Don’t let the MIAA’s new playoff system distract you. High school football is still about players, games, tradition, and the glare of the Friday Night Lights.
So before you start worrying about November, focus instead on a two-month regular season that should be the most exciting in years. There are stars on the ground (Plymouth South running back Dylan Oxsen), stars in the air (Natick quarterback Troy Flutie), and stars yet to come.
The 2013 edition begins Friday.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
JON BAKER, Millis-Hopedale: Watch a lineman? You bet. The Boston College-bound Baker is worth a look, maybe two, and could be the best player in the state. At more than 300 pounds and standing 6 feet, 3 inches, it’s almost amusing he plays in a league ending in “Small.” But the two-time Tri-Valley Small Lineman of the Year will make the Mohawks a favorite in Division 6.
DREW BELCHER, Reading: About the only disappointing thing you can say about the reigning Division 2 Player of the Year is that you have to wait until Sept. 20 to see him play his first game. Belcher led the Rockets to a 13-0 record and Super Bowl title, throwing for 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns. The 6-foot-3-inch, 215-pound quarterback was the Middlesex Liberty MVP last fall.
KYLE DANCE, Latin Academy: The Dragons had the highest scoring team in the city at 23 points per game and Dance was the Dragons’ undisputed leader. The senior quarterback recorded a school-record 24 touchdown passes, giving him 31 for his career, one more than former Boston English star Clarzell Pearl.
D’ANDRE DRUMMOND-MAYRIE, Central Catholic: In the pass-happy world of 2013, Central Catholic fans can relax . . . Drummond-Mayrie has everything under control. Whether it’s at cornerback or safety, the 6-0 senior is one of the best defensive backs in the state and forces opposing teams to adjust, simply by stepping on the field. This fall he’ll also get plenty of carries in the backfield.
BRIAN DUNLAP, Natick: The pass-and-catch combo of Dunlap and Troy Flutie has been one of the most productive in state history and they’ve got one more season together. Dunlap caught an EMass-best 86 passes last fall and the junior has a two-year total of 155 receptions.
JACK GALVIN, Lowell: Cam Latta had an All-Scholastic season playing QB for Lowell. But someone had to be catching all thoses passes. Meet Glavin, a senior receiver and Merrimack Valley Conference All-Star who hauled in 72 passes, 10 for touchdowns, last fall. New quarterback Brian Dolan, a Lawrence Academy transfer, should ensure the Chieftains continue their passing ways.
BRENDAN HILL, Mansfield: Whether it’s basketball (Hockomock MVP) or football (record-setting receiver), Hill is a player to watch. At 6-5, Hill is tough to defend and his school-record 48 receptions are proof. As impressive as his fall was, he finished second in the family in receptions. Brother Jeff caught 51 at Bentley last fall and returns for his junior year.
DYLAN OXSEN, Plymouth South: The senior running back wasn’t on our list last fall, clearly an oversight on our part. Those who still watched saw the All-State back run for more than 2,000 yards and an EMass-best 40 touchdowns. His efforts led Plymouth South to its first ever Atlantic Coast League title. And did we mention the five touchdowns and 272 yards rushing against Natick in the playoffs?
MIKE PANEPINTO, Needham: For starters, watching Needham will be a little less confusing this fall after the graduation of Niko, Mike’s brother. Whether it was football or lacrosse, they drove opponents crazy with their offensive skills. Mike’s numbers at running back were impressive — 2,085 yards rushing with a Division 1-leading 26 touchdowns.
JOHNATHAN THOMAS, St. John’s Prep: If you called Thomas the best player in the state on the best team in the state, few would argue. The Maryland-bound senior back ran for almost 1,800 yards and 15 touchdowns as the Prep won the Division 1 Super Bowl. A similar finish will send St. John’s to Gillette Stadium instead of Bentley, site of last year’s title game. That’s what you call incentive.
GAMES TO WATCH
ABINGTON AT DUXBURY, Sept. 7: It’s a matchup of the Green Wave vs. the Green Dragons and silly color references aside, it’s also a matchup of two of the most successful teams in recent state history. Duxbury comes in with a 42-game regular-season win streak. Abington went 13-0 last fall and won the Division 4 Super Bowl.
LYNN CLASSICAL AT GLOUCESTER, Sept. 7: How can a game that includes a parade, ribbon-cutting, and a community celebration not be a game to watch? The $3.5 million New Balance Track and Field at Newell Stadium makes its debut, and with a pretty good football game mixed into the fun.
BROCKTON AT ST. JOHN’S PREP, Saturday, Sept. 14: What’s more exciting than a Super Bowl re-match? The Boxers open against St. John’s, which beat them, 48-28, to win the Division 1 title last December. The Eagles will already have a game under their belt after opening against Bridgewater-Raynham. Brockton will be starting life without graduated All-Scholastic quarterback Austin Roberts but will have running back Aaron LeClair. With LeClair and Prep’s All-Scholastic back Johnathan Thomas on field, keep your eye on the ball.
LATIN ACADEMY AT DORCHESTER, Friday, Sept. 20: Where do we start? How about the Bears first-ever home game on the new turf of Roberts Field, a few steps from Tech Boston Academy. The $2.8 million renovation means no more home games at White Stadium for the defending Boston South champions. And what better opponent than LA, with All-Scholastic QB Kyle Dance. Last year Dorchester won, 36-24, and finished the regular season 10-0. Great field, great game, and did we mention the new bleacher seats?
LOWELL AT CENTRAL CATHOLIC, Friday, Oct. 11: Entering the season, Lowell and Central Catholic are front-running favorites to compete for the Merrimack Valley crown. With this matchup in the fifth week – just two before the season ends – perhaps it will give one a definitive edge for first place. With Lowell’s high-flying offense, led by receiver Jack Galvin, against Central Catholic’s electric running game, led by D’Andre Drummond-Mayrie, this is a game you don’t want to miss. The X-factor? Both teams are retooling their offensive lines.
NATICK AT WALPOLE, Friday, Oct. 25: Can a matchup between a Division 3 Southwest team and a Division 2 South school really be a game to watch? Sure, when it could be for the Bay State Herget title and an automatic berth in the postseason. Last fall these two finished tied for first but Natick beat Walpole, 21-14, and advanced to the postseason. The new playoff system is one year late for Walpole, which missed the postseason despite going 10-1. If both teams are unbeaten heading into this one, it may lack the winner-take-all drama.
EMASS FOOTBALL BY THE NUMBERS
8: Returning All-Scholastics, including three Players of the Year in Reading’s Drew Belcher (Division 2), Plymouth South’s Dylan Oxsen (2A), and Latin Academy’s Kyle Dance (5).
14: Beverly’s win streak, the longest active win streak in EMass. The Panthers’ last loss was to Marblehead in November of 2011.
26: The Nashoba win streak, the longest active streak in the state. The Chieftains have won back-to-back Division 2 CMass Super Bowl titles.
30: Years ago, Darren Flutie, Troy’s father, was the Globe’s Division 1 Player of the Year with 1,017 yards rushing and 116 points. As we said in 1983, “When it came to the big gain, the big yards, the big game, Natick looked to Flutie, and he produced.”
38: The difference between Troy Flutie’s career TD pass total (64) and his uncle Doug’s total (26).
40: The number of touchdown passes Troy Flutie (64) needs to pass Jonathan DiBiaso (103) as the state’s all-time career leader. Flutie had 35 last fall.
42: The number of regular-season games Duxbury has won in a row, dating to a 14-0 loss to Plymouth North in September of 2009.
50: The 50th anniversary of Aubrey Flagg’s amazing Thanksgiving game for Rindge Tech against rival Cambridge Latin. The recently retired Columbia State Community College (Tenn.) geography professor accounted for all his team’s points in a 46-12 win, passing for six touchdowns and five conversions.