Over the final two weeks of the regular season the Manchester Essex football team turned a corner.
Following a disappointing loss to Hamilton-Wenham in Week 6 moving their record to 2-3 on the year, Hornets head coach Mike Athanas challenged his team to make more plays and find ways to win football games.
It was evident in the team’s 26-20 win over Ipswich and 22-18 win over Amesbury to end the season and earn a spot in the postseason that Manchester Essex got its coach’s message.
Tonight, the sixth seeded Hornets will be looking to take another step in the right direction when they travel to Harvard Stadium to take on No. 3 Brighton (7-0) the Boston City League champions in the Division 5 North Quarterfinals (7 p.m.). It will be the first postseason appearance for Manchester Essex since 2008, when it finished 13-0 and won the Division 3A Super Bowl.
“The kids are feeding off of the last two weeks. We are playing well and learning how to win,” Athanas said. “I’ll tell you it’s been a while since we’ve been in the playoffs and you can see it in the way we practice. The team is really excited for this one and it’s been the best week of practice we’ve had all season.”
The Hornets will have their hands full tonight at Harvard Stadium, as Brighton has ran roughshod over the competition this fall by an average score of 41-13.
Offensively the Bengals are simply a juggernaut as they have scored under 40 points just twice all season while eclipsing 50 points three times and scoring more than 60 points twice.
The Manchester Essex defense, which has carried the team all season long, will need to be wary of several players, most notably quarterback Jalen Apperwhite.
Apperwhite navigates Brighton’s pro-style offense to perfection and he leads all of Division 5 with 13 touchdown passes on the season. Apperwhite’s favorite target on the outside is Michael Dereus, who has caught seven of Apperwhite’s 13 touchdown passes this fall.
The Bengals also have a running game to fear led by Ricardo Edwards, who leads Division 5 with 14 touchdowns, and Dexter Andrews, who has found the end zone nine times this season.
Brighton’s strength will be going head-to-head with the strength of the Hornets, which is their defense. Led by linebacker Doug Rodier, Manchester Essex is physical on the defensive side of the ball and it does not allow a ton of points.
“Their main asset is team speed, and not just one kid,” Athanas said. “They aren’t heavy on one player, they like to distribute the ball around and they have a balanced offense. We have to keep everyone contained, that’s going to be our challenge on defense.
We have been great on defense all year but one thing we need to work on is that we have allowed some big plays. The defense dictates how we play and not giving up any big plays will go a long way.”
Mike Athanas' Keys to Victory 1. Execute on offense: "We have to execute on the offensive end all game, not just a series here or there. If they're giving us plays we need to take them and eliminate mistakes. If we do that we'll be in good shape." 2. Play physical defense: "Our defense has done a great job all year and we need to keep up the good work and match their physicality. We also need to limit their big plays." 3. Win the turnover battle: "Last week we won the turnover battle and picked up a big win. Winning the turnover battle is a must in the playoffs."