Turnaround raises bar for North Reading
Lynnfield jumped out to a quick 12-0 lead over host North Reading on Thanksgiving morning. But as the Hornets proved from start to finish this season, never count them out.
“They have a tremendous amount of character and a will to win,’’ said North Reading coach Jeff Wall, who is in his ninth season.
Behind a hard-nosed offensive line, junior running back Carl Lipani scored four touchdowns and added a two-point conversion in a 37-18 win as the North Reading secured its first seven-win season since 1980.
“Every touchdown in the Thanksgiving game was huge,’’ said Lipani, who finished the season with 1,764 rushing yards and led Division 3A with 24 touchdowns. “It was a great way to cap off the season.’’
Ideally every team shoots for a conference title and playoff berth. But sometimes the accomplishments that occur in pursuit of those goals are most impressive.
North Reading finished second to undefeated Hamilton-Wenham in the CAL/NEC Division 4 this year, the 7-3 overall record a tremendous improvement on a 1-9 season a year ago.
“It was a total turnaround,’’ said Wall. “The kids started to believe in our offense. They got a little confidence and each week it built.’’
Wall brought in a new offensive coordinator, Ed Melanson from Peabody High, to breathe new life into a struggling attack. He made the switch from the spread to the wing T.
“They were looking to make a change,’’ said Melanson. “They had been running a spread formation and were looking for more ball control and I fit the bill.’’
Melanson, said Wall, “had such confidence that it would be a good fit for our kids. It’s a more aggressive offense and he convinced me it would make our defense more aggressive too.’’
The single-wing simplified the game for the young Hornets. The offensive line started four underclassmen, and the new scheme brought them back to the basics.
“It was mostly reestablishing fundamentals, blocking and tackling,’’ said Melanson. “The close gaps give them a chance to succeed. The style of offense creates good angles and allows them to use force.
“The kids wanted to learn the offense, they were excited about it, and the rest took care of itself.’’
The shift gave Lipani the opportunity to work his magic. He surpassed 1,000 yards in the sixth game of the season, becoming the first North Reading back to reach that mark since 1994, the year he was born.
“A huge factor was the new offensive coordinator and definitely our offensive line,’’ said Lipani. “He told our whole team that our offense would do really well this year.’’
Last year, according to Wall, was probably frustrating for Lipani.
“We had a hard time moving the ball,’’ said the coach. “This is a good fit for his strengths and abilities. We got to utilize his talents more.’’
Wall already knew his running back was a great athlete and extremely hard worker. Melanson got to see what a great weapon he would be during the team’s first scrimmages.
“Right from the start he dove right in,’’ said Melanson. “He’s tough and quick; he has great field vision. He gets to the hole as quick as any running back as I’ve seen.’’
The entire North Reading offense was built around Lipani, and for good reason. He averaged 28 carries per game and more than six yards per carry.
“Every play was designed around him, whether he got the ball or not,’’ said Wall. “When he didn’t get the ball we utilized him as a decoy.’’
“He actually seemed like he enjoyed having the tiger on his back,’’ said Melanson.
But Lipani said he isn’t satisfied with seven wins and a runner-up finish in the conference.
“Our goals coming into the season were to win as many games as we could,’’ he said. “We can settle with it. But the ultimate goal is to make it to a championship.’’
“The kids are talking about playoffs and championships,’’ said Wall. “Words that haven’t been spoken in a long time around here.’’
Wall said he hopes that the winning season will help foster a change in the football culture at the school, with talented athletes deciding to stay at North Reading instead of transferring to private schools.
The Hornets are young: only three seniors will graduate on each side of the ball. If they can put in the work in the offseason, a playoff berth in 2012 could be a realistic goal.
“They are starting to have pride in it,’’ said Wall. “Hopefully football will become more of a commitment in their lives.’’
Odds and ends
■Lynn Tech made its first appearance in a state vocational bowl game in 2009, beating South Shore under the leadership of 19-year coach Gary Sverker.
Now James Runner has guided Tech to another appearance in just his second season as coach. This afternoon at 4:30, the 7-4 Tigers will take on Tri-County Regional (8-2) of Franklin in the Small Division Bowl at Braintree High.
“I’m lucky to make it in two,’’ said Runner. “It would mean the world [to win]. It would get players interested in the program and would be huge for the community.’’
The Tigers are preparing their defense for anything, he said.
“Tri-County is a very good football team. They put up 29 points per game; they have done their job,’’ said Runner. “You have to prep for everything and stick to the fundamentals.’’
Quarterback Kennedy Gomes leads Lynn Tech with 11 total touchdowns. . . .
■Hamilton-Wenham (10-0) completed its first unbeaten regular season since 1967 with a 33-8 win over Ipswich. . . .
■Burlington senior running back Kevin Shields surpassed 3,000 career rushing yards with a 104-yard, three-touchdown performance in his final game for the Red Devils, defeating Lexington 27-6. . . .
■Quarterback Jonathan DiBiaso threw his 100th career touchdown pass, a 51-yard strike to senior wide receiver Jaylen McRae, in Everett’s 48-8 thrashing of Cambridge.
Cat Calsolaro can be reached at email@example.com.