The Manchester Essex football team is finally getting the chance to compete against teams its own size.
After a tough 2018 season that saw low numbers, the Hornets went 0-5 in the Cape Ann League and did not qualify for the playoffs. That brought the program's record to 11-27 in the league since moving over from the Commonwealth Athletic Conference in the fall of 2011.
In 2019, however, there is reason for optimism. The Hornets, who ended the 2018 season with four straight wins, are playing an independent schedule this fall. Those numbers issues that plagued the program last season? Those are not a worry either as head coach Jeff Hutton has 35 players in the program, up from 20 a year ago.
"We're excited to get going," Hutton said. "We competed well in the past against teams that are in the same situation as us and those are the teams we are playing in the regular season this year. Plus we have more kids this season, some young kids, some older kids playing the sport for the first time, but they're athletes."
This season, the Hornets are led by senior captains Henry Doane and Tristan Nowak and junior Will Levendusky, all returning starters who were quick to credit the players on the team that stuck it out last season.
"Everyone that played last season deserves a ton of credit," Doane said. "They stuck it out and helped bring the program back. Now we're in a good place this year and we can't wait to start playing some games."
The Hornets, who are looking to improve on last year's 4-5 campaign, open up the season on Thursday night at Manning Field in Lynn against KIPP Academy (7 p.m.). The first of six independent games in the regular season.
After a bye week, the team travels to Brighton on September 20 and then finishes the regular season with four straight home games against Boston English, Roxbury Charter, Bedford and Arlington Catholic. The team will be eligible for the Division 7 State Tournament this fall.
"It's different," Nowak said. "But we don't have that feeling like we're underdogs every week anymore. Those were independent teams that we beat to finish off last season so we know when we're playing teams in our division we can compete with anyone."
On the field, the Hornets look to be pretty balanced with plenty of returning talent on both sides of the ball and lots of size.
Offensively, Levendusky returns at quarterback after starting for the first time as a sophomore in 2018, where he threw for 524 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite target a year ago was Nowak, who led the team in receiving with 147 yards on seven receptions.
A.J. Pallazola was also a potent receiver a year ago with 15 receptions. The sophomore, however, is moving from receiver to running back this fall, where he joins junior Gavin Glass, the team's leading rusher a year ago with 512 yards and 11 touchdowns, to form a dangerous rushing attack. Glass is the bruiser as he uses his size to grind out yards while Pallazola is more of a shifty back.
Junior Frank Wood is the starting tight end and can contribute as a blocker and receiver.
Doane returns at guard to lead the offensive line. He is joined by center Tucker Hoff, guard T.J. Rogers, tackle Owen Cox, a senior playing for the first time, and junior Will Rodier, the team's biggest player at 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds.
"Offensively we have been pretty consistent in our preseason scrimmages but we're a work in progress," Nowak said. "We just have to clean it up a little bit. We have been following good plays with sloppy plays. But if we clean that up we have a lot of size up front, speed in the backfield and an experienced quarterback."
Defense could be a big area of strength for the Hornets and the defense has performed very well in preseason scrimmages against Newburyport and Saugus.
The Hornets run a hybrid, 5-3/3-5 defense with plenty of size in the front eight. Doane and Hoff will be the starting defensive tackles with Cox and Rodier seeing time at the nose. Freshman Owen Aiello is the middle linebacker and flanked by Glass and Wood, while Luke Smith and Joe Daly will start at the outside backer spots. Nowak and Pallazola are the corners with Levendusky patrolling the middle of the field at safety.
"The defense has been physical in the preseason," Doane said. "We have a lot of players that like to hit."
The first test of the season begins on Thursday as the Hornets will take on KIPP Academy for the first time. KIPP, a charter school out of Lynn, also plays an independent schedule and is looking to reach the postseason this year after finishing 4-5 in its second season of varsity football.
"They're an athletic team with some size and speed," Doane said "I think if we can get off the ball we can wear them down physically. Use our size to our advantage and get stronger as the game goes on."
Last year’s record: 4-5
Head coach: Jeff Hutton (5th season, 20-22)
Team captains: Henry Doane, Sr. OG/DL; Tristan Nowak, Sr. WR/DB; Will Levendusky, Jr. QB/DB
Top returning rusher: Gavin Glass (82 carries, 512 yards, 11 TDs)
Top returning passer: Levendusky (47-for-90, 524 yards, 3 TDs)
Top returning receiver: Nowak (7 catches, 147 yards, 1 TD)
Did you know?: The Hornets last played a non-Cape Ann League slate in 2010 as members of the Commonwealth Athletic Conference.
(does not include MIAA playoff dates)
Date Opponent Time
Sept. 5 at KIPP Academy 7 p.m.
Sept. 20 at Brighton 6:30 pm
Sept. 27 vs. Boston English 7 p.m.
Oct. 11 vs. Roxbury Charter 7 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Bedford 7 p.m.
Oct. 25 vs. Arlington Catholic 7 p.m.
Nov. 28 at Georgetown 10 a.m.