So far, it’s all gone perfectly.
That’s perfect, as in 6-0 with one game left on the regular season schedule. The Manchester Essex football team has excelled under the leadership of first-year coach Josiah Grimes, with the Hornets leading the Commonwealth Athletic Conference Small Division thanks to an unblemished 4-0 divisional record.
The final game of the season is this Friday (10/29, 7 p.m.) at home against Lowell Catholic. The regular season finale against the Crusaders (5-2 overall, 3-1 in the Commonwealth Athletic Conference Large) at Hyland Field should be more than adequate preparation for what promises to be a challenging playoff slate.
“They are also one of the better teams in the division and should be a great matchup for us,” explains Grimes. “They are physical and tough and have played a rugged set of opponents that should prepare them well for a battle with us.”
A win over Lowell Catholic should give the Hornets one of the top seeds in their bracket and secure a home playoff game.
“We're in the top half of the leaderboard which should be helpful for us in terms of seeding,” says Grimes. “If we win on Friday night, we should be in position for a home playoff game. The tournament is state-wide this year so it'll be great to see how that will impact the field when it comes out next week.”
The promise of a postseason is a far cry from where the football team was during the previous school year – the Hornets didn’t play football until late winter/early spring, a season considered “Fall II,” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the team struggled to a 1-5 record while also learning to play under all-new guidelines.
“It's felt a lot more normal from last season,” says Grimes. “Last season, we had to wear masks on the field and were not allowed to work out indoors at all. This year, we can use the building to lift and workout - with masks indoors - and then be mask-free when we are outdoors. Football is hard to play with a mask under a helmet, with a mouthguard so it's been nice to play without masks this year.”
Grimes reports that his team has remained relatively healthy and that’s helped to maintain continuity throughout the 2022 season, with players new to the varsity squad stepping in and contributing right away.
“We're a nice mix of upper classmen and new varsity players,” explains the coach. “We graduated a lot of seniors this spring, so a lot of guys from jayvee last year have stepped up into varsity roles. It been great to have the younger players come in hungry to try to prove themselves and get out of the shadow of the previous seniors. Our returning upperclassmen have been great to provide that continuity and leadership.”
That senior leadership starts with AJ Pallazola and Luke Smith, the Hornet co-captains.
“Both of those guys are on the field 99 percent of the time and are tremendous leaders,” says Grimes.
The senior captains aren’t the only ones contributing to Manchester Essex’s success, however. Junior Brennan Twombley has been impressive at quarterback – often connecting with Pallazola through the air – with linemen Ben Hurd, Troy Flood and TJ Rogers blocking the way for running backs Smith and Henry Otterbein (a junior) on offense, while also making a difference along the defensive line.
“AJ Pallazola is having a stellar year catching the ball from QB Brennan Twombley, who is coming into his own in his first year as QB1,” explains Grimes. “Troy Flood and Ben Hurd have been outstanding on the defensive line, doing a great job keeping opponents off balance.”
Manchester Essex has been dominant against most of the teams its faced so far this season, beating Ipswich by a 21-8 score to start the season, followed by big wins over Nashoba Valley Tech (a score of 49-0), Lynn Vocational-Tech (32-22), Cathedral (43-14) and a recent 36-6 victory over Minuteman Regional. The team’s toughest test of the season so far was against KIPP Academy on Oct. 9.
“We played a real tough game against KIPP Academy to a score of 15-8,” says Grimes. “They are a good team, physical and well-coached. They will be a big factor in the playoffs.”