READING — With a mixture of veterans and some (very) young new faces, the Reading High football team enters the 2019 season with hopes of once again defending the Middlesex League Liberty title and making some noise in the tournament.

Fifty-six players in grades 10-12 reported to camp this year. That number is down slightly from the low 60s that have turned out in recent years, but represents good numbers for Massachusetts high school football these days. Head coach John Fiore, the program’s all-time winningest coach with a 122-50 career record, is back for his 16th year.

Fiore was pleased with his team’s offseason strength and conditioning work at Athletic Evolution in Woburn which is run by former Rocket, and RMHS Hall of Famer, Erik Kaloyanides.

“I think it paid dividends,” he said. “We came into camp in really good shape, we’ve got a dedicated core of kids, and we’re trying to take each day as its own living breathing entity.”

Reading finished 8-3 last season including a perfect 5-0 in Middlesex League Liberty play. The Rockets suffered a heartbreaking 34-30 loss to Lincoln-Sudbury in the Div. 2 North semifinals, but a 28-26 come-from-behind win over unbeaten Stoneham ended the year on a high note.

Reading opens the season with two very difficult non-league opponents. The Rockets host Lincoln-Sudbury in the season opener on Friday, Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. With a later Thanksgiving this year, the start to the season is a week later than is typical. Reading then travels to Acton-Boxborough in Week 2 to take on the Colonials (Sept. 20, 7 p.m.).

Fiore hopes the extra week of practice is enough to get his team ready.

“The extra week couldn’t have come in a better year. We certainly have our hands full in Div. 2 rival L-S, and A-B is a pretty solid Div. 1 powerhouse also coming off a great year last year,” he said. “Right out of the gate we’ve got to get ourselves ready for L-S.”

Playing tough non-league games has been a philosophy under Fiore as it helps pay dividends for the regular Middlesex League schedule. So does Reading’s tough scrimmage schedule. Reading scrimmaged Haverhill last weekend, has a practice scrimmage against Melrose this week, and then hosts Andover this Friday night at home.

The Rockets wrap up their preseason slate on Friday, Sept. 6 hosting Div. 1 powerhouse Central Catholic.

“You don’t learn anything about yourself scrimmaging cupcakes,” Fiore said. “You might feel good, but you have to go out there and try to play teams that will push you and expose you weaknesses, so you get a good feel on film for who your ballplayers are, and who still needs some work.”

The Rockets have some big shoes to fill, starting with graduated senior All-Scholastics Pat Conroy (safety, receiver) and Matt Sannella (quarterback), as well as Dan Bekkenhuis (offensive line) and Jake D’Agostino (defensive back, receiver).

But the Rockets do have plenty of talent in some key areas. Reading’s strength this year looks to be its offensive line. As of now senior right tackle Chris Chiulli, junior right guard Dom DeCrescenzo, junior center Dan O’Connor, junior left guard Sean Bekkenhuis, and sophomore left tackle Thomas O’Brien appear to be the starters up front. DeCrescenzo and Chiulli will be amongst the top players at their position in the league.

“We’ve had some real good competition amongst our top 5-8 kids,” Fiore said, of the offensive line. “Coming out of the gate I’m real pleased with how hard they’re working.”

The big story coming out of camp is the play of freshman James Murphy, son of RMHS 1993 grad and Rocket Hall of Famer Jim Murphy. The 14-year-old Murphy, a pure freshman, has shown a command of the offense beyond his years and appears to be the starter at quarterback. Thus he will become the first freshman starter at the position in program history.

“I believe he is the first freshman to see significant starting reps at the varsity level at quarterback,” Fiore said. “He’s done a nice job, he really has.”

The 6-2 Murphy has a lot to learn at the positon but has the luxury of a good corps of receivers, including a pair of rangy targets in seniors Pat Harrigan (6-4) and Colin DuRoss (6-1). Both are athletic and can catch footballs over smaller defensive backs. Senior Dante Barboza and junior Evan Theis provide depth and will see playing time.

On defense the secondary and linebacking crew are strengths. Jeremy Rosh is a three year starter at safety, while linebackers Colin Comerford (senior) and Dan DiMare (junior) are returning starters.

Junior Nick Bates (6-1, 210), a transfer from Lynn English who came to RMHS last January, is a player to keep an eye on. He will also start at linebacker.

The rest of the secondary includes junior safety Trevor Conroy, junior corner Ben Ferrante, and junior corner Brendan DiSilva. Senior John Brezinski is a solid defensive lineman against the run.

The captains this year are Comerford, Rosh, and Chiulli.

“Every year is different, every year presents a ton of new challenges. Right now, we’re just trying to figure out the best way to meet them, and working out the best way to do that,” Fiore said. “We learned a lot against Haverhill, we’ve got to take another couple big steps forward with Melrose and Andover (this week).”

The Rockets welcomed a few new faces to the coaching ranks, joining veteran defensive coordinator/offensive line coach David Blanchard, offensive coordinator Pat Sheehan, and Billy Carnes. Greg Sheridan joined the staff in the offseason and will coach the defensive backs and receivers. Recent RMHS grads, and ex-players, Pat Mahoney and Nick DiNapoli are also new arrivals and will coach the freshmen.

Reading opens up ML Liberty play on Friday, Sept. 27 at Belmont (6 p.m.).

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