NATICK — The play lasted fewer than 10 seconds, but it had been years in the making.
Natick High senior quarterback Troy Flutie took a shotgun snap at the Milton 7-yard line and watched senior receiver Alex Hilger bound across the goal line. Flushed from the pocket, Flutie rolled right. Hilger adjusted to the breakdown, oblivious to the chaos of the play gone awry, stopped, and cut back in the opposite direction to an open area where Flutie found him for an easy score.
It was the first of Hilger’s two touchdowns and one of Flutie’s four touchdown passes last Friday in Natick’s 42-19 win over Milton, a rival in the Bay State Conference’s Herget Division.
This season, injuries have plagued Natick’s wide receivers, yet because of the roster’s depth of talent and many seasons of catching passes from Flutie, they have made up one of the most productive groups of pass-catchers in the state.
Hilger missed three games with a shoulder injury, senior receiver Mike Abbruzzese missed last week’s game with a hamstring strain, and junior Brian Dunlap, a Globe All-Scholastic last fall, is out for the season with a foot injury sustained during the preseason.
Still, the Redhawks are 6-0 and averaging 37.2 points per game. Flutie, even without Dunlap, his favorite target the last two seasons, has thrown for 1,617 yards and 26 touchdowns.
“Brian’s a great player and as a team we’ve felt his loss,” Hilger said. “But we’re thinking ‘Next man up.’ Wide receiver one, wide receiver two, we all feel the same. On any given day, we could all have a big game, depending on the coverages. We have a great group of guys.”
When Dunlap injured his foot in a scrimmage against Holliston, Natick lost a player who had provided 155 catches, 41 touchdowns, and more than 2,700 total yards combined during his freshman and sophomore campaigns. As he stood on the sidelines wearing a protective boot last week, however, Natick’s offense hummed.
“When we knew he was going to be out, we felt bad and pouted for a while,” said Natick head coach Mark Mortarelli . “But you can only do that for a few minutes because then you have to get the other guys ready and coach ’em up. You can feel bad for a little bit, but we know no one is feeling bad for us.”
Natick rode its spread, no-huddle offense to a Division 2A Super Bowl berth last season, and has its sights set on a return with an attack that’s not lacking for weapons.
Hilger may be the most athletic of the bunch, at 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds. The point guard and leading scorer for Natick High’s basketball team, he has 23 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns in three games.
Abbruzzese has sure hands that have reeled in seven scores on 20 catches. Senior Andrew Boynton (four touchdowns) is 5-foot-8 and is thought of as a Wes Welker type — undersized but quick and able to take a hit — by his coaches, while senior Scott Warnock (four touchdowns) is a speedster on the outside, and senior Justin Robinson (four touchdowns) gives the group good size and strength at 6-foot-2 and 187 pounds.
Most have been catching passes from Flutie for three years, when he took over as the varsity starter. Hilger and Robinson have played with Flutie since they were 10, playing in Natick’s American Youth Football League program.
To further develop their chemistry, Flutie and his receivers participated in summer passing leagues and camps where they perfected their timing. Even before Dunlap went down, Natick had a contingency plan in place.
‘You can feel bad for a little bit, but we know no one is feeling bad for us.’
Flutie explained he trusts all of his receivers “100 percent.”
“During practice we mesh so well, we work together so well,” he said. “On game days it’s just so easy to do what we do out there. They run great routes.”
Under the guidance of offensive coordinator Matt Brennemen and receivers coach Darren Flutie , Troy’s father, the Redhawks offense uses practice time to discuss the intricacies of route-running and the exotic defensive formations they may encounter against teams trying to find the right formula to slow Natick down.
Both the Redhawks quarterback and receiving corps are so well versed in the concepts of their offense, the coaches allow the players to call out play adjustments on their own before the snap.
“We have the freedom to do anything,” said the elder Flutie, who played receiver at Boston College and then in both the NFL and CFL. “It’s like we have this blank page that we can start painting on. It’s awesome.”
Sometimes even the most well-designed plays turn messy, but that’s where Natick’s hard-earned chemistry pays off.
Hilger’s 7-yard score against Milton was one example. Boynton’s 18-yard leaping grab in the third quarter of the same game, which he made after changing course midplay when he saw Flutie whirling out of the grasp of would-be tacklers, was another.
“It’s pretty much like backyard football sometimes,” Boynton said. “Find a spot that’s open, and let Troy do what he does best.”
Natick is hoping to have Abbruzzese back for Friday’s game against Walpole, which would potentially allow the team’s already-explosive offense to take another step forward.
“I hate to say this, but I don’t think we’ve seen Natick at their best yet,” Darren Flutie said. “The injuries have broken up their rhythm of how hard they’ve worked. This is a very hard-working group. When they’re all healthy, they stay late, they work their tails off, and we haven’t been able to do that because everyone’s been hurt. Troy’s the one constant, knock on wood, but he hasn’t been able to work with all these guys all the time.
“When they get to the point where they can work hard for two or three weeks in a row and have that group together, it’ll be interesting.”
Thall coming up big for Marlborough
Marlborough High senior Matt Thall was an offensive tackle last season but is now the fourth-leading receiver in Central Mass. His rare positional change, and the success he’s had catching passes from quarterback John Rumney , as opposed to blocking for him, has helped the Panthers to a 6-0 start to the season.
“We lost a couple of offensive lineman last year and Matt was a tight end,” explained Marlborough coach Sean Mahoney . “He sacrificed for the team and went to offensive tackle and played really well there.”
At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Thall is a force blocking in the running game against smaller defensive backs, but he has made his biggest impact with deceptive speed (he runs about a 4.6-second 40-yard dash, according to Mahoney) in the open field. He has caught 30 passes for 501 yards and six touchdowns in Marlborough’s spread offense, which also features senior wideout Jose Caquias (462 yards receiving, six touchdowns) and junior running back Willie Cowdrey (625 yards rushing, five touchdowns).
Depending on this weekend’s results, Marlborough will be either the second or third seed in the Division 2 Central playoffs. The Panthers play St. John’s High on Saturday, and Mahoney believes it will be a good test for his team.
“St. John’s will be a huge challenge,” he said. “They’re very talented. It’s a great game for us going into the playoffs because the teams we’ll see there will be similar. It comes at a great time, actually.”Phil Perry can be reached at email@example.com.