Natick will try to do something it hasn’t done since 2009 — beat Walpole.
This was supposed to be a battle between undefeated Bay State teams. Instead the Rebels (9-0), one of nine unbeaten teams in Eastern Massachusetts, will travel Friday to Natick to play a team trying to bounce back from a stunning, 40-34 loss to Wellesley last Saturday. If Walpole wins, it clinches the Bay State Herget title and a playoff berth. If Natick wins, it must beat Framingham on Thanksgiving to clinch a berth or hope Walpole loses to Weymouth on Thanksgiving.
“The biggest thing for us is not to panic,” said Redhawks coach Mark Mortarelli. “We played really solid defense for eight weeks of the season and had one bad game on Saturday. It wasn’t our best effort, but we’ve been talking about how to respond to adversity.”
While Troy Flutie, who leads Division 2A with 25 touchdown passes, and Brian Dunlap, who has a division-leading 14 touchdown receptions, garner a lot of the attention from opponents, Natick will be getting a crucial part of its offense back this week.
Five-foot-10-inch, 190-pound running back Nick Lee, who didn’t play in the loss because of an ankle injury, is almost 100 percent and Mortarelli expects him to have a huge impact. Lee has five touchdowns this season, but he’s the Redhawks’ vocal leader and gives them more options on offense.
“Right now our biggest problem is Flutie, Dunlap, and the rest of that Natick entourage,” said Walpole coach Barry Greener. “They are a lot more than a two-man team, that’s a formidable machine. I’m sure being as good a team as they are, they’ve learned something from that loss at Wellesley.”
Natick knows that moving the ball will not be an easy task. The Rebels’ defense is physical, fast, has great size, and is coming off five consecutive shutouts dating to Sept. 28, when they held Milton to only a field goal.
“This has been the best defensive team since the 2008 Super Bowl group,” Greener said. “Our front seven is very talented and our secondary is solid. So far this year we’ve been very good against the run and hopefully that continues on Friday.”
As it’s been in the past, the winner of this game usually wins the Bay State (Herget) title. Natick was a few seconds from beating the Rebels last year, but Walpole kicked a 25-yard winning field goal that sent it to the playoffs.
The Rebels lost their playoff game, 46-20, to Dennis-Yarmouth, which ended up winning the Division 2A Super Bowl.
Walpole used the loss as motivation and the next day 17 players were in the weight room working toward their goal of getting back to the postseason.
A crucial factor for the Rebels was that they lost Mike Rando, Connor Moriarty, and Cam Hanley to injury last year. Greener says Rando, who is coming back from a torn MCL, is Walpole’s best player, but an ankle injury has sidelined him for a few weeks. The senior running back will be back on the field Friday but Greener isn’t sure to what capacity.
Hanley also missed the majority of last year with an MCL injury but his comeback has been miraculous, leading the Rebels with 18 touchdowns this season.
Both coaches said they are excited to renew their friendly rivalry that goes all the way back to the 1970s.
“Natick and Walpole are very much similar; the towns have a football culture,” said Greener. “It’s very tough to be successful over the long term if you don’t have a football culture in your town.
“We have it, they have it, and that’s why [Natick] is there all the time.’’
The Redhawks are averaging 34.2 points and haven’t lost at home this season.
This isn’t just another game, though. Both Natick and Walpole expect to win, but at the end of the day only one side will be celebrating victory.
. . .
No. 3 Duxbury (9-0) will try to extend its winning streak Friday at Whitman-Hanson (6-3) . . . Seventh-ranked Beverly (9-0) plays a crucial game against Marblehead (8-1) on Saturday to decide the winner of the CAL/NEC 2 . . . Bedford (7-2) and Wayland (6-3) will battle for the Dual County Small title on Friday . . . Brockton can clinch the Big Three title with a win over New Bedford Saturday . . . On the final day of the NEPSAC season, unbeaten Phillips Exeter heads to Phillips Andover for the 132d meeting of the longest prep school rivalry in the country. Andover holds a 68-53-10 lead in the series.