Visitors making their way down Concord Street are greeted by a sign: “Welcome to North Reading.”
Below, smaller banners commemorate the high school team’s 2012 Division 3 state baseball championship, as well as the girls’ volleyball, cheerleading, and outdoor track state championships from 2007.
Senior back Carl Lipani would like nothing more than to help the Hornet football program raise its own banner this fall.
“That would be sweet if we can get one of those up there,” said Lipani, who, with a team-high 1,538 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns, has played a pivotal role in North Reading’s 8-1 run.
“It would be amazing if we could get that banner that says 2012 champions.”
But before Lipani and the Hornets can chase a Division 3A Super Bowl, they must beat Lynnfield (7-2) on Thanksgiving morning. Both are 4-0 in the Cape Ann/Northeastern Conference
“The Thanksgiving Day game has never been this important before,” North Reading coach Jeff Wall said.
“In years past, we've just been trying to knock Lynnfield off and it's kind of been our Super Bowl. But now, it's much more meaningful and we're just hoping to keep the kids grounded.”
In Wall's first eight seasons at the helm, the Hornets were 31-50, but they made strides last season with a 7-3 record, finishing second in the conference to Hamilton-Wenham.
A defensive-minded coach, Wall credits second-year offensive coordinator Ed Melanson with reviving the Hornets’ attack.
“In the past, we struggled with personnel issues, and last year coach Melanson came aboard and totally changed the culture of the school,” Wall said. “He basically resurrected the whole program.”
North Reading had run various schemes: the spread, I-formation, and the wing-T, under four coordinators.
Upon his arrival from Peabody High, where he also ran the offense, Melanson quickly realized the talent he had in Lipani and crafted a run-heavy, single-wing offense.
This season, North Reading has attempted just 12 passes.
“The goals were to build off last year's season, and we established the running offense and powering the football,” Melanson said. “Coach Wall is an outstanding defensive coach, and my philosophy has always been to run the ball and play good D.
“It works out well when you have a runner like [Lipani]. He hits the hole so quickly, and this kind of offense is tailor-made for him.”
On Friday night, North Reading was nearly upset by Ipswich (2-8), but hung on for a 15-13 victory.
With 11 seconds left, senior defensive back Evan Wade intercepted a pass at the 1-yard line to seal the Hornets’ victory.
While Lipani has ripped through opposing defenses all season, the Hornets have done their best to keep foes off the scoreboard, yielding just 10.8 points per game while recording shutouts against Austin Prep and Georgetown.
And in the first six games, that defensive unit was minus linebacker Michael Moscaritolo , a senior captain who was sidelined with a thumb injury.
He returned in Week 7 and played a few snaps in the team's 60-7 thrashing of Manchester Essex, and then started the last two games against Hamilton-Wenham and Ipswich.
“It was tough coming back at first,” said Moscaritolo, who's been playing with a brace on his left hand. “But everyone has stepped up. [Junior] Mike Cresta stepped up for me, and basically our defense thrived. Coach Wall always gives us a good game plan, and we're always prepared on defense.”
For Lipani, a four-year starter, there's a different feeling around the North Reading football team.
“The first two years were tough; there was a lot of losing,” Lipani said. “And from last year to this year, there's just a much different atmosphere.
“Everyone wants to win, everyone has tried very hard to win and put in a lot of work in the offseason, and everyone is coming together and no one is growing apart. It just feels good because we're on that winning path.”
On Thanksgiving morning, the Hornets will try to make that path continue.
Quarterback Valerio paces Lawrence
For Lawrence High sophomore quarterback Nelson Valerio , there was no time to dwell on the two interceptions he had thrown earlier in the game.
With the Lancers trailing Methuen, 36-30, with just under two minutes left, and having recovered an onside kick, Lawrence needed a player to step forward.
Valerio connected with Elvis Pena with a 20-yard pass to the Methuen 1 and then hammered in the quarterback sneak for a 36-36 tie.
On the next play, Valerio hooked up with George Urena for the 2-point conversion, and a 38-36 win for the 2-7 Lancers.
“It was a crazy experience. Everything had to be correct and perfect for us to win,” Valerio said. “At that point, I had to keep my head up and turn into a leader, and lead the offense to a victory. I couldn't fall back on something I did wrong.”
The sophomore signal caller finished with 353 passing yards and three touchdowns, while rushing for three more scores.
“He's taken a good leadership role with the offense,” coach Mike Yameen said.
“You can tell from his first game he was a little tentative, and now he's getting more and more comfortable. He's just making the right decisions.”
Here and there
Beverly (10-0) had little trouble defeating Marblehead, cruising to a 35-14 win to clinch the Cape Ann/Northeastern (Division 2) conference. Senior running back Brendan Flaherty rushed for 191 yards and two touchdowns. . . . Behind the running of Dylan Mann , who rushed for 69 yards and two touchdowns, Masconomet beat Revere 42-0 to clinch the Cape Ann/Northeastern (Division 1) conference. . . . For the second-straight season, Governor's Academy captured the Independent School League. Colin Smith , a 6-foot-4 senior, rushed for three touchdowns, leading his team to a 31-7 win against Belmont Hill.