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By Michael Flanagan
Hometown Weekly Sports Editor
Following a 5-2 record and a first-round victory over Brockton in the Division I South playoffs last season, expectations for Needham High School football are high heading into 2018.
The returns of star offensive weapons such as Duke-committed tight end Matthew Smith and junior running back Odahri Hibberts have created some significant hype for the reigning Bay State Conference champs under first-year head coach Doug Kopsco.
Along with Kopsco taking over the reins of the program, Needham will be led by five senior captains in Smith, strong safety and wide receiver Jack Hayes, quarterback and punter Charlie Ogletree, defensive tackle and offensive guard Jake Doherty, as well as defensive end and offensive tackle Jonah Kurker.
“First off, we just want to improve,” said Ogletree when asked about his team’s general goals for the upcoming season. “We want to improve off of everything we were able to do last year, both on offense and defense. We’ve got a huge group of seniors and we’re all pretty close, so we totally feel that we can improve and achieve some of our goals this season.”
Smith agreed with Ogletree’s assessment.
“I think we’re very strong in a lot of areas,” said Smith. “We’ve been playing together for a long time and we’ve got some good chemistry building on both sides of the ball. We want to get back to where we were last year and advance to play for a state championship.”
With so many weapons returning on offense, Needham’s captains feel confident in their team’s ability to score points heading into the season.
“Offensively, we’re looking pretty good,” said Doherty. “We got some new spots on our offensive line and kids are coming in, competing and learning new things. We’re clicking pretty well.”
“We’re going to be very explosive,” said Kurker. “We have a lot of speed and a lot of size, but it starts with us all coming together and competing as a team.”
Kopsco agrees that his team’s offense should have a strong season and that the return of long-time offensive coordinator Chuck Thornton will play a huge role in Needham’s ability to score points.
“We’ve got a really talented team and we’re bring back a lot of starters on offense,” said Kopsco. “We should be pretty talented on that side of the ball, especially at the skill positions. On the offensive line I expect to see some improvement; we have a lot of guys battling and we’re seeing good competition for some starting jobs.”
“Coach Thornton is going to be our solidifying piece there,” said Kopsco. “He’s been the offensive coordinator here for quite a while, so he’s getting another year with these guys and he knows all their strengths and how to utilize them well. So, I think that consistency piece is one area where we won’t have to go through monumental changes, and I think that consistency will allow the players to play at their best on offense.”
On the defensive side, Needham is young, but talented, as the Rockets will sport a fast and experienced secondary headlined by its two safeties: Hayes and Hibberts.
“Our defense lost some key guys from last season, but we’ve had a lot of new guys step up and prove that they can make an impact,” said Hayes. “We’re confident that the group we have can consistently get the ball back for our offense.”
As far as general expectations for the season, Kopsco says that he and his team are just taking things day-by-day - but he can sense that his players have some big goals in 2018.
“We’re focused every day on the next practice,” said Kopsco. “I think the kids have a very strong sense of their potential and where they could go. So, I think they have some long-term goals, but as a coaching staff, we’re making sure that we’re all focused on the next day. Every day that we’re out here, we’ve come together better as a team. We’re doing a lot of the little things correct right now and that should take care of those big things down the road.”
For funny and incisive sports analysis, follow Mike Flanagan on his personal Twitter at @fLAno0.