Line play may decide whether Unionville can repeat as league champs

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By Al Tustin, Staff Writer, The Times

Senior Joe Zubillaga will split time at quarterback and offers skill and power in the option game.

EAST MARLBOROUGH — If you liked the 2016 Unionville High School football team — understandable as it won its second straight Ches Mont American Division title — you’re probably going to really like the 2017 version.

While the Indians used a stout defense and a flock of talented skill players to forge a 7-4 record and a District I 5A playoff berth, this year’s version looks to be even more explosive. But — and with high school football, there’s always a but — the team’s overall success will likely depend on how well the Indians can replace a most of the front seven of the defense and fill gaps on the offensive line.

Pat Clark, entering his 14th year as Unionville’s head coach, is pretty excited about the deep, talented group of skill guys coming back in 2017 and has added a few tweaks to his offense to help get the ball into the hands of his talented offensive crew.

Senior Alex Gorgone is the second half of Unionville’s dual threat at quarterback.

“We want to be able to get them the ball in space,” Clark said. “Get them in one on one matchups when we can.

The Indians look to have all of the tools to do so.

With two senior Co-Captain Quarterbacks, Alex Gorgone and Joe Zubillaga — the pair figure to share time, depending on opponent and situation — are both skilled, experienced runners in the QB option system and both have found success throwing the ball on the run. Both figure to be significant contributors on offense.

Senior tackle Joe Hagen (61) will be joined by a bunch of new faces along the offensive line — a unit that will be tested in the early going.

Clark said he is excited by both players — noting Gorgone, after battling juries for much of 2016 is fully healthy and benefits from a year of experience under his belt, while Zubillaga showed clear skill at the pass/run option last year when pressed into service to replace Gorgone after an injury. Both players should be able to use the experience gained last year to improve — giving the Indians a rare wealth of options at the position.

In the backfield, the star duo of Jack Adams and Dante Graham return — Adams, a quick, elusive runner, while Graham showed power running ability last year. Sophomore Connor Schilling may get a few touches as the young back has shown signs of being yet another in a long string of outstanding Unionville running backs.

Senior running back Jack Adams will lead a deep and talented running corps.

Receiver is just as stacked — with seniors JT Hower, Brody McShane and co-Captain Aiden Boyle returning, augmented by emerging junior Nick Schnaars likely to be a major factor. Sam Ross and Zach Lawrence are back to play tight end.

The offensive line, though, is more of a project. Stalwart senior co-Captain Joe Hagen leads a combination of returning players and new faces for a unit that struggled at times last season. Senior Pablo Aviles Bernal — who has been battling injury issues — doesn’t seem likely to be healthy early on. That means Unionville could start four new linemen without major experience on varsity last year. Juniors Matt Julier and Cole Sheehan look to round out the line, with sophomore Declan Boyle and senior JB Bowers joining the lineup. Still, a number of younger players may well figure into the mix as the season goes on.

Senior Dante Graham brings the power to the Indians running game.

Junior Dominic Braithwaite takes over the kicking duties — and shown enough range that he may be the Indians’ best offensive threat at the position since Alex Pechin.

The story on defense is much the same — extreme depth at the skill positions, but a lot of new faces in the front seven.

While Lawrence doing double duty to anchor the defensive line — with Hagen likely playing both ways, too — a combination of new faces, including junior Eli Lyons, will factor into the defensive line rotation. Clark said he expects to play as many as eight or nine different players up front as the season evolves, offering opportunities for younger players to emerge.

Senior JT Hower is a dual threat at receiver — and as one of the top defensive backs in the county.

Linebacker is another concern, but only because last year’s crew, made up of the now graduated Jesse Gill, Trevor Gardiner and James Watson was among the best trios in school history — backstopping what turned out to be one of the best defensive units in the entire county. With all three gone, the Indians will turn to Zublillaga — who saw some time there last year (as well as at defensive back), but was often held out from playing defense when he was the last QB standing — and juniors Gabe McLaughlin, Julier and Alex Pelegrin.

As is the case with offense, in the backfield, Unionville is deep and talented. Hower was one of the county’s top interception threats in 2016 and looks to be improved for his senior season. Add in Adams, Graham, Theron Schilling, Boyle, McShane and a number of younger faces and you get a secondary that is deep and talented.

Like every team in the area, Unionville needs some younger players to step up to replace those who have graduated, it appears again the Indians should be in the hunt to defend their Ches Mont American title — they’ve won the last two — and contend for a solid seeding in the District One playoffs.

Clark, now in his 14th season, credits the players, family and community at large for buying into and supporting the program, which has emerged as one of the top teams in the county now throughout his tenure.

“It’s really the support we get from the kids, the parents — the school — the community, that has allowed us to continue to succeed,” he said.

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