H.S. Football Preview: Offensive firepower has Amherst optimistic about 2023 season

By GARRETT COTE

Staff Writer

Published: 09-14-2023 10:46 AM

During the second-to-last regular season football game a year ago, Amherst matched up with Holyoke on a Friday night in Amherst. Both teams lit up the scoreboard. The Hurricanes had no answer for Purple Knights quarterback Gavier “NeNe” Fernandez, as he used both his arm and his legs to give the Amherst defense fits all night long.

The Canes eventually pulled out a 35-26 victory, but Fernandez left Amherst head coach Vinny Guiel and the rest of his coaching staff with their heads scratching.

This year, Guiel won’t have to worry about drawing up an elaborate game plan for Fernandez, as the senior quarterback transferred to Amherst and will be suiting up for the Hurricanes in 2023. Having Fernandez paired with star running back Jameson Dion – who missed the latter portion of last season with an arm injury – makes for a prolific punch.

“I think we can accomplish a lot with us in the backfield,” Fernandez said. “I think we have one of the best backfields in Western Mass.”

Guiel was quick to take that statement a step further. On top of Fernandez and Dion, the Hurricanes also have Matt Hockman and Junior Ramsey in the backfield. All four are seniors that should be forces to be reckoned with when toting the pigskin, and senior Neil Cunniffe is a reliable blocker and pass catcher at tight end. Guiel knows having a large group of playmakers is a big advantage for his offense.

“We got the best backfield in the state. Period,” Guiel said. “I’ll take that to the grave. We got Matt Hockman, who’s a dog. Junior Ramsey is my fullback, he’s a body, just runs through people. I think those four – NeNe, Dion, Hockman, Junior – are fantastic. Our tight end Neil Cunniffe, he’s a captain. He’s very undersized for a tight end, but he moves bodies, too. I’m excited all around, we probably have the best team we’ve had since 2019.”

That 2019 team happened to breeze through its regular season and postseason schedule before losing in the MIAA Division 5 state championship game. Since then, Amherst has been searching for that same type of success. In 2019, the Hurricanes won 11 games. In the last three seasons combined, they’ve only won six.

Guiel is now in his second year as the man in charge. His first season with the ‘Canes came in 2021 as an offensive coordinator when Amherst won just one game. Now, after a promising four-win campaign in 2022, and a full year with his players under his belt, expectations are much different.

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“Coming into year two, their expectations are a little higher,” he said. “At the end of the day, we’re creating young men here, and that’s the big picture. Football wise, the goal is to win some football games, I mean, we’ve got a good team. We have a team where we could really shock some people across the state. I’m excited to see how this turns out.”

The players feel it, too. Dion was on a tear last year before his injury – scampering for 618 yards on the ground while scoring a staggering 11 touchdowns in just four contests. As a four-year player at Amherst, he recognizes a different feel to this year’s bunch.

“I think this year, we’ve had the best offseason we’ve had since I’ve been here at Amherst. I think we just have to come out strong and show what we can do. We all want to work as a team and win, and have success as a team,” Dion said. “And, of course, I want to get back to where I was last year.”

Fernandez’s ability to throw at a high level should give opposing defenses nightmares. If they want to try to defend the pass, Dion will have huge gaps to burst through using his speed and strength. If they choose to stack the box and take away the run, Fernandez can hit Cunniffe and other targets for chunk plays on the outside.

Making the playoffs and embarking on a deep run is obviously what Guiel and company would prefer this season, but in general the Hurricanes just want to establish themselves as a premier team in the region.

“A successful season is a step in the right direction,” Guiel said. “We got four wins last year, let’s try to get six this year. Then next year it’ll be six wins trying to get seven. Just small steps. Building a program doesn’t happen in one year. It’s important to create a culture where people understand and expect that they’re coming to play for a program that wins historically, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Amherst

COACH: Vinny Guiel, second season

LEAGUE/DIVISION: Suburban South/4

LAST YEAR’S RECORD: 4-6

ROSTER: Junior Ramsey, Neil Cunniffe, Matt Hockman, Thatcher Rudnik, Tre Bowman, Owen Cunniffe, Gavier (NeNe) Fernandez, Jameson Dion, Moniha Krouch, Xavier Arroyo, Leo Inoue, Owen Earle, Nathan Oliver, Taylor Alfaro Leiva, Travis Isabelle, TyTy Beckett, Brandon Stewart, Seejay Aprile, Greg King, Raymond Colon, Raymond (little Ray) Colon, Christopher Camara, Peter Tanguay, Matthew DaSilva, Zavier Fernandez, Frank Partida, Parker Dufresne, Justin Dealba, Kyrief Johnson, Jovahny Govan, Danny Alexander, Ethan Vulcan-Sowkey, Sawyer Clarke, Brenden Camphor

Belchertown

COACH: Dan McCarthy, third season

LEAGUE/DIVISION: Intercounty South/5

LAST YEAR’S RECORD: 4-7

ROSTER: Seniors — Landon Andre, Kaden Couture, Chris Daskam, Tyler Dauplaise, Josh Grillo, Shaun Loshe, Michael Muscaro, Nico St. George; Juniors — Dominic Allen, Jack Beals, Max Bessette, Brian Carlin, Michael DeMento, Brian Fuller, Jackson Hennessy, Zack Kessler, Nicholas LaRock, Elias Nikitas, Rylan Queiros, Ryan Shea, Brycen Vann; Sophomores — Edan Chaverri, Logan Duke, Eli Grillo, Mason Gualberto, Cooper Hampson, Adam O’Rourke; Freshmen — Kyng’sten Agyei, Rulon Anderson, Keegan Breault, Avery Cote, Jordan Griffin, Oliver Hellyar, Coleman Longley, Benjamin Smolinski, Israel Torres

OUTLOOK: Belchertown’s secret to success is actually far from a secret. Orioles running back Chris Daskam (1,351, two touchdowns a season ago) returns for his senior campaign in 2023. Quarterback Landon Andre is also back for Belchertown, as are playmakers Nico St. George and Josh Grillo – all seniors. With senior Kaden Couture and junior Max Bessette holding down both the offensive and defensive lines, Belchertown also has the potential to control the trenches, something they struggled with last season.

Easthampton

COACH: Kyle Dragon, first season

LEAGUE/DIVISION: Intercounty South/7

LAST YEAR’S RECORD: 6-5

ROSTER: Seniors — Topher Reardon, Sean Halpin, Luke Johndrow, Josh Arocho-Cote, Evan O’Malley, Chase Hunsaker; Juniors — Connor Donnis, Cooper Goudreau, Dylan McGinn-Stevens, Tommy O’Connor, Trevor Canon-Smith; Sophomores — Will Hogan, Tom Kane, Seth Durant, Nelson Gomez, Kinnon McColgan, Jayden Brown, Jayden Childs, Jake Kostek, Jack Clark, Colin Hogan, Angel Salgado; Freshmen — Aiden Blair, Bryce McGinn-Stevens, Elijah DeJesus, Grayson Noel, Marty Charron, Miguel DeJesus, Noah Geddis, Travis Carpenter, Vynce Carr

OUTLOOK: The Easthampton football team will be playing with heavy hearts this fall. Eagles’ head coach Matt Bean, who was a mentor, friend, and inspiration to the Easthampton team, passed away in July. Assistant coach Kyle Dragon is taking over for Bean and will hope to advance his coaching philosophies. The Eagles were 6-5 a season ago, winning four of five games during a hot stretch in the middle of the season. Easthampton will be led by do-it-all senior Topher Reardon, who plays both sides of the ball and has play-making ability on the outside at wide receiver. While Easthampton continues to mourn the loss of Bean, the Eagles are eager to play this season in honor of his legacy.

Holyoke

COACH: David Guzman, second season

LEAGUE/DIVISION: AA/4

LAST YEAR’S RECORD: 2-9

ROSTER: n/a

OUTLOOK: The big news for Holyoke this off-season has to be the departure of starting quarterback Gavier Fernandez. The Purple Knights relied on him heavily during the 2022 season, and now have to lean on a new arm and voice to command the offense this year. Senior Martin Phillips saw a respectable amount of time under center last season, throwing for 233 yards and two touchdowns, so he may be the likely candidate to take over for Fernandez. Junior receiver Asa Allen is a trusty target to lean on on the outside for Holyoke as well. The Purple Knights won only two games this season, as they played one of the hardest schedules in Western Massachusetts. It doesn’t get any easier for Holyoke this year either.

Northampton

COACH: Joe Kocot

LEAGUE/DIVISION: Suburban South/4

LAST YEAR’S RECORD: 8-2, lost in Division 4 state tournament first round

ROSTER: n/a

OUTLOOK: Northampton was far and away the best Hampshire County team in 2022, and the only local squad to earn a postseason berth. The Blue Devils had everything come together perfectly, including a massive senior class that produced huge numbers statistically. They will no longer have quarterback Ben Sledzieski, wide receivers Trey Rios and Kelvin Perez, or edge rusher Caleb Steineger among many other graduating seniors. Despite the roster turnover, Northampton should once again be respectable. Head coach Joe Kocot always has something up his sleeve, and finds a way to be competitive every season.

Smith Vocational

COACH: Alex Subocz, fourth season

LEAGUE/DIVISION: Tri-County/8

LAST YEAR’S RECORD: 1-10

ROSTER: Seniors — Cal Antes, Caelan Finnie, Frankie Fournier, Alex Martinez, Sean Quinto, Alex Shackelford, Nick Smith; Juniors — TJ Allen, Jared Baer, Joseph Bonanno, Ty Chapdelaine, Wyatt Evans, Henry Harrison, Dewey Hathaway, Adam Jaracz, Brayden Kukucka, Bryan Leyton, John Loiko, John Majewski, Anthony O’Brian, Justin Porter, Jeremy Simmons, Alex Soto; Sophomores — Trenton Bush, Jaden Cabellaro, Ben Culver, Nolen Finnie, LJ Hale, Aiden Houle, Samuel Jenkins, Keagan Kochapski, Dylan Lessard, Aeiden McCarthy, Jude Parro, Dylan Sanchez, Michael Theriault; Freshmen — Keegan Baer, Trenton Clark, Carlos Claybaugh, Florian Jaracz, Lucas Laclair, Brayden LaRose, Nathan Lindahl, Colin Paschal, Thaydin Peluyera, Jameson Tobin, Jayden Yon, Ellias Phillips, Jake Rousseau

OUTLOOK: Senior quarterback Alex Martinez has been sensational since his first game under center at Smith Voc, and he has the opportunity to break two incredible program records. If Smith Voc can win three games in 2023, Martinez will become the winningest quarterback in the history of Vikings football. He also has a solid chance to break the all-time rushing record as well. Alongside Martinez is wide receiver John Marjewski, who had a terrific season last year and is one of the top returning receivers in the region as a junior.

South Hadley

COACH: Brian Couture, second season

LEAGUE/DIVISION: Suburban North/7

LAST YEAR’S RECORD: 4-7

ROSTER: Seniors — Owen Dawson, Jayden Krupa, Brennan Whalen, Noah Marion, Burke Belsky, Jayden Tauscher, Marty Loughrey, Michael Cebula, Sly Curto, Junoon Giridhar, Ethan Haber, Nacere Lopez, Ryan Poirier, Landin Gardner, Luis Jusino, Eric Cole, Brady Currier; Juniors – Julius Hebenth, Chase Blais, Brady Murphy, Nehemiah Marrin, Martin Williams, Aydan Lugo, Jayden McMains, Miliani Rivers, Darius Gelinas, Brayden Grochowalski; Sophomores – Griffin Soderbaum, Nathenal McMains, Adrian Debeer, Brayden Koske, Jasiel Ramos; Freshmen – Marcus Whelihan, Noah Hambley, Cole Wojnar, Ray Faginski, Lincoln Belsky, Brody Keller, Rush Camacho, Willem Alibaya, Ryan O’Donnell, Logan McClure, Roberto Melendez, Alex Slaughter, Josh Willette

OUTLOOK: South Hadley returns almost its entire starting lineup (20-of-22 players) on both sides of the ball for a team that went 4-7 in 2022, with four of those seven losses coming by two possessions or less. The Tigers will be led by senior Owen Dawson out of the backfield. Dawson rushed for over 1,400 yards and cashed in 24 touchdowns in an impressive junior campaign. Joining him in the backfield is quarterback Burke Belsky, who returns to his starting position looking much more confident. Marty Loughry anchors the backfield at fullback coming off an ACL surgery in the offseason, and Ryan Poirier will be the man up front on the offensive line clearing space for Dawson and Belsky.

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