The more the Mansfield and Natick football programs ask of their student-athletes, the more those players seem to deliver.
Strict academic requirements from both coaching staffs have helped these teams roll through in-state competition en route to Friday’s Division 2 South final at Natick High (5 p.m.).
Perhaps even more importantly, a combination of support and scrutiny regarding academic performance has put many of those players on a successful trajectory beyond high school.
“It’s something we emphasize and the kids take pride in being good students,” said Mansfield 31-year coach Mike Redding, who is in his final year teaching history at the high school.
“All of our captains are really good players and they can play the game, but they’re all really solid academically, and that just opens so many doors.”
Mansfield senior Vinny Holmes has totaled over 1,800 career rushing yards and is the school’s all-time leader with over 300 career tackles at linebacker. Sporting a 3.5 GPA, Holmes is getting looks from several Ivy League and NE-10 schools, with Bentley at the top of his list.
Fellow captain Nick Marciano also has plenty of options with a 3.5 GPA, starting guard Andrew Cowles leads the Hornets in the classroom with a 4.14 GPA, and Hornets senior quarterback Jack Moussette made good on his excellent grades with an early decision commitment to St. Lawrence.
Junior standouts Cincere Gill (a 6-1, 175-pound all-purpose weapon) and T.J. Guy (a 6-4, 240-pound defensive end) could both wind up playing at Boston College, with Guy announcing a verbal commitment to BC earlier this week.
With those players leading the way, Mansfield (8-1) has dominated against Massachusetts foes, averaging 32 points and yielding just 7.9 points per game — excluding the numbers from their loss at national power La Salle (Ohio) in September.
Under the watchful eye of Redding and his staff, they’ve also been dominating in the classroom.
“We all try to push each other and we compete with academics,” said Holmes. “Whenever we get a better grade than someone else, we’ll joke about it. [Redding] really pushes us to the limit.”
While Redding doesn’t have any official requirements beyond the MIAA’s standard that players must pass four classes with full credits, his staff checks their progress reports and won’t hesitate to suspend a player if they’re “not giving a good effort,” or are flagged for “behavioral problems.”
The more his players are challenged in the classroom, the more capable they seem to be in absorbing football knowledge.
“We have a lot of complicated systems and having smart kids that can execute makes us tougher to defend,” said Redding. “It certainly makes life easy when you don’t have to worry about eligibility issues.”
Natick 10-year coach Mark Mortarelli and his staff are also heavily involved in the academic progress of their players. Mortarelli works at the alternative high school, and his assistant, Garry Coles, works with the school’s Metco program.
Over the past few years, Coles has witnessed the commitment of four gridiron standouts from that program, who often leave their homes in Boston around 5 a.m. and don’t return until 8 p.m. during football season.
By sticking with that commitment, junior back Jalyn Aponte, senior running back/linebacker Terrance Cherry, senior defensive end Adesotu Woghiren, and senior guard Paulo Luis have led Natick (9-0) to its first sectional final.
Despite time constraints and transitional challenges, all four players have seen their grades steadily improve to the point that they all sport at least a “B” average.
“I feel like I’m closer to Jalyn, Terrance, and Paulo,” said Woghiren, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound game wrecker with six tackles for loss and four sacks this season. “We came in together and we basically grew up in Natick. Our success has proven that going into Metco was the best choice.”
Aponte, a Mattapan resident, joined the Metco program in fifth grade and was placed in Natick, because his mother also attended Natick schools via the program.
He erupted for 26 touchdowns on the freshman team once he reached high school, then added nine touchdowns with 1,040 rushing yards on varsity last season. Now the 5-foot-9-inch, 200-pound junior leads the Redhawks with 1,110 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, including four scores during a 30-0 win over Wellesley in the sectional semifinals last Friday.
His academics have steadily improved, thanks, in part, to the help of Cherry, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound bruising back who also works as a peer mentor at the school.
While Cherry has maintained a 3.5 GPA since he started attending Natick as a freshman, the senior from Dorchester said football made it easier for him to transition to a new school system.
“It was kind of nerve-wracking because I didn’t know anybody,” said Cherry, who is now being recruited by Stonehill College and others. “Playing football really helped me have someone to talk to those first few days. It was a lot different from where I used to go to school, but definitely worth coming out here to get challenged.”
Like the Mansfield staff, Natick’s coaches are on top of the progress of all their student-athletes. Players are suspended if they fail any classes and there is a strong support system in place to excuse players from practice and help them study if they’re struggling in a certain course.
That type of academic safety net, along with the support of teammates and a community that will offer to host Metco players overnight when necessary, has made it easier for the foursome to thrive on and off the field.
“It’s a tight fit to get it all in and they have to have a lot of discipline just to function,” Mortarelli said of his players in the Metco program. “We have a really high academic standard here at Natick and all of our kids really respect and admire their time management skills.”
Nate Weitzer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.