HUDSON — While Hudson High senior quarterback Dan Mendes waited near the football team’s bench for another chance to take the field, he reached for a small plastic bag full of Skittles and popped a few into his mouth without ever removing his helmet.
“Every time I go on the sidelines, I just get a couple,” Mendes said with a laugh. “I don’t know. It’s working.”
On the night after Halloween, Mendes made the most of whatever sugar rush he attained from his sideline snack. In the first round of the Division 4 Central playoffs, Mendes completed 10 of 13 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 13 times for 211 yards and two more scores to lead the Hawks to a 35-14 win over Groton-Dunstable Regional.
Mendes missed his team’s previous two-plus games with a separated throwing shoulder, but Hudson (8-0) maintained its perfect record in his absence and readjusted seamlessly upon his return.
“I was thrilled to have him back,” said senior receiver Evan Cain. “I was absolutely thrilled. We missed him, and we had our struggles, but we’re a family. Having him back on the field just made this even better.”
Cain — who finished last week’s the game with five catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns — served as the primary target for Mendes against Groton-Dunstable, his speed testing the signal-caller’s arm strength. Mendes’ right shoulder passed with flying colors, allowing him to complete long passes and short throws with equal precision.
Just moments after ingesting a midgame dose of candy, Mendes found Cain for an 83-yard completion on a play called “trips left, two wheel.”
Rolling to his left, Mendes whipped his right arm overhead just as Groton-Dunstable’s pass rush descended on him, and the perfect spiral found Cain in stride along the sideline. One play later, Mendes leaped over a Crusader defender for a 3-yard score that gave Hudson a 21-14 lead at halftime.
Hudson’s shotgun offense, quarterbacked by senior Andrew Wienen while Mendes was out, was more than proficient in wins over North Middlesex Regional (42-19) and Algonquin Regional (38-13). But the dual-threat Mendes, who has accounted for 16 touchdowns in not quite six games this season, is the team’s most explosive offensive piece.
Dealing with injuries has become the norm this season, but Hudson continues to win despite all setbacks.
The effects of a season-ending ankle injury to starting senior “super back” Dan Bothwell has been mitigated by the play of bruising sophomore back JesseNemerowicz as well as a dominating offensive line.
Senior tackle Dylan Rich, senior guard Alex Sleeper, junior center Andrew Nugent, senior guard Ben King, and senior tackle Emmitt Tucker have protected Mendes and cleared enough space for the running game to help the Hawks average 33.1 points per game despite the changes.
“One thing we can say about our kids over the past three or four weeks is they’ve adapted,” coach Dan McAnespie said. “They’ve adapted to a new quarterback, adapted to a new super back. I think no matter where we are, or who we have back there, I think our offensive line has been really steady. They’re a big part of who we are.”
Hudson will host Worcester’s Doherty Memorial High on Friday night in what is believed to be the second home playoff game in the history of the school. The familiar setting is a welcome change for Mendes, who was part of Hawks teams who played their playoff games away from home the last two seasons.
Last week, the Hudson concession stand had Skittles available for sale, but Mendes will likely arrive to the second-round game prepared. After seeing an ESPN feature on how Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl running back Marshawn Lynch eats the multicolored candy during games, Mendes thought he would try it, too.
He has had the same ritual during his last two games, and, like Lynch, plans to keep it going.
“It works for him,” Mendes said.
Watertown coach says Raiders set for playoffs
Watertown coach John Cacace believes that his team couldn’t have had a better warm-up for the Division 4 North playoffs than the regular-season schedule it faced.
Through the first seven weeks, the Raiders played five playoff teams, including four Division 3 playoff teams in Burlington, Melrose, Wakefield, and Wilmington. Watertown went 1-3 in those games, beating Wakefield, 17-14, early last month for the first time since 1986.
“It prepared us tremendously,” he said of the Middlesex League’s Freedom Division schedule. “Top to bottom, it’s one of the best leagues in the state. We’re certainly battle tested. It’s helped us from a toughness and physical standpoint to be playing tough teams down the stretch in the fourth quarter. We’ve won games in the fourth. We’ve lost some we had a chance to win at the end. But every game we played leading up to the playoffs was an intense 44-minute game.”
Led by senior captains Eric Tirrell, Luke Leitner, and David Lucas , Watertown beat Triton Regional in its first-round match last week, 31-22.
The Raiders have offensive and defensive units that each feature eight senior starters who are able to play multiple styles on both sides of the ball.
Junior quarterback Nick Giordano and senior receivers TJ Hairston, Austin Farry and Matt Donnell can threaten the deep part of the field through the air, while senior running back Mike Petrillo is able to chew up yardage when the Raiders play what Cacace calls “smash-mouth” football.
Despite three straight losses to finish the regular season, Cacace said he never saw his team get down on itself.
“Adversity comes from snap to snap, week to week,” Cacace explained, “and our kids have just rolled right through that, good times and bad. That’s been a steady focus for us all year long.”
Watertown (5-3) has a chance to continue its first- ever playoff run and its pursuit of a Division 4 title on Saturday against Pentucket Regional and its wing-T offense.
“I can’t say how important this proposal was to go through for the new playoff system,” Cacace said. “It’s been terrific for us, our kids, our school community, our town. Everybody’s excited for this.”
Phil Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.