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Championship Preview: Two Old Hands — and One Upstart — Go for Glory

  • After taking a slide through the mud, Mascoma players, from left, Noah Richer, Chris Sanborn, Mike Seiffert, Steven Griswold and Victor Vannesse celebrate a 56-19 victory over Campbell last month. The Royals face Franklin for the New Hampshire Division VI title today.<br/><br/>Valley News - Ryan Dorgan

    After taking a slide through the mud, Mascoma players, from left, Noah Richer, Chris Sanborn, Mike Seiffert, Steven Griswold and Victor Vannesse celebrate a 56-19 victory over Campbell last month. The Royals face Franklin for the New Hampshire Division VI title today.

    Valley News - Ryan Dorgan Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford coach Mike Stone directs his players during practice on Thursday.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Hartford coach Mike Stone directs his players during practice on Thursday.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • After taking a slide through the mud, Mascoma players, from left, Noah Richer, Chris Sanborn, Mike Seiffert, Steven Griswold and Victor Vannesse celebrate a 56-19 victory over Campbell last month. The Royals face Franklin for the New Hampshire Division VI title today.<br/><br/>Valley News - Ryan Dorgan
  • Hartford coach Mike Stone directs his players during practice on Thursday.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

A one-word description for Mascoma High’s football season to date? How does “magical” grab you?

It’s the word that came from Mascoma assistant coach Josh Kershaw’s mouth during the Royals’ workout earlier this week, but any number of other adjectives would fit. Try unexpected, surprising, energizing … or inevitable.

Top-ranked Mascoma, which hosts No. 2 Franklin at Hanover High’s Merriman-Branch Field today in the NHIAA Division VI championship, has been working under head coach Ray Kershaw’s gaze for three autumns. The low-risk double wing offense Kershaw employs at the varsity level is the same one taught at the youth level, so would-be Royals have a familiarity with the tactical basics once they get to high school.

A new word — belief — entered Mascoma’s vocabulary this season, however. Buying into what the elder Kershaw and his staff sold enabled the Royals to go from D-VI cellar dwellers to a team with a more than reasonable shot at winning its first state crown in just its fifth year of varsity existence.

“Basically, it’s still all the same kids that have been playing since I took it over,” Ray Kershaw said this week. “They just know how to play the game. They know the offense. They know technique … Their commitment now is so much more. They’re believing in me and the system that I teach, the way I teach.”

The Upper Valley could have three champions by day’s end, with two other schools entering as solid favorites to defend titles. Top-ranked Woodstock meets No. 2 BFA-Fairfax at 2 p.m. in the VPA Division III final, followed by No. 1 Hartford against second-seeded BFA-St. Albans for the Vermont D-I championship at 5 p.m., both at South Burlington High School.

NHIAA DIVISION VI

NO. 1 MASCOMA (8-2) VS. NO. 2 FRANKLIN (8-2)

MERRIMAN-BRANCH FIELD, HANOVER, 1 P.M.

The Royals, mostly freshmen and sophomores at the time, lost 60-0 to the Golden Tornadoes two years ago in Kershaw’s first year as head coach. Mascoma dropped a 71-0 decision to the Tornadoes to close the previous winless season before Kershaw took over. At that time, Kershaw made a promise that came to fruition at the start of the current campaign.

“I knew they would learn from it, and they took it to heart,” Kershaw recalled. “I worked with them (and said), ‘We’ll learn from this, so when you guys are juniors and seniors, it’s gonna be different.’ And they’re seeing it.”

The improvement has showed itself on a regular basis since the Royals opened the season with a 26-13 win over Franklin, the program’s first against the Tornadoes, back on Sept. 1 in West Canaan. Senior Spencer Pierce ran for 126 yards that day as Mascoma piled up 321 rushing yards behind its big, experienced line.

Pierce (Upper Valley-leading 1,358 yards) is gone, having broken his ankle three weeks ago, but the Royals haven’t lost stride. Junior Kyle Kosiorek (747 yards) stepped into the feature role, gaining 445 yards and scoring six touchdowns in wins over Campbell, Winnisquam and last week’s 42-6 semifinal rout of Newfound. Kosiorek also collected a TD pass from senior quarterback Zach Warner last week.

“We’re still looking at it as another game,” Kershaw said. “The whole season has been that way, just one game at a time. I’m looking at it as just another game that we need to get ready for.”

Like Mascoma, Franklin advanced out of a D-VI picture that didn’t gain resolution until the final day of the regular season. The Tornadoes needed a 32-26 win over archrival Bishop Brady that day to qualify, setting up a fine defensive effort in last week’s 14-10 semifinal elimination of Campbell.

Senior back Kody Benwell and sophomore quarterback Bruce Carey lead a Franklin offense that managed just 174 yards, the majority of it through the air, in that season-opening defeat. That contest was physical; today’s is likely to be more so.

“Our defense has to come up big,” Kershaw said. “Franklin’s going to come at us hard and fast, and they’re going to be very physical, so we need to shut them down.

“It’s been very magical. We’ve had so many obstacles this year, so many things thrown at us – on the field, off the field, in the school, just so many things – and the kids have just kept going on.”

VPA DIVISION III

NO. 1 WOODSTOCK (10-0) VS. NO. 2 BFA-FAIRFAX (9-1)

SOUTH BURLINGTON HIGH SCHOOL, 2 P.M.

In a reversal of Mascoma’s circumstance, a Woodstock team very used to winning meets a Fairfax squad new to the sensation, with the Wasps’ grip on Vermont Division III honors hanging in the balance.

Woodstock returned nearly everyone from last year’s 27-7 state title win over Windsor, starting the current season with a 48-19 rout of the Bullets on Aug. 31 and rarely slowing down since. The nature of the Wasps’ season — no other games with more than two scores allowed or fewer than six touchdowns scored — meant they didn’t have to rely as heavily on the same players week in and week out, spreading the wear and tear around the full roster.

“They’re a confident group, but they have attacked every week in a businesslike way,” Woodstock coach Jim McLaughlin said yesterday. “They’ve worked hard to get better each week, and they have. We’ve talked about respecting the game, and they respect it. They’re mature enough so that they know that in any situation, especially at small-school high school football, just about anything can happen.”

The Wasps and Bullets both feature the option in their offensive schemes, but in different fashions. Woodstock emphasizes fullback Ed Doton (1,124 yards, Upper Valley-best 24 TDs), but speedier options in Nick Sprague, Tom Bauman and Zach Cole on the flanks. Tyler Anstruther presents dual challenges as a receiver and on special teams; six of his nine touchdowns have been on kick returns this season.

Run-intensive Fairfax plays the flexbone, a system that relies on deception and patience. Kris Wehner gets the bulk of the Bullets’ carries, with quarterback Chad Aiken and backs Jared Demar and Matt Larose also featured.

“You’ve got to be a disciplined operation to defend the option,” McLaughlin said. “Unless you’re a disciplined team, you can play eight great plays and give up a real one really long one.”

BFA is making its first title-game appearance, while McLaughlin is pursuing his ninth D-III championship, by far the most since the division debuted in 1991. Such success breeds confidence, but the Woodstock coach doesn’t see it growing into overconfidence.

“We ask the kids every week how (that week’s foe) compares, and it always comes back that the best team we’ve played against was Fairfax,” McLaughlin said. “I think we’re pretty good. If we play an intelligent game and don’t hurt ourselves, we ought to do pretty well.”

VPA DIVISION I

NO. 1 HARTFORD (10-0) VS. NO. 2 BFA-ST. ALBANS (9-1)

SOUTH BURLINGTON HIGH SCHOOL, 5 P.M.

On a soggy night that led other schools to postpone their games, the Hurricanes trudged to St. Albans on Oct. 15, 2010, and sustained a 42-0 beating against the Bobwhites. Hartford hasn’t lost since, a string of 25 consecutive victories that has included D-I titles the past two years.

The Canes handed BFA a 33-7 defeat on Sept. 7 in the second week of the regular season in White River Junction. Setting a tone for the year, Hartford didn’t have a single 100-yard rusher that night, but still amassed 383 ground yards as Taylor Potter, John Carlson, Joe Wood and Dylan Rice all produced runs of 44 yards or longer. Senior Josh Claflin galloped for a game-high 93 yards on his way to a team-best 1,325 for the season.

Since then, Hartford’s formula has been the same: Grind out the yards on offense, get the ball back on defense.

“If you can get a team off the field in three downs, then you chew some clock up here and there, do it two or three times and the game becomes awfully short,” Hartford coach Mike Stone said yesterday. “Then a team has to do thing they don’t necessarily want to do. That can lead to some mistakes.”

It’s futile trying to focus on slowing one Hurricane down, so a defense’s best hope is to force turnovers. Yet Hartford is perfectly capable of making its own opportunities; the Canes needed only 230 yards of total offense in last week’s 34-0 semifinal shutout of Middlebury because the Tigers’ mistakes kept giving Hartford a short field.

Doug Saffo leads the Bobwhites with 1,537 rushing yards, highlighted by a 257-yard, three-touchdown effort against Essex in a 28-26 regular-season win on Oct. 12. Lucas Kelsey is also on the cusp of a 1,000-yard season.

However, the tandem combined for just 95 yards against the Canes in September, the only time Saffo has been held to fewer than 100 yards in a game this season. If the Bobwhites can’t do better, Hartford will hold its third straight state championship and its fifth in six years.

“They’re a wing-T team a lot like us; they want to ground it and play good defense,” Stone said of BFA. “That’s the part that makes these games interesting. If we get them off the field, we’ll probably be OK. If we don’t, we will be in trouble.”

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.