As we get closer and closer to Thanksgiving Day it is now time to take a closer look at this year’s edition of the opponent the Needham Rockets. Brendan Walsh PA voice of the Rockets and also broadcaster for the Needham Channel was kind enough to answer some questions for me about this year’s Rocket team who will enter Thanksgiving with a 7-3 record. Here is what he had to say.
Q: Needham comes into Thanksgiving 7-3, what you have seen from the team this season as a whole, and what we should be looking for coming into Thanksgiving?
A: It has been a very successful season for Needham football this year. First they went 5 and 0 in the Carey Division to capture the title for the 4th time in the past 7 years. Second, they advanced to the Division 2 South Sectional title game for the first time since this format was introduced for the 2013 season. Third, and the jury is still out on this, they have been invited to play at Fenway Park on Thanksgiving Day, obviously a win against their ancient rival would be a third major accomplishment for the team. The disappointments of the season to date can be seen in a tale of two seasons. Needham opened the season with a very frustrating loss (Wellesley can commiserate) to Milton in Milton. The Rockets moved the ball at will on the ground and scored early and often and had a couple of leads on the Wildcats, inexperience in the secondary and poorly timed turnovers in the second half spelled doom in a 34 to 24 loss in what was a very winnable game. The next week brought a second frustrating 20-6 loss to Walpole in Needham in a game the Rockets simply didn’t play well enough in a game that was very winnable. The next five games against their Carey Division foes were all wins behind a very tough defense and the usual punishing Needham power running game from the I formation.
The playoffs brought two home games for the first time ever. (Due in no small part to the Wellesley upset loss vs Braintree) The Rockets thumped King Phillip at home 24 to 0, definitely the signature win of the season avenging last season’s playoff loss to the Warriors in Wrentham. The second playoff game was a tougher than expected 13 to 6 win over a very improved Braintree team Needham had dispatched easily earlier in the season. The other big win was a 13 to 10 decision in Needham over Newton North. The Tigers had won in 2014 in Newton first their first win in 6 years vs Needham and did a fair share of chirping. The Rockets viewed it as the critical game to recapture the Carey title Finally, Needham is coming off a crushing 43 to 0 loss at Marshfield in a game which was as one sided as the score indicated. The belief in Needham is that the Rams are a great team that will defend their state title which played at their peak while the Rockets played very poorly after falling behind 16 to 0 in the opening seven minutes of the game. The summary would be that Marshfield were a great team playing on their best day and Needham were a good team playing their worst game. The up side for Needham is they will definitely be looking to end an otherwise successful season by beating Wellesley to expel the taste of the bitter defeat in Marshfield.
Q: Who are some key players from Needham who have helped the team to such a successful season as they did earn a berth in the D2 South title game?
A: Needham can score but are definitely lead by their defense. The leader on defense is #58 the two time captain inside linebacker Joe Gowestski. He is 6’2 225lbs tackling machine who can run very well. The also have a very strong defensive line in senior Tom Baker #73 who at 6’3 235lbs and a possible Ivy League recruit at defensive end. He is joined by nose tackle, junior Kevin Bruce #40 and D.C. Cox #50 who both go in the 225 to 240lbs range and are quick and physical defensive linemen. The secondary is lead by senior captain #4 Lucas Goldman a 2 year starter and corner #10 Luke Pascucci who transferred back to Needham from Belmont Hill last year. Dylan Child #49 lead the team in interceptions, including a spectacular 60 yard Td return earlier in the season. The Needham defense figures to give the struggling Raider offense a tough time on Thanksgiving Day.
Offensively, the Rockets are led by 3 players, Tailback Jared Sklar #35 has rushed for over a 100 yards in almost all the Rocket wins. He is a physically punishing runner who does most of his damage between the tackles. I would expect him to carry it at 20 times and probably more. The Quarterback is #6 senior Captain Sam Foley who has tossed 9 TD passes most of them to wide receiver #21 sophomore John Andre. Andre is a smaller lighting quick receiver who also returns kicks and runs speed sweeps from his wide out position. He is definitely Needham’s home run hitter. The other two targets are #89 Luke Geraghty who made a highlight TD catch against King Phillip which won him a high 5 award from Channel 5 (google the youtube story) and #85 junior Brendan Smith who at 6’5 is a tough cover and red zone threat. The Rockets will run the ball over 80% from the I formation and pound away at the Wellesley defense for better or worse. Geraghty missed the Marshfield game with an injury.
Q: From a Needham perspective what makes this Wellesley/Needham rivalry so special?
A: The Needham Wellesley rivalry is special because of the tradition form the Needham perspective. It is great to be part of the oldest rivalry and to play it on Thanksgiving day. It is a uniquely Needham and Wellesley thing that is part of a greater American tradition of Thanksgiving, a great American holiday. I also think a little unfairly that the Needham side likes to think of Wellesley as the rich kids of affluence and Needham as the more common people. It might have been true in the distant past but it would be hard to think of Needham as anything other than a town of privilege like Wellesley these days. Needham Football is especially proud they have dominated in recent years and the current players minus one year have known only victory in the rivalry and the freshmen and JV games have also been almost a white wash for Needham in the past five years.
Q: What has the reaction been from Needham players and fans a like to the game being played at Fenway this year?
A: The overwhelming response to the game being played at Fenway has been positive. The hope in Needham until last Friday night was they would play at Fenway one week and Gillette the next. The Needham Touchdwown Club has purchased boxes for the game and I anticipate a great crowd if the weather is good.
Q: Other thoughts about both these programs going forward?
A: I think this year was kind of a tipping point in a positive direction for the Raiders. This senior group is the first class who went through youth football in a Wellesley only program in the grade based system. It has done Wellesley football a lot of good. There are great talented classes in the pipeline for Wellesley especially the current 7th grade class which has been expertly coached by a good friend of mine Jim Fadule. Jim as I am sure you know was a part of the Wellesley High school staff this year. If Wellesley can hold on to the lion share of the players in the youth program (private school losses traditionally hurt the program) they will have some great teams in a few years. The 7th grade group could be truly special in my view. The Needham sophomore class was a very dominant youth team and the Rockets should be very strong for the next two years at least.