It’s not often a loss can be considered a positive. But that’s exactly what Barnstable’s opening-week defeat to Dennis-Yarmouth turned out to be.
The 37-9 loss allowed the Red Raiders to reevaluate the direction they wanted to head in for the rest of the season.
Since then, Barnstable has won eight straight games and finds itself in the Division 2 South final against host Mansfield (9-0) on Friday night. The game is one of 22 sectional finals this weekend, 14 in EMass and four each in Central and Western Massachusetts. The playoffs started with 156 teams and 44 remain alive in the chase for Super Bowl berths.
“That was probably the best thing that could have happened to us, in hindsight,” said Barnstable coach Chris Whidden of the season-opening loss. “That Saturday morning we had our little team meeting, as we do every Saturday morning, and we reassessed our goals. We talked about, ‘Where do you guys want to go? What are the realistic points that this team can get to?’ And even after [the loss], the kids all said that playing on Dec. 7 [for the Super Bowl], that’s the goal.
“We just — as a coaching staff and the players — had to reassess what we were doing in order to get there. We revamped a lot of things, we made a lot of adjustments. And it’s definitely paying off.”
No. 5 Barnstable is two wins from making that return trip to the Super Bowl. The Red Raiders lost to Everett in the Division 1A title game last season, but the third-ranked Hornets are standing in the way.
The teams last met two years ago, before the Hornets’ offensive stars — quarterback Kyle Wisnieski, receiver Brendan Hill, and running back Miguel Villar-Perez — burst onto the scene.
“They’re obviously a much different team, as are we,” said Whidden. “We don’t have the familiarity that we’ve had with some of the other teams we’ve played. But we’ve got an idea what to expect.
“They have a lot of different weapons and they all do something different very well. They’ve got [Villar-Perez], so they’re going to stretch you horizontally there. And they have [Hill] that’s going to stretch you vertically. And [Wisnieski] is able to keep the play alive.”
Barnstable has its own star in senior running back Hayden Murphy, who is second in Division 2 with 19 TDs. Murphy, also a linebacker, has been a force in all facets of the game.
“Hayden Murphy is just a football player,” said Mansfield coach Mike Redding. “He runs the ball, he catches it, he can throw it, he plays great defense. He certainly seems to be the leader of a very good team with a lot of good players around him.”
Redding knows Barnstable’s team expands beyond Murphy and expects this game to be his team’s toughest challenge yet.
“We’ve got our biggest test of the year. I think Barnstable is probably the best team on both sides of the ball that we’ve seen, and they’re very well-coached,” he said.
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The new playoff system was created, in part, to open up the postseason to teams finishing second or lower in their leagues. Under the previous format only league champions advanced, meaning Mansfield would have been the lone playoff representative from the Hockomock (Kelley-Rex division).
Of the 14 sectional finals in EMass, 11 of the 28 teams participating finished second or lower in their leagues.
The Hockomock, which also has the Davenport division, sent both of its second-place finishers (Stoughton and Attleboro) to the postseason, in addition to league champions Oliver Ames and Mansfield.
“I think it’s great, just the list of schools that got into the playoffs that in any other system we’ve had wouldn’t have had a chance,” said Redding. “I think the best thing has been that more high school football players are getting the chance to play playoff football.”
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In other sectional final action, top-ranked Everett takes on No. 5 Central Catholic in Division 1 North Saturday. The Crimson Tide will be looking to advance to their fifth straight Super Bowl, against the winner of the D1 South final between No. 3 Xaverian and No. 6 Attleboro. Division 2 North features an early-season rematch, as Lincoln-Sudbury visits Waltham. The Hawks shut out L-S, 12-0, on Oct. 12. No. 10 Plymouth South and Thanksgiving rival Plymouth North also meet for the second time this season, in the D3 Southeast final. South beat North, 21-14, Sept. 27. In the D3 Southwest final, Stoughton travels to No. 9 Oliver Ames, which issued the Black Knights their only loss, 35-7, Oct. 4. In other top 20 meetings, No. 7 Tewksbury hosts No. 15 Marblehead in the D3 Northeast final, No. 16 Old Rochester meets No. 19 Abington in D5 South, and No. 14 Woburn travels to No. 11 Melrose for the D3 Northwest title. In an intriguing non-playoff matchup, No. 8 Natick hosts No. 18 Needham. Redhawks senior quarterback Troy Flutie is two TD passes shy of breaking former Everett quarterback Jonathan DiBiaso’s state record of 103 for his career.
Five NEPSAC bowls will also be Saturday. Milton Academy meets Dexter in the Tom Flaherty Bowl, Suffield battles Avon Old Farms in the Arthur Valicenti Bowl, New Hampton plays Cheshire Academy in the Dan Rorke Bowl, Govenor’s Academy faces Hamden Hall in the Kevin Fleming Bowl, and Phillips Andover plays Brunswick in the Jack Etter Bowl.