By Dan Guttenplan
---- — The back-to-school blues will give way to the start of the fall sports season next week for local high schools.
Before the season starts, let’s highlight some of the top developing stories from last fall.
Football playoff system: If you’re looking at your local high school team’s schedule and wondering why there are only eight games listed, you might benefit from this explanation. The Mass. Interscholastic Athletic Association will roll out a new playoff system this season. Teams will earn points toward qualifying for the playoffs in their first eight games, and the month of November will be reserved for playoff football.
The local teams — Amesbury, Newburyport, Triton and Pentucket — will compete in Division 4 North, along with Arlington Catholic, Bedford, Hamilton-Wenham, Ipswich, Lynnfield, North Reading, Saugus, Stoneham, Swampscott, Watertown, Weston and Winthrop. Eight of those 16 teams will qualify for the playoffs, and the schools will be seeded 1 through 8 based on winning percentage and strength of schedule.
The eight playoff teams will compete tournament-style prior to Thanksgiving to determine the division champion. The eight non-playoff teams will compete against each other to fill out their respective schedules. Let’s hope Amesbury, Newburyport, Triton and Pentucket are playing meaningful games in November.
Budding soccer rivalry: The Newburyport and Amesbury girls soccer teams appeared to be on a collision course to meet in the state tournament last year before eventual state finalist Belmont ruined the local story. Despite the late-season letdown for fans, Amesbury and Newburyport provided much regular-season suspense by turning the natural rivalry into a collection of two of the top programs on the North Shore.
Amesbury had its best regular season in program history with a 15-0-2 record, taking the upper hand away from a perennially strong Newburyport team, which won sectional titles in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011. Amesbury graduated All-CAL selections Megan Cullen, Emily Martin and Erin Leary, so it will be interesting to see if this rivalry has more than one year on its shelf life.
Cross-country dynasty: The Newburyport boys cross-country team will look to three-peat as Eastern Mass. Division 1 champion. Last year’s edition of the Clippers won the state meet going away, besting second-place Coyle Cassidy by 31 points. The Clippers return their top runner in junior Nick Carleo, who could compete for an individual championship in the All-State Meet this fall. The one place Newburyport could improve — although one has to look hard to find a single area — is on its All State Meet performance. Last year’s team set the bar with a third-place finish. Can coach Don Hennigar’s team improve on that feat?
A Triton triumphant repeat: The Triton golf team will look to repeat as Division 3 champion after its best season in program history. The Vikings held off a hard-charging Newburyport team late in the season to win the River Rival Championship. They finished 15-5 before capturing the school’s first state championship since 2011. The Vikings will look to ride the momentum of last season, although Newburyport was on an upward trend in the second half of the season. Which school will take the River Rat trophy this fall?
An ALS Cup head-scratcher: One of the most inexplicable stats over the last decade of local sports is the Pentucket boys soccer team’s domination of Newburyport in the annual ALS Cup. While the teams have been relatively equal in talent over the last seven years — although Pentucket’s record is slightly better — the Sachems are riding a seven-year winning streak in the rivalry game. When you consider the schools alternate host sites for the game most years, it seems crazy that Pentucket could win more than two or three in a row, let alone seven. Let’s see if the streak continues this fall.