By Conor Walsh
There’s no shortage of things that the Manchester Essex football team will be looking to improve on as the Hornets open up their conference slate today.
Through their 1-5 start, coach Mike Athanas’ list of problems seems to have grown each week, to the point that it all-but encompasses every facet of the game.
But as the Hornets take the field today against the reigning NEC/CAL Tier 4 champion, Hamilton-Wenham (2:00, Hamilton-Wenham High School), the biggest thing holding them back is something that can’t be worked out on the practice field.
The Hornets enter the game without four key, two-way starters: senior captains Jake Fitzgerald and Zac Fleming, junior Chris Dumont and sophomore Doug Rodier.
For bigger schools, four injuries would likely have less of an impact. But for a team, like the Hornets, limited by a small roster, a pile of injuries can be crippling.
Those injuries have left the Hornets searching for answers, especially on offense, where they’re now left with just two players -- senior captains quarterback Cory Burnham and wide receiver John Beardsley -- with more then twelve offensive touches on the season.
So as they enter division play today, the Hornets will be forced to lean on Burnham even more than they already have with three ball-carriers in Dumont, Fitzgerald and Fleming out. While he’s been more than capable to this point in the season, amassing 643 passing yards and 330 rushing yards for a combined 10 touchdowns, Manchester Essex now appears somewhat one-dimensional.
They’ll need increased contributions from the likes of Sean Desmond, Nate Riehl, Brian McAuliff and Henry Gedney to help deal with those injuries in conference play.
And even then, it’ll still be an uphill climb as the Hornets try to right the ship and compete for a Tier 4 title.
That journey begins today, when they face-off with a team Athanas dubbed as the “class of the conference.”
“They’re a very good team. We’ve seen them a few times live and on film,” Athanas said. “They return the Division 3A Player of the Year (quarterback Trevor Lyons), so he’s obviously the focus for us this week. We’ve got to play a little bit more sound defense.”
The Generals sit at 3-2 on the season and are coming off a dramatic overtime win over Bishop Fenwick last weekend. And with Lyons, who’s averaging 213 all-purpose yards-per-game, still running the show under center, the Hornets are in for all they can handle as they try to get off to a 1-0 start in conference play.
For a defense that’s surrendered an average of 28.5 points thus far, it looks to be a tall order. There have been glimmers of hope for the Hornets’ defense, though.
They held Northeast scoreless for the first half last weekend, and held Pope John scoreless after halftime in their lone win Sept. 29.
However, they’ve yet to put together a full performance. And considering they’re in a division with three frontrunners -- Hamilton-Wenham, North Reading and Lynnfield -- and how banged up their roster is, they’ll need to find a way to put it all together to have a fighter’s chance in the conference.
No easy task.
“It starts with our defense,” Athanas said. “If they can sustain good play, we’ll be in good shape, especially because the offense feeds off of it. If we come out and play well defensively, I hope we can move the ball offensively.”