Chieftains looking to ace test.
WORCESTER - Nashoba Regional has been tested quite a bit during its 20-game winning streak, but the biggest test might come tonight when the No. 2 Chieftains (7-0) head to Commerce Bank Field at Foley Stadium to take on No. 3 Doherty (6-1) in a crucial Division 2 matchup at 7 p.m. in the Hometeam Game of the Week.
Chieftains coach Ken Tucker said the Highlanders are the best passing team they've faced yet and complimented Doherty quarterback Luke Brennan, calling him the best quarterback they've faced because of his ability to throw, escape pressure and find open receivers.
"They're a lot like us because while teams are obviously going to focus on (Nashoba running back) John Ojukwu because of his speed, but I think if you focus on him you run the risk of somebody else hurting you and I think the same way about (Doherty)," Tucker said. "If you focus on (Doherty running back) Abdulla Webster, then the quarterback or the receivers or any of the other running backs are going to hurt you."
After dispatching Holy Name, 33-7, a few weeks ago, Nashoba had a pair of tough games against Marlboro and Clinton but escaped with wins. The Chieftains seemed to right the ship with a 42-7 win over Westboro last week.
"It was kind of a wakeup call and it put things into perspective for us and we realize we couldn't take any teams for granted," Nashoba receiver Brady Schartner said.
Tonight's winner will also create some distance in the Division 2 power ratings. Nashoba is undefeated, but is seeded third with 98 points and trails Doherty (99 points) and Shepherd Hill (103). Expect the Chieftains to turn to standout linebacker Zach Hume to cause some chaos with the Doherty offense tonight.
"We know they have a really good team with really good skill players and a good line, so we know we have our work cut out for us," Hume said. "We're going to come out with our best and we know they're going to bring it. They can throw and we really haven't seen anybody who can really throw, so we need to work on that."
Nashoba has relied on Ojukwu (64 carries, 848 yards, 15 TDs) to shoulder the load on offense, but if the Highlanders can slow him down - which is no easy task - then the Chieftains need to get Schartner (13 catches, 317 yards) in sync with quarterback Jack Sarnoski (20 for 49, 441 passing yards, 6 TDs). Doherty is hoping to force the Chieftains to the air and take its chances. And look for the Highlanders to try to force Ojukwu inside and not let him get outside and get momentum.
"When he gets into open spaces, he's as fast as you've ever seen," Doherty assistant coach Steve Buccaglia said. "But we have a few guys who are pretty darn fast, too. Isaac Yiadom, Angel Webster, Sam Oppong and Sean Jackson can run with just about everybody."
The Highlanders are enjoying their best season since 1998, when they finished 8-3 but missed out on the postseason. Doherty is finally playing meaningful games down the stretch because of a renewed commitment to the weight room and what receiver Maurice Morales said is a team-first atmosphere.
"We just came together and we had a lot more chemistry," Morales said. "We don't get down on each other when things go wrong. We keep each other moving and keep our heads up."
"This group of kids is a very aggressive, hard-working and mature group," Buccaglia said. "They know what they wanted since January, and they've worked very, very hard to get there. We're working very hard to make sure this is a yearly thing and not something that happens once every three years."
In addition to the problems that Brennan (47 of 82, 979 passing yards, 10 TDs) creates, Doherty also boasts a strong backfield led by Webster (83 carries, 699 yards, 11 TDs) and Oppong (75 carries, 408 yards, 2 TDs). Brennan is spreading it out to his receivers, with Morales, Alfred Adarkwah, Noah Robinson, Yiadom and Jackson all having more than 130 yards.
The Highlanders also have a win over Holy Name and are coming off an overtime win over St. Peter-Marian that included a 7-play goal line stand to seal the win. The players called it a statement game. The Highlanders can continue to make a statement against Shepherd Hill (6-1) next week.
"That SPM game, that was a weight room game. A couple of guys put in work in the weight room and we were able to out-physical them," Oppong said. "We know Nashoba is nice and they play a lot of tough teams, but we've been waiting to play in a game like this - we want to play elite teams like Nashoba. They're tough, but they're beatable. We're looking to do our thing. We're looking to win."
That's nothing new for Nashoba, which has enjoyed the target on their backs and look forward to brushing off any team trying to make a name off them.
"We knew coming into this season we'd have a target on our backs and we did," Tucker said. "I think every season you have a low point and we had a little bit of a letdown, and we ran into two teams that were well prepared and had more talent than their record showed. We played well enough to win and luckily wins don't depend on style points."
CUTLINE: Doherty quarterback Luke Brennan runs a play during practice earlier this week.
PHOTOG: T&G Staff/TOM RETTIG