The Chelsmford High football team has come up short in the final minutes on two straight Friday nights, suffering unexpected back-to-back losses to Haverhill and North Andover, but veteran head coach Bruce Rich isn't ready to push the panic button just yet.
"Offensively, we've moved the ball pretty well in the last couple of games," Rich said. "We've had right around 400 yards of total offense, and that usually translates into 30-35 points. (Against North Andover) we just needed to finish off a couple of drives that we came up short on."
North Andover overcame a 21-7 first half deficit by scoring 21 unanswered points Friday night, and the Scarlet Knights dashed CHS sophomore quarterback Jack Campsmith's dreams off engineering a dramatic fourth quarter comeback when North Andover linebacker Nate Hitchcock picked off a Campsmith pass deep in Scarlet Knight territory with just 40 seconds left in the game.
Campsmith took over as the Lions' starting quarterback three weeks ago when senior starter Bobby Sullivan suffered a badly broken left wrist against Dracut. The Lions are 0-2 in the two games that Campsmith has started, but neither his coach nor his statistics seem to place the blame for either of those two losses on Campsmith. In his first career start against Haverhill (a 30-23 loss) two weeks ago, Campsmith completed 13-of-21 passes for 119 yards. Against North Andover on Friday the 6-0 170-pound sophomore competed 14-of-26 for 162 yards and a touchdown.
Campsmith staked Chelmsford to a 7-0 lead Friday night when he hooked up with senior wide receiver Gregory Johnson on a 35-yard touchdown pass less than three minutes into the first quarter.
"Jack is the least of our problems right now," Rich said. "He's shown a lot of poise and he's gonna get the job done, we're confident of that. He's done a great job for us so far. He's doing everything we can ask of him."
The other bright spot in the Chelmsford line-up has been junior tailback Jeff D'Auria, who has scored 13 touchdowns in the team's first six games, ranking him second among all Division 1 running backs in Eastern Mass. D'Auria was projected to be the team's No. 2 running back behind senior Connor Brimley this fall, but Brimley has been sidelined with a nagging leg injury for all but two games so far.
D'Auria ripped off touchdown runs of 73 and 81 yards in the first half against North Andover Friday night, staking the Lions to an early 21-7 lead. D'Auria finished the game with 189 yards on 16 carries, pushing his season's total to 829 rushing yards in just six games.
"Jeff's got everything you're looking for in a running back," Rich said. "He can hit the hole with the best of them and he cuts back real well. He can break tackles and he's got breakaway speed. He's a late bloomer. He's really come on in the last couple years, and he's only a junior. If he stays healthy he could be one of the best we've ever had."
Unfortunately, the Lions have not fared as well on the defensive side of the ball as they have on offense. Chelmsford has given up an average of 24.2 points per game so far, holding only one opponent under the 20-point mark.
With the toughest part of his team's schedule looming, Rich knows his defensive unit has to execute better as the Lions face four different Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 powerhouses in the next five weeks.
"We've really got to focus on tackling fundamentals. If we tackle better we'll be much stronger," Rich said. "We don't have a Timmy Joy out there that's just going to plant people into the ground this year. We're small, but we're quick, and I think we're smart. It's just a matter of a little better technique."
The good news is that the defensive lapses that led to the last two losses may not even hurt Chelmsford in its quest to repeat as MVC Division 1 champions and make the MIAA play-offs again this year. If Chelmsford can beat Central Catholic, Lowell, Andover and Billerica over the next six weeks, the cross-over losses to Haverhill and North Andover (both are MVC division 2 schools) won't matter.
The Lions hit the road Friday night to face Central Catholic in what could be their toughest test of the season so far. Central is 5-1 to date, having toppled Tewksbury 16-7 this past Friday. The Raiders are averaging 24.3 points per game, and have only allowed 14.3 points against.
"Central is tough," Rich said. "They're very physical, but teams have played with them. I think we can play with them."