The opening weekend of the MIAA playoffs proved to be a historic one for two EMass programs still in their infancy.
The Roxbury Prep Charter football team wasn’t even thinking about making the playoffs a year ago in its first varsity season. The program was only a year removed from playing at the junior varsity level, and three years removed from playing freshman teams from schools like Milton Academy, BC High, and Belmont Hill.
Last year, the Wolves went 4-3, scoring wins over Mystic Valley, Atlantic Charter, and Randolph and earned the No. 5 seed in the Division 8 North bracket, where they were knocked out in the first round with a 14-0 loss to Lynn Tech.
“Our success last year led us to build a program out of nothing, and our numbers went up [this year],’’ said Roxbury Prep coach Elijah Hodge. “It showed the guys that if they believe, anything is possible.”
The Wolves suffered a second-year slump, going 1-6 this season, but the playoffs brought them a new lease on life with an 8-0 upset victory over TechBoston on Friday night, giving the program its first MIAA playoff victory.
“Everyone is 0-0. We spoke about that even before the playoff season,” Hodge said. “All year we have been in battles and in four-quarter games playing higher division teams. [That] prepared us for playoff-caliber type of competition.”
TechBoston of the Boston City League entered the tournament riding a five-game winning streak during which sophomore quarterback Julius Gillard helped the Bears averaged 27 points a game. The Wolves understood who who they needed to stop and tasked junior linebacker Sammy Obianigwe with spying on Gillard. Obianigwe obliged and prevented Gillard from making any plays, while, as a running back, scoring the winning touchdown.
“Our focus was going 1-0,” Hodge said. “We were very conservative and basic on defense, with our goals focused on containing [Gillard].”
Roxbury Prep will next face KIPP Academy of Lynn in the Division 8 North semifinals. KIPP Academy advanced by recording its own monumental program victory in a 35-6 rout of Charlestown.
The program’s first playoff victory came one year after KIPP fell one win short of qualifying for the Division 8 North tournament in its first year as a varsity-level football program. This year, the Panthers overcome a season-opening loss to Manchester-Essex, winning five of their next six games to finish 5-2 and earn the No. 3 seed.
“It is really important to get into a rhythm,’’ said KIPP Academy coach Jim Rabbitt. “I don’t want to use the word ‘peaking,’ but we are just locked in.
“Success can just be very contagious.”
Against Charlestown, the Panthers relied on contributions from their underclassmen to jump out to a 35-0 lead in the first half.
“One of the positives of having a third-year program is the juniors have been in the program three years,” said Rabbitt. “[They] took a licking their first few years, playing at that higher level, but now [are] reaping the fruits of that.”
Sophomore quarterback Piero Canales tossed touchdowns to juniors Taj King and Roberto Sterling, who recorded his first TD catch of the season. Junior Dave Filias scored the opening touchdown of the night on a 17-yard run, but classmate Daniel Oluwasuyi did the rest of the damage, running for 150 yards and two touchdowns on only six carries.
The Panthers didn’t score in the second half, but, defensively, they prevented any comeback attempt by Charlestown with three second-half interceptions.
“[The] ultimate goal is to make the playoffs,’’ Rabbitt said. “And then we set new goals and that was to win the first playoff game. Everyone wants to win the Super Bowl, but the kids do a really good job taking it one game at a time.
“We are 100 percent onto Roxbury Prep.”
■ The Medway football team is 5-3 after what coach Anthony Mazzola called, “The most epic game I have ever been involved in,” after his team won a wild, 61-53 thriller in four overtimes against visiting Falmouth in a non-playoff game Friday night.
Ranked ninth in the Division 6 South MIAA power ratings, the Mustangs were one of four teams with winning records which failed to qualify for the playoffs, joining fellow Tri-Valley League member Dover-Sherborn (5-2), along with Bishop Stang (4-3) and Martha’s Vineyard (5-2).
“It’s not a perfect system, it is what it is, if we had used MaxPreps, we would have made it,” said Mazzola, in his first season at Medway after a nine-year run at Tri-County Regional. Seeds through MaxPreps’ proprietory format will be in play in 2020. “We’re focused on one thing, and that’s playing the schedule we are given.”
Playing the schedule given, Medway rallied from a 14-0 first quarter deficit to close the gap to 21-16 at half, with Jim Kelley drilling a 30-yard field goal just the break. Then the Mustangs rode stellar play in the second half and OT from their senior leaders, quarterback Drew Plunkett, tailback Nick Sheehan, and defensive tackle Rome Benaitis to victory.
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Plunkett (16 carries, 180 yards) scored four touchdowns, including 6- and 10-yard keepers in the third and fourth OTs, connected on TD passes of 71 yards (bubble screen) and 69 yards (seam route) to Sheehan, and threaded the needle on four conversion passes. Sheehan (5-8, 165), sidelined earlier this season with a broken foot, had nine carries for 52 yards, the two receptions for 140 yards, and a 40-yard pick-six. And with Falmouth facing fourth and 2 late near midfield in a tie game, Benaitis stuffed Falmouth QB Kyle Connolly (who left the game in the third OT with an ankle injury).
“Drew has been unbelieveable all year,” said Mazzola of the reigning TVL MVP. “[Friday night], he just managed the game, he was calm. Some of the coaches were getting high and low, getting frustrated. He was even keel the whole time. He makes plays with his feet and his arm.”
Now Medway will gear up for its next nonplayoff foe, the opponent being revealed on Monday.
“It’s hard to miss the playoffs, but we want a winning record,” said Mazzola. “You have to do something to keep the kids motivated. So we ask, ‘who is our bowl game this week’”? We now have weekly bowl games.”
■ There were 64 quarterfinals played, with many lopsided scores. The average winning margin was 23 points . . . Winchester and Nauset joined Roxbury Prep and KIPP Academy in winning their school’s first playoff games.
Staff writer Craig Larson also contributed.