ATTLEBORO — The Bombardiers and the Rocketeers both have coach Brian Lee and his King Philip Regional High football team to thank for their second-half surges this football season.
While Attleboro High is on a three-game winning streak, MIAA Division 3 Super Bowl-bound North Attleboro High is on a five-game winning streak heading into Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day game.
The Bombardiers (4-5) and Rocketeers (7-3) will be meeting for the 100th time on the holiday, with a 10 a.m. kickoff at Attleboro’ Tozier-Cassidy Field.
Attleboro rallied from a 20-0 halftime deficit against King Philip only to lose 30-22. North Attleboro, on the other hand, rallied in the second half at Macktaz Field to trump KP 20-19 for the Warriors’ lone loss of the season.
“We played great in the second half of that game, it kind of turned the season around for us,” Attleboro coach Mike Strachan said of that meeting with King Philip. “We were down at the half and came back. That was the game, since then we’ve been playing good football.”
Attleboro came within a play of upsetting Division 1 playoff finalist Franklin, losing a two-point game to the Panthers. The Bombardiers then polished off a trio of wins, trumping Taunton by seven points, New Bedford by 42 points and Boston College High by 18 points.
Over the past five games, the Bombardiers have forced 23 turnovers.
Not bad for a team that had scored just one TD over its first three games of the season.
“Our catalyst began with the double-overtime game the previous week against Mansfield,” North Attleboro coach Don Johnson said. “Certainly, coming back the next weekend and beating KP helped get us over the hump. Those two games combined for us gave us confidence.:
Through injuries (Ryan Betts, Fred Wheaton, Anthony Salviati), the Bombardiers have since taken corrective action, charting a course for the future with sophomore Matt Harvie at quarterback, sophomore Adrian Rivera at running back to complement senior Kaiden Murray and the return of Salviati, a junior, to the running-receiving and kicking game.
“Our last game (BC High) was a dominating game by us,” Strachan said of winning on the road. “They’re not the BC High of the past, but they still have some good athletes, so it was kind of a cachet win for us
“We’ve got some things happening for us and I’ve never seen a stat (22 forced takeaways) like that,” Strachan added. “We have to control the ball against North and not turn the ball over. We’ve got to go on sustained drives and we’ve got to make them earn everything they get.”
After a season-opening loss to Bishop Feehan and a one possession seven-point loss to Foxboro, the Rocketeers fine-tuned their offensive and defensive schemes.
Early in the season, senior quarterback Tyler DeMattio became the running back alongside hard-charging senior captain Tyler Bannon, allowing for freshman Chase Frisoli to be incorporated into the offense.
“We found out a whole lot about ourselves,” Johnson said of the first month of the season. “Even though you lose, it makes you better in the long run. It’s a progressive process every year. Some groups it happens more quickly, others more slowly. Every year is a new combination of kids, it takes a few weeks to get it all figured out and understand their responsibilities.”
The Big Red accentuated the speed of Nathan Shultz and Danny Curran in the running, receiving and return games. Gavin Wells, the 6-foot-3 senior wide receiver, proved to be a favorite target in the passing game, while senior captain and tackle Jared Vacher and Keysun Wise have anchored the much improved offensive line.
“That King Philip game was a turning point, to come back and win the game,” Vacher said. “It gave everyone hope and gave us the (No.) 3 seed.
“We’ve mixed it up, running different formations,” Vacher added of the Big Red’s precision and power on offense, scoring 242 points over the past five games. “We’ve gotten better each week, that’s what it’s all about.”
The Thanksgiving Day series between Attleboro and North Attleboro dates back to 1921.
Only Vacher and Wise are two-way linemen for North. “If you had to point to one area, that was the key,” Johnson said of where the improvement has meant the most. “The development of those guys up front, guys being in and out, playing some offense, some defense has been the difference.”
Not surprisingly, the Attleboro offensive and defensive lines will dwarf North Attleboro.
“They are much bigger up front than we are,” Johnson said. “They have progressed through the second half of the season to become a good football team.
“We’re at a competitive disadvantage physically, playing the game that we did Saturday and coming back to play Attleboro – we’re battered and bruised. It’s a challenge to rally for a game as quickly as Thursday.
“It’s a tough grind, we went through the same thing in 2017 (last Super Bowl appearance). We’re going to go out there with whoever is healthy and compete as we always do.”
The Bombardiers expect nothing but the best from the Rocketeers.
“North really looked good (in beating Billerica), they really dominated the game,” Strachan said of the Rocketeers. “This is a typical North Attleboro team – they’re well-coached, they’re well-prepared, they’re methodical and they don’t beat themselves.”
Aside from surrendering three TDs over a five-minute late second quarter span to Milton, North has been able to dictate the pace of play and not allow for big plays on defense.
“They’re (North) very disciplined and they have good athletes all over the place,” Strachan said. “DeMattio and Bannon are pretty special and Frisoli is controlling the ball, controlling the offense. They can move the ball.
“Their defense has done a really good job of limiting some talented teams over the last few weeks.
“They’ve got all of the components.”
For the Rocketeers, it will be the third game within a 12-day span, having beaten Billerica in the semifinal round of the Division 3 playoffs in Quincy Saturday, then about to engage in the Division 3 Super Bowl game Dec. 2 in Gillette Stadium (3 p.m. kickoff) against No. 1 seeded and unbeaten (10-0) Marblehead.
For the Bombardiers, it will be their first game in nearly three weeks since beating Boston College High in an MIAA non-playoff game.
“A game like this, the 100th game, makes everything right,” Strachan said of the chance to finish at .500 with four straight wins. “This is our Super Bowl. This is a forever game, something the kids on both teams will forever remember.
“It’s a special tradition in our communities, the rivalry is really healthy.
“It’s meaningful – there is absolutely something to play for on Thanksgiving Day.”