The fall season, 15 weeks from start to finish, spanning 113 days in 2019 — 85-degree practice sessions in August to a 30-degree night on the first Saturday in December.
For the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, that translated into 25,901 student-athletes competing in state tournaments, involving 829 teams, and the crowning of 31 champions. Add in the preps, from (Phillips) Andover to Thayer, and that’s competition at its finest.
They all competed. They won, they lost, they tied. They learned, they forged relationships, and a fortunate few ended the season with a win.
The Bishop Feehan girls’ soccer and Needham girls’ volleyball teams won titles for the first time. Andover repeated in the pool. Ashland, Mansfield, Melrose, and Swampscott returned to glory on the football field. St. Mary’s made it a three-peat on the greens. Somerset Berkley field hockey rode a 42-game winning streak to back-to-back D1 titles, and there were breakthrough performances on the cross-country trails.
There were compelling story lines from the first week of September until a frigid night at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Here are 10 that made us take notice:
1. Pesce Jr. played with purpose
All season, the Melrose football team focused on four quarters and finishing wins. In the finale, the unbeaten Red Raiders followed the lead of their senior captain, William Pesce Jr., who was playing for something more. With the Division 4 Super Bowl tied, 13-13, in the third quarter, Pesce put the Red Raiders on top for good against Plymouth South. Playing in the memory of his father, who died in January, Pesce scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 14-yard reception, added a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown, and sealed the championship with an interception late in the fourth quarter. “[Pesce’s] the heart and soul of this team,” said Melrose coach Tim Morris. “He’s been through a lot this year, and it brought tears to my eyes watching him return that [punt]. He’s had a great career for us, but this was certainly the icing on the cake.”
2. Yanchuk for the win? Yes
Francesca Yanchuk saw an opportunity and launched the ball into the back of the net. It was the school-record 41st strike of the season for the Bishop Feehan junior. But that final tally in the final minute of the Division 1 state final at Worcester State University resulted in a 3-2 win over Westfield to cap a 23-0-1 season for the Shamrocks and the program’s first state title. “This year she’s taken it to a different level,” said Feehan coach Phil Silva. “When [she] gets the ball on the 30 [-yard line] and in, people know to either get to a place where it’s going to go next or get ready for a shot on goal.” A Providence commit with 109 career goals, Yanchuk stayed on point. “I saw an opening and knew I had to take it and kick it,” she said.
3. Prepped for second, Boyle soared with win
St. John’s Prep coach John Boyle stood under a tent at Gardner Municipal Golf Course at the conclusion of the Division 1 state cross-country championship. While his runners went for a 15-minute warm-down run, the 50-year mentor began to plan his consolation speech — Prep had lost No. 5 runner Connor Hughes to an ankle sprain in the second mile and was a long shot to place first. But Boyle’s runners got wind of the results during their jog and came sprinting back to inform Boyle that they had indeed won the state title, nosing out Wellesley by 14 points. “I probably made a fool of myself screaming and yelling because it feels so good,” said Boyle. “To have something go wrong, and still be able to pull it out, it brings a low to an incredible height.”
4. Jenks jumped in, set the pace
Lucy Jenks always has put her fleet feet to good use. Her passion was soccer, and she was determined to play at the next level. But the more the Newton South standout ran, “the more I started to love that, too.” Last spring, she gave up club soccer and was the EMass D1 and All-State champion in the mile. This fall, the senior made the transition complete, choosing to run cross-country for Steve McChesney’s Lions instead of playing soccer. The results were spectacular. She was limited to three championship races because of a knee ailment, but the Stanford-bound Jenks won all three, including the EMass D1 race in Wrentham, followed by a 14-second victory in the All-State meet in Gardner. “I wanted to prove I could do it,” said Jenks.
5. Warriors golden in pool again
The Andover girls’ swim program could have taken a step back when Hall of Fame coach Marilyn Fitzgerald retired last December after 27 years. But co-coaches Patty Barrett and Becky Pierce kept the drum beating while leading the Golden Warriors to a sixth straight Division 1 title Nov. 17 at MIT. Prior to the meet, Fitzgerald was recognized for her achievements by the MIAA, then she watched as freshman Michaela Chokureva set two individual state records and anchored the 200-free relay team to pace Andover. “I was with Marilyn for 18 years, so there wasn’t much of that transition phase,” Pierce said. “ . . . I can’t imagine [winning] ever gets old. Every year is a new group of athletes, and they had some incredible swims today. We’re just as excited as they are.”
6. Blissful moment for Hillers
Oh, yes, Dick Bliss could play a little bit, tee to green. Back in the day, he won the Massachusetts Junior title. The 1965 Westborough High grad earned a golf scholarship to the University of Houston, a program that has produced Fuzzy Zoeller, Fred Couples, and John Mahaffey. But over the past 40 years, Bliss has called Hopkinton High home, as basketball coach, AD, and golf mentor/confidant. His Hillers, featuring the likes of Keegan Bradley, Jon Curran, Kim Donovan, and most recently Matt Epstein, won four state titles — including back-to-back D2 titles in 2017-18 — and ruled the Tri-Valley League 11 times. On and off the course, Bliss forged relationships that will last a lifetime. To his players, Bliss was the whisperer. Last week, he was chatting up making a connection in Florida with Bradley, a PGA Tour major winner, after the first of the year. But he also talked up a Hopkinton squad that returns 22 players next fall. That’s his legacy as he steps away.
7. Oliveira a keeper for Milford
When 100 minutes wasn’t enough to settle the Division 2 South boys’ soccer final between unbeatens Milford and Nauset, the back-and-fourth match went to penalty kicks. As steady snow came down on that mid-November night and an exuberant Milford student section eagerly looked on, an unlikely hero stepped forward for the host Scarlet Hawks. With starting keeper Kevin Gomes injured in overtime, Leo Oliveira, nicknamed “Cheeseburger” by his mates, entered the match for penalty kicks and promptly made a diving save. Gabriel Godoy followed with the winning boot and Milford was off to the state final. “Leo’s a funny dude, he doesn’t really get nervous, he just shows up and plays,” said Milford coach Brian Edwards.
8. It’s ‘game on’ for Andover’s Gillette
The 32-save masterpiece in the D1 North final was the headliner, backstopping the Andover field hockey team to a 1-0 shootout win over previously unbeaten Acton-Boxborough and into the state semifinals against Somerset Berkley. But Paige Gillette changed the course of the season for the Golden Warriors much earlier. In 2018, she stepped in goal when Andover had no one else because of injury. This fall, the junior emerged as the go-to stopper, recording 14 shutouts and yielding 17 goals in 23 games for a .910 save percentage. “She just has this bring-it-on mentality,” coach Maureen Noone said.
9. A go-to player to Milton Academy
Mitch Gonser cost his team by being a little too eager to try to block a field goal during Milton Academy’s crucial Independent School League tilt at Governor’s Academy in mid-October. The Medfield teen “went rogue” and was called for being offside in the third quarter, allowing the Govs to eventually convert a 7-yard touchdown pass to take a 14-7 lead. But the Cornell commit made up for it with a tying 9-yard touchdown reception, then saved the Mustangs’ unbeaten season when he blocked a 36-yard field goal attempt in the final seconds to send the game to overtime. To put a bow on his atonement, Gonser caught the winning touchdown pass from 10 yards for the eventual league champions.
10. Rockets netted 21-0 season with grit
The Needham girls had plenty of adrenaline-fueled moments en route to the program’s first Division 1 volleyball title. But perhaps the most intense came in the Cental/West semifinals against Concord-Carlisle. In the second set, with Needham ahead, 1-0, C-C forged a 24-all tie on a kill by Maddy Koenig. That set off a battle in which the teams traded points until the set stood at 31-31. In that span, Needham led four times and C-C three. Only one of those 15 total points came on an error. Needham netted the final two, for a 33-31 win, the final point coming on one of Karen Nie’s 29 kills, en route to a 3-1 victory. “We’ve always had skill as a program, but this year it’s really been about staying tough mentally,” Needham senior Olu Ajayi said after the win. “I think that’s where we’ve gotten a lot of our success.” A week later, the Rockets finished off a 21-0 run with a 3-1 win over Winchester.
Compiled by Brandon Chase, Jenna Ciccotelli, Matt Doherty, Craig Larson, Ethan Nash, and Nate Weitzer.