Reading High and Melrose have been the two premier football programs in the Middlesex League for the better part of the last decade.
Despite being in the same league, when they meet on Friday for the season opener at Hollingsworth Field (7 p.m.), it will be the first regular-season game between the two teams since 2012. That was the last year before the MIAA sectional playoffs began in 2013.
The two teams have practiced together and scrimmaged each other in recent years.
While Reading has dominated in the Middlesex League’s Liberty Division, Melrose has been at the top of the Freedom Division for the last several years. The Raiders have won Super Bowls in two of the last four seasons, including the most recent Division 4 state title in 2019, and they were undefeated in the Fall II season, which did not have an MIAA postseason competition.
The Raiders have also won their last 21 games and have been undefeated three times since 2017. In the last decade, they have gone 95-19 and have not had a losing season. They were state finalists in 2014 and 2015.
“It’s an excellent program,” said Reading coach John Fiore. “They’re very good at executing their running game and in executing the fundamentals. You don’t play like that unless you start with an excellent stance and get a low pad level.”
While the Raiders lost several players to graduation, they are led by senior quarterback Trevor Botto, offensive lineman Justin Camelio and running back Shea Fogarty.
Junior lineman Braden Marceau-Olayinka is also returning.
Reading is coming off a season in which it won all five of its Middlesex League Liberty games very handily and lost its season final to Dual County League Large School champion Lincoln-Sudbury.
In the last two traditional fall seasons, the Rockets reached the MIAA Division 2 North semifinals. Reading last reached a Super Bowl in 2016, when it lost to King Philip of Wrentham in the Division 1A state final at Gillette Stadium.
This year, the Rockets are led by senior running back Colby Goodchild and senior left tackle Thomas O’Brien. Junior quarterback James Murphy has been starting since his freshman year.
Reading prepared for the season with scrimmages against Lynn Classical and Xaverian Brothers of Westwood.
“We’re really pleased with how we’ve practiced,” Fiore said. “We’re pleased with how focused we’ve been, especially against Xaverian. We hit really well. We really came to compete that night.”
Going against a team such as Melrose, with its sound fundamentals, Reading will also need to execute well to come out on top.
“In these type of games, that’s the key,” Fiore said. “Sooner or later, it comes down to individual matchups.”
Wilmington at Woburn (7 p.m.)
The Tanners figure to have much more balance on offense this year with the commitment to 6-foot-3 junior quarterback Brett Tuzzolo.
Tuzzolo started the final game last spring against Arlington and was modestly impressive in throwing two touchdown passes in the win. The job has been his since Day 1 of camp this past August, according to fifth-year head coach Jack Belcher.
"He's our guy," said the coach.
Devoted strictly to a ground game prior to that Arlington game last spring during the Fall II season, Woburn still finished a solid 4-2, only bowing to Melrose and Reading. Now with an expected much more balanced offense and with three All-Star players returning on defense, expectations are pretty high at the start of the season in Woburn.
Linebackers Jake Daniell and Anthony Baccari will have everything funnel to them. Yayha Aksadi is a three-year starter who will help clog things up in the middle.
Newton South at Winchester (7 p.m.)
The Red & Black will open up their season tonight when they host Newton South under the lights at Knowlton Stadium.
Not only is there uncertainty at quarterback, Winchester also has huge holes to fill at receiver and the defensive secondary, where there are no returnees from the spring season.
There are currently four candidates for starting quarterback, including the Red & Black's top offensive weapon, senior running back Derek Gianci. Other candidates are junior Jack Costello and sophomores Ben Wilson and Harry Lowenstein.
"We have a bunch of young kids trying to get in there," said Winchester coach Wally Dembowski, who could also say the same thing about the receivers, where eight players are trying to earn regular playing time and become targets for the not-yet-named quarterback.
Not everything is a puzzle with the Winchester starting lineup. While it’s mostly a new group, everyone on the offensive line has won their position, which is good news for the Red & Black ground game.
Third-year lineman Sean Holland is back, and the senior will be joined by senior Jadd Parra, junior Quintin Johansen, junior Kaden Salvietti and sophomore Ryan Azzara.
Lawrence at Burlington (6 p.m.)
After a short four-month off-season, two weeks of pre-season practices, and two scrimmages against Chelmsford and Lowell, the Burlington High football team is now set to get its regular season underway.
The Red Devils will begin the 2021 season tonight, when it hosts Lawrence from the Merrimack Valley Conference at Varsity Field in an earlier 6 p.m. kickoff. Burlington played the Lancers in its season opener two years ago at Lawrence High School, and came away with a 32-22 victory.
With three starters back on offense and six on defense, the Red Devils have a blend of experience and youth that makes it hard to predict how competitive Burlington will be. Yet the players have been working hard to be as competitive as possible, and are now primed and ready to get its season underway.
“We had good practices on Saturday and Monday after our scrimmage last Friday, and we’re looking forward to our first regular season game,” said Burlington coach Dan MacKay. “The kids have shown a great attitude and work ethic so far in pre-season, and they’re excited to finally get to play a regular season game.”
The Red Devils have used the pre-season to get the newcomers to work more as a unit with the returnees. This showed in Burlington’s recent scrimmage against Lowell, when the Red Devils scored three first-half touchdowns, then after a second-half letdown rallied for a last-minute touchdown to secure the win.
“Last Friday in our scrimmage against Lowell was just kind of a taste of what’s coming up for us, when we played really well in the first half,” said MacKay. “We let down in the second half but we learned from it, and now we’re more focused and looking forward to playing a full game against a pretty good Lawrence team.”
A challenge the Red Devils need to overcome is breaking in a new quarterback. Burlington had an apparent quarterback of the future last spring until Nick Berglund transferred to a private school. Now the Red Devils will go with senior newcomer Ronan Noke, a transfer from Austin Prep, as its new quarterback.
Ronan Noke has worked well in pre-season with returning senior running backs and captains Sam Doherty and Adam Eldeeb, according to MacKay, which should give the Red Devils an effective running game. Junior newcomer Mike D’Amato may also get some carries at running back.