seniors step up and defensive linemen who weren’t linemen in the past and they filled those roles and got better,” Blum said. “They don’t get all the glory and the press, but they’re guys who allowed our team to get to this point.”

McCullough is one of the state’s premier special teams weapons, having run two kickoffs and four punts back for touchdowns. He added a 43-yard return in the state semifinals and has proven to be a difference-maker all season.

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“Keep the ball away from him,” Serino chuckled when asked about his team’s plan to combat McCullough. “That’s the bottom line.”

Of course, Serino has a few of his own under-the-radar gems, including senior offensive linemen Joe Mignone, Michael Erickson and Al Bangura, junior lineman Ethan Gee, sophomore linebacker Anthony Nichols and senior defensive lineman Yorlan Herrera Gil

“I think the biggest thing is their physicality and their speed,” Blum said. “They have multiple weapons. There’s a reason a lot of teams have had difficulty against them. They don’t rely on one guy.”

On Wednesday, each team will look in the mirror and try to focus on the moment. Back before the season started, with his Hornets coming off a 4-2 record in the spring, Blum played his team a video of post-NBA title Giannis Antetokounmpo answering a question about the role of ego in winning a championship.

“When you focus on the past, that’s your ego,” Antetokounmpo says in the clip. “When I focus on the future, it’s my pride . . . I try to focus in the moment, in the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble.”

It’s a lesson both coaches know well.

“It’s the next game on the schedule,” downplayed Serino. “We play what’s on the schedule no matter when the game is and where it is.”

Alex Carucci, a first-year starter, has thrown 27 touchdown passes for North Reading in its march to the Division 6 Super Bowl. Jim Davis/Globe Staff
Senior Ryan McCullough has racked up 11 total touchdowns for North Reading. Jim Davis/Globe Staff