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'Growing Pains' For County Gridders

By Stephen Dravis
Special to iBerkshires
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Teams around Berkshire County were prepping for the season's first games this weekend.

McCann Tech is the only football program in the county not being coached by a school alumnus. Coach Bob LeClair went to Drury.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The last two autumns, the Mount Greylock Regional High School football program has been a constant.

This year, the Mounties are experiencing change.

When Greylock puts its 26-game winning streak on the line Friday night against Pittsfield, coach Shawn Flaherty's squad will do so with a lot of new faces wearing red and white.

"From last year, we basically lost our entire line," Flaherty said at Tuesday's inaugural Berkshire County football "media day."

And that does not even count three-year starting quarterback Kent Hanson.

Still, Flaherty was optimistic in a room full of players and coaches just itching to be the first to end the streak.

Despite fielding a 31-player roster that includes 15 players who are either freshmen or new to football, the Mounties' coach said, "We're looking pretty good in some respects, and we expect to be competitive."

The last team to have a shot at the Mounties was Lee, which fell to Greylock in the Western Massachusetts Division 3 Super Bowl.

And like the Mounties — and most programs — the Wildcats have some holes to fill because of graduation.

Lee just has a few more holes than most.

Lee graduated 18 seniors — and returns just three starters — from a team that went 10-3 in 2011.

The good news, according to Lee coach Keith Thomson, is that while the Wildcats are relatively inexperienced, they are not completely without seasoning at the varsity level.

"Some of those games, we were able to get those guys valuable experience, but nothing is going to prepare them for actually getting out there when it matters, with the score close," he said. "So that remains to be seen. But we feel like the kids we have got some valuable experience last year. We've got talent in the right places. There's just going to be some growing pains."

McCann coach Bob LeClair is expecting similar pains for the Hornets, who went all the way to the Division 4 Super Bowl last year before dropping a 14-8 decision to Pioneer Valley to finish 10-2.

LeClair said Tuesday that McCann graduated 14 seniors off that team, including 11 boys who played together for four years. Just three starters are back on offense, and four return on defense. LeClair said he will be starting four or five sophomores on both sides of the ball and a freshman at linebacker when the Hornets host Ware on Saturday.

All of that said, LeClair remained positive.

"We've got a lot of learning to do over the next few days," he said with three practices left until the season opener. "We've got a lot of work to do, but I think we're going to be OK."

OLD HANDS: There are exceptions to the trend of roster turnover.

One is in Great Barrington, where coach Todd Tinker brings back eight starters on offense and seven on defense from a team that went 2-7.

"Obviously, we were young last year," Tinker said. "A lot of young guys will see time, but a lot of young guys have been seeing time."

Another exception is St. Joseph's (5-5 in 2011), where veteran coach Gary Bianchi returns as veteran a squad as you'll find.

"We've got 17 seniors, so I can't say I'm young," Bianchi said. "A lot of these kids have been playing together since they were (in youth football's) Pittsfield Saints."

Despite all that experience, Bianchi was uncertain as preseason wound down who will be under center for Friday night's opener against Wahconah at Wahconah Park.

QB QUESTION MARK: Speaking of signal-callers, Drury coach Bill Bryce has a decision to make going into Friday night's game at Athol.

And he planned to take all the time he needed.

"We moved Jose Melendez, who was our quarterback last year, away from the quarterback position, and right now we have two seniors fighting for the position," Bryce said on Tuesday evening. "One is Nolan Bird, and the other is Jake DiLego. Jake started the last two games of the year last year because of Melendez getting hurt, so he has more experience.

"Right now, it's kind of a toss-up. ... We'll pick a starter probably Wednesday night or Thursday."

Bryce said each potential quarterback has different strengths, and the trick is figuring out which is a better fit for a Drury team looking to improve on last year's 5-4 record.

Bryce said ultimately, he wants to find a regular, every-down quarterback, but in the first couple of weeks, there could be some in-game changes.

One thing is for sure: Much of the question should be settled before the home fans get to see the Blue Devils. Drury plays its first three games on the road before hosting St. Joe's on Sept. 29.

The good news for the Devils is they host their last three games, including the finale against rival Hoosac on Nov. 3.

HOMECOMING WEEK: While it certainly is not unusual for men and women to coach athletic teams at their alma maters, the Berkshire County league has the distinction of fielding nine programs each coached by an alumnus.

St. Joe's Bianchi noted that fact on Tuesday in introducing Poirot as a first-year coach at Hoosac and Gary Campbell as the returning coach at Wahconah after winning 46 games in six years at Pennsylvania's Berwick Area High School. Campbell won 85 games in 10 years at his alma mater in his first stint as coach.

The lone Berkshire County football team not coached by an alumnus is McCann, which plays in the Tri-County League.

McCann's LeClair went to high school right up the road at Drury.

MAN ON A MISSION: Campbell was the driving force behind the league's first media night, an idea he brought back with him from Pennsylvania.

And he did it not only for the convenience of coaches and scribes but also as a way to build camaraderie among the county's student-athletes.

Each of the 10 coaches brought along at least a couple of co-captains, and Campbell used his time at the podium to fire up those youngsters, who he said need to work together to build the sport in the area.

"I'm excited to see you guys here," he told them. "There's nothing like football. ... Football draws something out of us that I don't think any other sport does."

Campbell said one lesson he learned in his time in the football hotbed of Pennsylvania is that "kids are kids" and the football players in Berkshire County have talent.

One thing the area lacks, however, is big rosters with dozens of boys at each school vying for playing time.

"Please get more kids involved," Campbell told the players.

"You guys are part of a brotherhood. You play the game of football.

Correction: There was a typo in the headline that was fixed on Monday, Sept. 10.


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