While they might get overshadowed by names from bigger programs, two of the marquee players from the lower divisions of MIAA football get the spotlight Thursday (3 p.m.) when third-seeded Salem faces No. 8 Fairhaven in the Division 6 Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium.
Fairhaven junior fullback Justin Marques and Salem senior quarterback Corey Grimes have each found a way to outperform lofty preseason expectations. Whether it is Marques plowing through the line, or Grimes looking for a receiver to get open, they each put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses for 48 minutes.
Fairhaven coach Derek Almeida has insisted all season that Marques is one of the top backs in the state, and he has not given any reason to doubt that assessment — piling up 1,467 rushing yards in the triple option offense. He has accounted for 34 of the Blue Devils’ 58 touchdowns and 208 of their 405 points this season.
The Blue Devils have leaned on him even more down the stretch, scoring 12 of their 15 postseason touchdowns in wins over Winthrop, Norwell, and matching his career-best five TDs in a 40-37 semifinal win over Hudson. He added two more in a Thanksgiving victory over a 9-win Dartmouth squad.
Marques, who spent Saturday at UMass on a recruiting visit, has done this behind an offensive line that needed to be completely rebuilt during the offseason. Sophomore center Zach Moura and junior left guard Ben Comey saw the most action a year ago, and over the second half of this season has helped the offensive line become a well-oiled machine.
“It doesn’t hurt to have really good backs,” said Almeida, who led Falmouth to a Division 2A title in 2016. “All you need is a little crease and a little bit of push, and we can make something happen.”
On the other side, Salem boasts more playmakers with guys like senior Devante Ozuna (1,419 rushing and receiving yards, 16 TDs) and junior Quinn Rocco Ryan (985 receiving and rushing yards, 15 TDs). But Salem coach Matt Bouchard said that Grimes’s ability blends everything together as the Witches (10-2) make their first Super Bowl since 1999.
“Although we have some high performers that are putting up numbers, we’ve been able to leverage a lot of kids this year that gives us a competitive advantage,” Bouchard said. “To stop one of two guys, you can put a game plan around that. But when it’s five or six guys you’ve got to stop, it puts a lot of pressure on defenses.
“The way we run our offense, we give a lot of flexibility to our quarterback based on what the defense is giving us, so we’re always putting our offense in the best positio,” Bouchard added. “One week you see numbers coming out, Devante Ozuna has an unbelievable running game and dominates and Rocco Ryan has hardly any catches. Then the following week, Rocco Ryan breaks the school record in receiving and Devante Ozuna doesn’t necessarily carry the ball as much.”
Grimes has thrown for 1,922 yards and 28 touchdowns with just four interceptions in 174 pass attempts. Six players have at least 100 receiving yards and three TD grabs as the Witches have averaged 36.9 points per game. In playoff victories over Dennis-Yarmouth, Cardinal Spellman and Stoneham, Salem has piled up 126 points.
At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Grimes is tough to bring down and has run for three scores. Bouchard said Division I schools have been looking at Grimes as a tight end, while Division II and III programs are looking to keeping him at quarterback.
“No matter what position he plays at the next level, he’s a game changer,” Bouchard said. “He will turn some heads and obviously make any team better. He just brings that type of attitude I think is special. He’s a heck of a competitor. You put a lot of pressure on him and he performs better, and there’s not too many people I feel like can do that.”