With a strong class of 20 seniors returning, Chelmsford came into this football season with high hopes.
The Lions dropped their first game, 20-17, to Maynard, but have been on a tear since, winning four straight by a combined margin of 196-22, including the program’s second win in a decade over Merrimack Valley Conference rival North Andover on Friday.
Per head coach George Peterson, part of the turnaround has been an emphasis on positive visualization.
“We’ve really focused on kids preparing themselves mentally and taking the time to envision having some success on the field,” said Peterson, a former star at the University of New Hampshire.
“When I was at UNH, [former head coach] Sean McDonnell always talked about a 48-hour mental focus time period before the game. It’s something we didn’t address as a staff before Week 1, but we’ve really worked on it since then, and the kids are dialed in now.”
Senior captain Joe Mitri has envisioned recovery and success for years as he’s battled through a cancer diagnosis and multiple injuries to get on the field.
A few weeks before his freshman season, Mitri was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He underwent six months of chemotherapy, but maintained his 4.3 GPA and appeared at nearly every practice.
After gaining close to 100 pounds during chemo, then working his way back into shape, he earned a JV spot in the Fall II season, then started at outside linebacker in the fall of 2021. Both seasons were cut short by injuries, but Mitri never lost his positivity, and he’s been in remission since 2020.
Now the 5-foot-11-inch, 195-pound senior is starring at inside linebacker with three interceptions in Chelmsford’s four wins, including a pick-6 in a 49-8 win at Lowell. The Lions’ defense has created 14 turnovers and produced three touchdowns.
“We came in with the wrong mentality and now we got it right,” said Mitri. “Our preparation and mentality has definitely switched. The last two nights before games when our heads hit the pillow we really try to envision success and then we go out and execute on Friday night.”
With seniors Dan Craig, Cooper Collins, Joe Tays, Ryan Blagg, Jack McCarthy, Manny Marshall, and others leading the way, Chelmsford (4-1) has moved into second place in the MVC II ahead of another rivalry bout with 4-1 Tewksbury next week.
Juniors Kai Everett (61 carries, 561 yards, 5 TDs) and Kyle Wilder (57 carries, 328 yards, 5 TDs) have led the rushing attack behind a senior-laden offensive line.
Since last fall the Lions have rallied around another member of their football community, Nik Sperounis, who was diagnosed with angiosarcoma last fall. Throughout his battle with the rare form of cancer, Mitri has been a steadying voice of support for his classmate. As he undergoes treatment, Sperounis has inspired his teammates by coming out to key games, including Chelmsford’s 16-3 win over Billerica last Thanksgiving.
“Joe was the first kid Nik reached out to when he was diagnosed,” Peterson recalled. “Both those kids were kind of the leaders coming into their freshman year, so for both of them to go down with different forms of cancer is crazy, but the two of them are very inspirational.”
Mitri said he would love to play football at Tufts, and is considering a career as a pediatric oncologist. Described by Peterson as another coach on the field and one of the best leaders he’s had over his 13 years coaching at Lexington and Chelmsford, Mitri continues to prove that the bond tying his teammates together will remain strong regardless of the results on the field.
“We definitely play with a cause and lately we’ve shown that on the field,” said Mitri. “Nik [Sperounis] is definitely our biggest motivation. His football IQ is out of this world, and he’s always around the team, which keeps us in good spirits. My experience made me a stronger person and a lot of that strength came from my peers, so as a teammate I want to be there for him too.”
▪ Mansfield (4-1) resumed a tradition of traveling to face a tough out-of-state opponent with a trip to Haverford (Pa.) Friday. Behind standout performances from quarterback Connor Zukowski (14-for-21 passing, 156 yards, 3 TDs), wide receiver Trevor Foley (9 receptions, 102 yards, 3 TDs), and Brian Butler (10 carries, 110 yards; 8 tackles), the Hornets returned with a 28-14 win over a Haverford program that is among the top teams in Pennsylvania’s Division 6A.
▪ Stoneham coach Bob Almeida became the 56th member of Massachusett’s 200-win club Friday when his Spartans (4-1) topped Melrose, 30-13 . . . Milton coach Steve Dembowski reached 175 wins by leading his Wildcats (5-0) to a 29-7 win at Weymouth . . . In a battle of MVC II unbeatens, Billerica beat Tewksbury, 28-14, for the program’s first win over their rivals in 12 years . . . Hull defeated Mashpee, 14-6, in another battle of unbeatens, marking the Pirates’ first win over their South Shore League rival since 2004.
Week 6 games to watch
Friday, King Philip at Milford, 7 p.m. — In Week 4, King Philip survived a very close call in Taunton and on Friday night, Milford had to pull away late in another tough league game against North Attleborough. Now the Hockomock League titans and Division 2 contenders go head-to-head.
Friday, Middleborough at Rockland, 7 p.m. — Middleborough is off to a 4-1 start to lead the South Shore League’s Sullivan Division. Defending Division 6 champion Rockland (4-1) is looking for a fifth straight win in this crossover matchup.
Friday, Methuen at Central Catholic, 7 p.m. — The Rangers look to bounce back from their first loss of the season and Central Catholic aims to regain its footing in the MVC I after suffering a rare league loss to Andover two weeks ago.
Friday, Amesbury at North Reading, 6 p.m. — One of these Cape Ann League contenders will get knocked off the undefeated bus, with North Reading (5-0) looking to hold serve at home against Amesbury (4-0).
Saturday, St. John’s Prep at Catholic Memorial, 1 p.m. — The top-ranked Knights are riding a state-best 21-game win streak, which includes victories over the Eagles in each of the past two seasons.