After a rough start to last season, Rockland has been the picture of perfection
Starting a season with five losses never feels good, but for a relatively young Rockland team, a few narrow defeats to open the 2018 season set the table for an incredible turnaround.
After falling to East Bridgewater, Middleborough, and Plymouth South by a total of 9 points, the Bulldogs tallied six straight wins to end last season. On Friday night, they wrapped up their regular-season schedule with a 7-0 record and a South Shore League title by edging Norwell, 14-7.
Under third-year head coach Nick Liquori , Rockland owns a state-best 13-game winning streak and will rest up during a bye week before heading into the state tournament as one of the top seeds in Division 6 South.
“We didn’t want to be a team that went winless,” Liquori said about the 2018 season. “We were in those [close losses], we just didn’t click. That came in Week 6 against a tough Norwell team, and things turned around from there.”
Things have certainly turned for Rockland, which has dominated the SSL, allowing just 7.6 points per game while scoring 30.6 points per game behind a stout rushing attack.
At the forefront is stellar senior quarterback Dante Vasquez, who rushed for 228 yards and what proved to be the winning 4-yard touchdown in Friday’s win over Norwell.
With 3,138 rushing yards, Vasquez is quickly approaching the program’s career rushing record of 3,468 yards, set by Tyrone Jefferson in 1995.
Liquori (Class of 1995) was an outside linebacker on Rockland’s Division 3 state championship team in 1992, so he got a first-hand look at how Jefferson’s bruising running style helped the Bulldogs win the first of their three Super Bowls under the old playoff format.
The longtime assistant and now head coach at Rockland sees some of the same qualities in Vasquez.
“[Vasquez] is as strong as an ox and he’ll set the tone from the first run, or the last run to get 1 or 2 yards to seal the game,” said Liquori.
“His strength and stamina always put us in good position when the ball is in his hands. So why not put the ball in your best player’s hands?”
Standing 5 feet 8 inches and weighing 195 pounds, Vasquez used his low center of gravity to power his way for a single-season program record 1,721 rushing yards last season, as Rockland narrowly missed out on the playoffs.
“I have a stocky build, so I’m low to the ground as it is,” said Vasquez. “It starts in the weight room building power in the legs, and every time I get the ball I’m able to fight for those extra yards.”
As a sophomore, Vasquez scored a 44-yard touchdown in a 14-3 state tournament win over Cardinal Spellman. As one of seven seniors on Rockland’s 43-man roster, he’s one of the few veterans with postseason experience.
Therefore, Vasquez feels part of his responsibility as captain is to throw water on the hype that continues to build around the Bulldogs as their winning streak grows.
“Every game we hear about how we’re going to the Super Bowl and this and that, but we’re going to have to fight for everything in the playoffs; it’s a different game.
“Each game our confidence builds and builds, but we know confidence isn’t going to win games. We have to let our game talk.”
While Vasquez leads the offense, juniors linebackers Thomas Sweeney and Nick Leander have instilled fear into their opponents and Hunter Wardwell has five interceptions as a ball-hawking defensive back.
Since Liquori spent 12 years as a linebacker and defensive backs coach under his predecessors, Ken Owen and Brian Kelliher, it should come as little surprise that the Bulldogs’ base 4-4 defense is thriving under his tutelage.
But the former Bulldogs captain is quick to credit his players for their mental and physical commitment to the defensive side of the ball.
“The kids are really intuitive to game prep,” said Liquori. “I can’t say enough about the work they put in during practice and their attention to detail.
“They don’t try to do too much. I know it’s cliché, but they’re just doing their job and worrying about their responsibility and collectively they’ve done a great job against some really formidable teams.”
Rockland shut out Nantucket to open the season, then held Cohasset to 7 points, and Abington, East Bridgewater, and Middleborough to 13 points apiece while running through their conference schedule.
Liquori and his staff, which includes seven other Rockland alumni, are quick to point out the difficulties involved in the new playoff format, and the coach says he hopes to avoid facing any SSL foes in the D6 South bracket.
“[The players] see the [state title] banners in the gym and their goal is to get to Gillette [Stadium],” said Liquori. “We’ve had coaches in to talk to these kids about what we’re dealing with in the new playoff format. We leverage each other and talk about those things throughout the course of practice and in the locker room.
“Kids nowadays blow you off, but not these kids, they work hard for us. We have 43 kids in our program and 43 are at practice, every day.”
■ Trailing Amesbury, 36-21, at halftime, Hamilton-Wenham rallied for 29 second-half points to pull out a thrilling 50-44 win. Generals senior quarterback Ian Coffey rushed for the winning touchdown from 5 yards out with 25.5 seconds remaining after Amesbury muffed a kickoff return in the final minute. Coffey passed for 234 yards and two TDs, rushed for 225 yards and three TDs, and added a 50-yard kickoff return among his 514 total yards.
■ Revere edged Marblehead, 31-27, in a Northeastern Conference battle of unbeatens. It was the first regular-season home loss for Marblehead since 2012 . . . Quarterback Avery Arno and Zach Hubbard connected for the tying touchdown and winning 2-point conversion in overtime to give Belmont a 35-33 win over Arlington . . . After Needham rallied for 21 unanswered points, Milton sophomore Chase Vaughan led the Wildcats down the field and Max Winkler drilled a 19-yard field goal as time expired for a 31-28 win.
■ Old Rochester topped Nauset, 34-26, to clinch the South Coast Conference title . . . Plymouth South handled North Quincy, 41-14, to clinch the Patriot League Fisher title . . . St. John’s of Shrewsbury scored 50 points in the first half at Xaverian en route to a 58-26 victory . . . Masconomet handed Pentucket its first loss, 21-14, behind a 57-yard touchdown pass from Alex Theriault to Will Hunter in the fourth quarter . . . Canton clinched a Hockomock Davenport League title with an 18-0 win at North Attleborough, the Bulldogs’ fourth shutout this season . . . Ashland held off Holliston, 35-29, for the Clockers’ first win over the Panthers since 2001.
Nate Weitzer can be reached at email@example.com.