St. B’s, Pats Hope to End Season on a Positive Note
FITCHBURG -- A victory on Thanksgiving Eve will go a long way in building momentum for next season.
Both North Middlesex Regional and St. Bernard’s know that a win can be savored all offseason, while a loss will sting for a pretty long time.
“If we can win and win two of our last three games, it would be a great way to kick off our 2018 season,” NM legendary coach Sandy Ruggles said. “The players and coaches have done a good job this year.”
Added St. Bernard’s coach Tom Bingham, whose team beat the Patriots 28-12 in last year’s inaugural gridiron contest: “All of our chips are in for that same reason. If we can finish 7-4, we have everyone really learning our system and just getting comfortable now. We’re losing four great seniors and we’re going to miss them, but I think we’ll end up returning nine (offense) and nine (defense), which is flipping it. I appreciate Sandy’s point of view, but we’re thinking the same darn thing. We want this as a springboard. We want to defend the Bernardian Bowl on Thanksgiving Eve.”
St. Bernard’s (6-4) hosts North Middlesex (1-9) in the second year of the Thanksgiving Eve Classic at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
“It’s great when two teams don’t see each other all year,” Ruggles said. “We have great respect for them and I imagine they have great respect for us. It’s a very healthy rivalry. Last year was a good game, but we imploded midway through the fourth quarter. Now, it’s a new year and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
And it will be a challenge. Bingham was quick to say that the Pats are much better than their record indicates.
“North Middlesex plays a fantastic schedule,” Bingham said. “We play up, but they play up every week. If you take a look at their film early in the year and at the end of the year, they clearly have gotten better. You can see it.
“We’re not looking at their record because I don’t think it’s indicative of the team we think they are. They played hard.”
Both teams have strong running games, with St. Bernard’s sophomore Walter Morales being the No. 1 focal point for the Patriots’ defense to stop.
“When we go on the field they have the best player in Walter Morales,” Ruggles said. “He’s a great player. He’s everywhere on the field and we have to be concerned with him. They create a lot of problems for us. They are a very good team, and they have a very good trigger man and have some good running backs.”
For North Middlesex, quarterback Josh LeBlanc and running back Adam Fournier are the top targets the St. Bernard’s defense will be keeping close tabs on.
“Every week he gets better and better,” said Ruggles about LeBlanc. ” He’s blossomed into a much better runner than we projected him to be. He’s also elevated his passing game.”
Ruggles called Fournier “our go-to back.”
Bingham definitely knows how North Middlesex’s offense operates with LeBlanc and Fournier doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.
“Fournier has seven touchdowns and LeBlanc has four,” Bingham said. “The team, collectively, is less than them. The progress that LeBlanc has made from last year to this year is just mind-boggling. He’s a tremendous runner and tough kid. He sticks his nose up in there.
“Fournier can break one at any point. Their offense clearly runs through the two of them.”
Ruggles says North Middlesex’s defense is “built around Alex Hollenback.” Two-way players like Matt Haskins and John O’Friel have also had strong seasons for the Pats.
Morales lead the St. Bernard’s defense in interceptions from his secondary position. Ben Shaw plays a tough brand of football at tight end and linebacker, while Brian Hill, Micah Stinson, Mike Kelly and Ben Jacoby anchor the defensive front.
“Ben Shaw does a very good job for them,” Ruggles said. “They are playing with a bunch of athletes. They don’t have that big lineman, but they have seven in the box and they are very aggressive against the run.”
St. Bernard’s offense just doesn’t feature Morales. Dazeen Figueroa has a strong arm with several targets -- Carteair Cuadrado, Jakai Alexandre, Domenic Valera, Max Bigelow and Domenic Cuevas -- to throw the ball downfield.
“There’s plenty of mouths that want to be fed with that football,” Bingham said.
St. Bernard’s offense line -- anchored by center Sean McCue, tackles Hill and Jacoby, and guards Dom Delgado and Brian Mahoney -- has gotten better as the season has played out. The men in the trenches are why Morales has been able to shred opposing defense recently.
“Walter is a special kid in the sense that he’s very patient,” Bingham said. “A lot of his big runs come off the buck sweep. Our kids enjoy it. We’ve got two guards out in front of him. What separates Walter from other guys is he’s super patient behind the guards, he nestles right in there until he sees his read. When he does, he’s just extremely explosive.”
Follow Chad Garner on Twitter @CGARNER23