With just over 48 hours to go before the Wellesley-Needham showdown, it’s time to take a look at this year’s version of the Needham Rockets from someone who knows them best. Needham comes in with a 6-4 record, and earned a berth in the D1 South playoffs where they fell to Xaverian in the semifinals. I had the chance to catch up with Chris Dugan, sports producer of the Needham Channel to get his thoughts on the Rockets as they head into Thanksgiving. Here’s what he had to say!
Q: Give us your impression of Needham this season? What have been their biggest strengths/weaknesses?
A: It was an interesting offseason for Needham. The Rockets were coming off a season in which they finished under .500 for the first time in 10 years. Heading into this year they were undergoing a change in identity from an offensive standpoint. In recent years the team has been known more of a ground and pound type, with the likes of Ian Riley, Mike Panepinto, and Jared Sklar. Meanwhile, this years team features a lot of athletes, especially at the WR position Odahri Hibberts, John Andre, Matt Smith which is a big reason the Rockets have transitioned to a spread offense. All of their WRs bring a different skillset to the table. Charlie Sumner was the go-to guy at QB last year, but for most of this year Needham went with the tandem of Sumner and junior Charlie Ogletree. Personally, I was a bit surprised by this because I think the typical belief is that the QB needs consistent reps to stay in rhythm. Quite frankly though, it worked excellently for the Rockets. Both QBs complemented each other really well, and Needham won four straight after dropping their opener to Natick. During that 4-game winning streak, the Rockets averaged 23 points per game. Unfortunately, Sumner suffered a broken collarbone early in Week 6 against Braintree which ended his season, but Ogletree has continued to do a great job taking over full-time. With that said, I think one of their biggest strengths is their versatility at the skill positions. Both Hibberts and Andre can line up outside, in the slot, or in the backfield. Smith and TE Jack Murmes give Ogletree some big targets. Plus, each member of that quartet has big play ability, as the Rockets have eight touchdowns this year of 40+ yards. Id say their weakness is containing inside runs. They have been burned a few times with read-option runs by QBs, who have just taken it straight through the middle. Occasionally, they have been exposed by good cutback runners.
Q: Who have been the key players for Needham this season?
A: Odahri Hibberts is without a doubt one of the key players for the Rockets. Last year he became the first freshman to start during Coach Dave Duffy’s 20 years at the helm. Instantly, you saw how much potential he had. He has been phenomenal for Needham this year, and I think he is just scratching the surface at what he can do for the remainder of his high school career. He’s dynamic in both the receiving and the running game. His burst and breakaway speed are terrific. He can turn it on in the blink of an eye. Matt Smith has also stepped up big and quickly became a favorite target of both Sumner & Ogletree. He’s got great height on the outside, good hands, and he has sneaky speed. Defensively, senior LB Mike DAlleva has been a rock all season. It seems like every play he’s in on it somehow. Hes quick, can rush from the edge, and defends the pass exceptionally well. DAlleva actually snagged an interception in the Thanksgiving game last year. Aaron Gordon is another guy to keep an eye on. The senior CB has helped steady the Needham secondary and he has a knack for making clutch plays, including the game-clinching INT in a playoff win over Brockton.
Q: Having now been Needham Channel sports producer for 3 years, what in your opinion makes this Wellesley Needham rivalry so special?
A: I hate to sound cliché, but I really think the main component that makes the rivalry so special is the tradition. There are so many generations of families that have been involved in the game. So many people either stay in town or return to Needham or Wellesley to start their family, which ends up building on the legacy. On top of that, it’s such as natural rivalry. Needham and Wellesley are two neighboring towns that are very similar. That creates a natural competition almost like between two siblings, which of course creates the feeling of having to one-up the other side every time they play. I always laugh when I’m broadcasting a game between the two towns, and one of the Needham announcers will say, “You know, before they were known as Wellesley they were actually West Needham.” It’s a battle for bragging rights that neither side wants to lose.
Q: What does Needham have to do in this game if they want to bounce back from last year’s loss and beat Wellesley on their home field?
A: First off, it’s the first Thanksgiving game in Wellesley in four years, since they played the 2015 game at Fenway park. I think that is going to create a little added motivation for the Raiders. Just from talking to the Needham players at the beginning of the year though, they didn’t shy away from acknowledging the fact that Wellesley handed it to them last year. They definitely want to flip the script this year. If the Rockets play loose, then they will put themselves in a good position to win the game. I mentioned that they have the ability to make big plays on offense. Those will come naturally. They have gotten in trouble before by trying to force the big play, which has gotten them out of sync. When Needham plays smart and plays loose, they can be explosive on offense.