Leominster Football Team is Eager to Bounce Back
LEOMINSTER -- The rally cry for the Leominster football team in 2018 is pretty simple: Believe in one another.
The Blue Devils will look to exorcise the ghosts of last year while plowing ahead with a new quarterback this fall, and they will have to face many of the same opponents.
“Our schedule was brutal,” said longtime Leominster head coach Dave Palazzi, who swapped out Everett on the Week 2 schedule and brought in Western Mass. power Westfield as a replacement on Sept. 14. “You start out with Marlboro -- defending Division 4 champion, lost in the state title game. Everett went undefeated the year before. St. John’s played in the final, and then Shrewsbury, who lost in the final the year before. There wasn’t a lot of room for error. We didn’t play poorly in those games. We weren’t a horrible 3-8 football team last year. The stars weren’t aligned our way.
“The kids worked hard, and it was one of my best years coaching from the standpoint that I was proud of the kids. They didn’t give up, they continued to play. There wasn’t a lot of animosity on the team, there wasn’t any finger-pointing. It was just a reality of the situation and we grew because of that. I think we’re a stronger team with the senior class this year, having gone through something like that.”
Palazzi notes that the attitude of his team in the first two weeks of the preseason has been rather electric.
“I haven’t had a closer team than this,” he said last week. “The 2013 team, those guys were close. From a core team doing things together, working out together, this team is there with that attitude. I told them they have to believe in one another before you can go to the next level. Do I believe we have a lot of great players? No, but we have a lot of good players who can make us a great team.”
Leominster will have to move on without senior quarterback Pat Gallagher, who has already committed to the University of Connecticut for baseball. Next man up, as they say, and that will be sophomore J.C. Cora, a 5-foot-11, 190-pounder who is, by all accounts, a rather mobile young man and has the respect of the older players on the team.
″(Cora) was on the field last year, playing defense and slot receiver,” Palazzi said. “He’s had some experience; he had to get in against Shepherd Hill and run a few plays for us.
“He’s more of make-things-happen type of a quarterback. He’s not a drop-back passer, he’s a running quarterback, which obviously helps us; Patrick could run, but I wouldn’t categorize him as a running quarterback. J.C. can be both, but he’s young. We’re going to have to take it slow, take it one play at a time, but his leadership qualities -- if there’s a vote as to who worked out more this summer, he’d be one of the top five guys, maybe top 10. He’s dedicated to working out, and he’s committed.”
Cora will have the same options Gallagher had last year, with Adam Couch to top running threat and Connor Marchand in front of him. In some situations, it’ll be Justus-Tyler Reynolds and Voshon Dixon.
And Cora’s targets? Brian Rodriguez, Felipe Garcia and Arlee Gilot at receiver, with Zack DelGiudace at tight end.
“Our running backs, wide receivers, they’re all returning. I’m not going to put (Cora) in a place to fail,” Palazzi said. “At times, we’re going to have to do what we do, because it’s going to present itself. We’re going to have a different approach with a new quarterback; he hasn’t seen these defenses, and they can be pretty difficult in this league.
“We’ll do everything we do. We may just do things a little differently, as far as what we call and when we call it may change. I don’t want to start throwing the ball around on first and second down, but we’ll have to look at it.”
Senior Zach Khallady and junior Joseph Conlan anchor an offensive line that will see new pieces slip into the mix.
“We’ll have some newer guys,” Palazzi said. “We lost three starting linemen, but (the new kids) have been working hard. We don’t have a lot of depth there, but we’re pretty confident with the guys we have, and we’re just going to have to take it as it goes.”
Defensively, Leominster will mix things up from a 3-4 to 4-3 set, and can even pound out the 4-2-5 if it has to, depending on matchups.
“We had a lot of young kids -- we had four freshmen starting on defense last year. That’s good that they have another year under their belt,” Palazzi said.
Marchand is expected to remain locked in at linebacker, with the Philbin Brothers, Kyle and Jack, along with Nathan Cochran, Couch, Cora, Reynolds and Rodriguez rotating in at defensive back. Khalladay anchors the line.
“We have some other guys we can shuffle in at linebacker,” Palazzi said.