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By Mike Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
Replacing an All-American Division I tight end like Matt Smith is not easy, but that is exactly what Needham High football will have to do in 2019. With Smith departing for Duke, along with several other key pieces of last season’s offense such as tight end Jack Murmes (Assumption) and quarterback Charlie Ogletree (Bentley) heading off to college, Needham has some work to do to fill those voids.
Despite having to replace a significant portion of last season’s offensive output, Needham boasts a plethora of star-caliber returning players, making the Rockets one of the favorites to win the Bay State Conference and earn a trip back to the Division I playoffs.
Leading Needham this season will be a trio of senior co-captains in running back Tyler Reid, offensive tackle Ryan Villa, and slot man/cornerback Odahri Hibberts. Both Reid and Hibberts are reigning Bay State Conference All-Stars.
Expectations are high amongst the Rockets, but according to Hibberts, becoming a family and playing as one is the top priority right now.
“First goal that appeared pretty quickly in the preseason is to go undefeated,” said Hibberts. “We think we are talented enough to do that, and capable of working hard enough to do that. Another goal we’ve really keyed in on is working on our chemistry and becoming a family. Not just playing the game of football, but also forming a brotherhood.”
In 2018, Tyler Reid, Odahri Hibberts and Matt Smith served as a three-headed monster for Needham’s offense, with Reid providing the power out of the backfield, Hibberts with the speed from the slot and Smith with the all-around ability to make a big play whenever the Rockets needed one. With Smith gone, Needham will need to utilize its speed and power out of both the backfield and the slot from Reid and Hibberts, all while improving and continuing to thrive defensively.
“Matt [Smith] was ridiculously good for us,” said Hibberts. “It really put teams in difficult situations in how they were going to guard us when we had him lined up, Tyler in the backfield along with all the speed we possessed out wide. This year, I know we have one of the better running backs in the state and a lot of speed at receiver. We have always been known to have good defenses that just find ways to shut opposing offenses down. I think we have the ability to do that with the talent we have back on both sides of the ball and we will find ways to make up for that lost production on offense with new guys stepping in.”
As for the quarterback position, Needham will turn to Will McDonald, who takes over for the departed Ogletree. Despite McDonald needing to make a big leap from starting with JV last season to now being the starting quarterback on varsity, Hibberts and his teammates are confident in the junior signal-caller’s abilities to lead the offense after working with him throughout the offseason to develop chemistry.
“Obviously with Will coming up from JV, we all need to get on the same page on offense during camp,” said Hibberts. “There is a lot of work that needs to get done to develop that bond, but that’s what we’ve needed to do every year, no matter who our quarterback was. This year is no different. We were running captains practice back in February to try and get as much work in with Will and the rest of our teammates as possible. We knew we were losing a really good quarterback in Charlie [Ogletree], but we also knew we had to move forward and get as much work in during the offseason to ensure a smoother transition. From what I’ve seen in camp the last couple days, I think our offense and Will especially is going to shock a lot of people this season. I can’t wait to watch Will McDonald ball out this year, and we have all the trust in him. He’s worked extremely hard and I’ve gotten extremely close with him. He’s one of the more confident kids on the team and he’s a very vocal leader and he’s not scared of what he’s stepping into.”
Needham will kick off its season on September 6 against rival Natick.
For funny and insightful sports analysis, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Twitter @fLAno0.