STONEHAM — Darius McPherson shot through a gap in the line as if he was fired from a cannon.
After a quick cut to the right, he made a 60-yard dash to the end zone, not a defender from Wakefield High in sight. On Stoneham High’s third play of the second half, the junior back made a sharper cut to the left and ripped off a 71-yard scoring run.
McPherson has been honing all of his backfield skills, running, cutting, and blocking, since the seventh grade, his second year suiting up in the Stoneham Youth Football program.
That was not an option for aspiring football players in town until 2002, when Stoneham started a Pop Warner program. Prior to that, players strapped on their pads and helmets to play in programs in Wakefield or Melrose. In 2008, the program switched its affiliation to the American Football Association, which does not turn away players because of weight restrictions.
This season, fielding a roster in which 90 percent of the players have developed their skills through the youth program, the Spartans have rolled to a 7-1 record. Stoneham was 2-31 the previous three seasons.
“It’s a big difference to get kids in the town playing with each other,” said Stoneham High athletic director Dave Pignone , who also serves on the youth program’s board of directors.
“They’re starting to get the pride of being a Spartan, and we have a great connection with the high school to bridge between the youth program. I truly believe that’s a big piece in growing the program.”
Pignone was head football coach for two seasons (2010, 2011) before stepping aside in January to focus on his administrative duties. His associate coach, Bob Almeida, formerly in charge of programs at Somerville, Wilmington, and Malden Catholic, guided Stoneham to a 7-0 start before a 42-28 loss to Wakefield.
Almeida has worked closely with his defensive line coach, Chris Yancey , the youth program’s director of football, to establish a strong relationship with the players and coaches.
“I think if you look at the most successful public school programs, they have strong feeder programs,” said Almeida. “It certainly was in place when I came here and we do everything in our power to keep that bond strong and support one another.
“We have a large number of youth football players at our games, and our players go down and volunteer on game days at the youth field,” Almeida said. “The [younger] kids look at [the high school players] as people they want to aspire to be like, and it’s really wonderful.”
Since the youth program’s inception, there’s been a perpetual focus on building a strong understanding of the game and its principles.
“We want to teach the values of the sport,” Almeida said. “We want to treat kids the right way. I’d like to believe the kids on our team that don’t see as much playing time are still having a great experience, and we try to do that at the youth level.
“It’s important those kids have a good feeling, because nothing would upset me more than one young kid leaving the sport because of bad experience.”
The switch to American Youth Football was important.
“The fact we’re no longer in Pop Warner, bigger kids are allowed to play,” Almeida said. “I think most of the kids have come away from the program with a fundamental understanding of the sport, and I think they’re getting a good base in those areas when they come through us.”
McPherson, who paces the Spartans with 11 touchdowns, remembers learning to play the game with teammates like junior running back Aaron Louis and wide receiver David LaBossierre .
“I think it helps because we’ve been through the worst already, and we have a lot of chemistry,” McPherson said. “In eighth grade, we made it to the playoffs and lost in the first round to Beverly 6-0 in double overtime.”
Stoneham (7-1, 2-1 Middlesex League) has a tough road ahead, kicking off with Friday’s game at Middlesex Freedom division leader Burlington (7-1, 3-0), followed by Melrose (5-3, 2-1), and Middlesex Liberty leader Reading (8-0, 4-0).
Stoneham senior quarterback Andrew Cann never played in the youth football program. Nonetheless, he acknowledged the magnitude of the closeness of the team and the effect it has had.
“The chemistry is there, and that plays a big part in playing together,” Cann said. “Everyone is supportive of each other, and now we have to focus on Burlington.”
Miller connects for Wakefield
Senior quarterback Mike Miller has directed Wakefield to a 7-1 start (2-1 Middlesex League). He tossed three touchdown passes against Stoneham, including a pair to 6-foot-2 senior Bruce Brown .Continued...