Mansfield’s Crook Finds Glory on the Gridiron

Hillary Crook
Former Mansfield High track star Hillary Crook (75) and the Boston Renegades won the 2018 Women’s Football Alliance (WFA) Div. 1 Super Bowl. Crook joined the team in 2017 and has been to two straight Super Bowls. (Sam Goresh/Boston Renegades)

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In the spring of 2017, Mansfield High physical education teacher and track coach Hillary Crook was looking for a new challenge. She was trying CrossFit and continuing to work out several years after her track and field career at Jacksonville University came to an end, but she missed the team atmosphere that came from being a collegiate athlete.

On a whim, she went online and Googled football. Crook found the Boston Renegades website and saw that the semi-pro, women’s football team was holding an open tryout.

“It was kind of a fluke,” said Crook in a phone call from her office at the high school this week. “I thought, this is pretty cool, maybe I’ll give it a try. If I make it, I make it and if I don’t, then I don’t. I went to one tryout and the rest is history.”

Not only did Crook make the Renegades (who play in Div. 1 of the Women’s Football Alliance), but she became the starting left tackle her first season with the team and has started every game over the past two seasons. This past July, the Renegades avenged a loss in the 2017 Super Bowl by beating the Los Angeles Warriors 42-18 at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta to win the national championship.

“I still have trouble describing it,” said Crook. “I’ve been very fortunate in my athletic career that I’ve had a lot of successes and victories…and this one was just different.”

She continued, “It’s really a battle out there. You look to your left or right and you see your teammates and they’re going to fight for you too. When that all clicks and you win…it’s just the best feeling. I’m still just riding this high from it.”

Crook is no stranger to athletic success. She threw the shot put at Mansfield and was unbeaten during her Hockomock career, winning three state titles, finishing second in New England, and seventh in the nation as a senior in 2006. In college, Crook won three Atlantic Sun Conference indoor titles and was a two-time ASun outdoor champion. She set the conference’s indoor meet record with a throw of 14.28 meters (46 feet, 10.25 inches) in 2010.

Two years ago, Crook found the Renegades and was intrigued. She had no background in football, other than backyard games with her brothers, but wanted to give it a shot. The tryout consisted of conditioning and some positional work. The coaches ran prospective players through fundamental drills, including for players that were most likely going to play on the line.

Most of the women who tried out that day had little experience playing competitively on the gridiron, but the roster is filled with former high school and college standouts in other sports, such as track, basketball, and soccer. Crooks earned her spot on the team, but she wasn’t sure how much playing time she would get.

“I don’t want to sit on the sidelines; that’s not my style,” she said with a chuckle. “I didn’t really know that I was going to play until right before my first game. It was at Philly and we were driving down and one of my teammates was writing up the lineups and she showed me and I was starting.” She has started every game for the Renegades at left tackle for the past two years.

The buildup to the first game was filled with nervousness (mostly about remembering the plays, according to Crook) and excitement about the unexpected.

“When that first series happened, I was thinking this is the best thing that I’ve ever done,” she said, before adding something that every football player going into the first game can relate to. “It was great hitting other people that weren’t your teammates,” Crook said. “It clicked and I was like, ‘I’m going to be doing this for a while.’ I thought watching football was great, playing it is even better.”

The WFA is a full-contact league. This is football as you are used to seeing it every weekend in the fall. As an offensive lineman, Crook relishes the contact, especially when it means that her quarterback, Allison Cahill, goes through a game untouched.

“It was really liberating,” said Crook about that first hit on an opposing defender. “We all think our quarterback is the best in the league and when you have that responsibility to protect the best in the league, it’s fun just to stop anyone from touching her. If we play and no one was near her then I did my job and it’s the best feeling.”

More than just the success on the field, which the Renegades have had throughout their history even dating back to their previous incarnation as the Boston Militia, Crook enjoyed the camaraderie. She was thrilled by the trips to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, the hours of studying video together, and the times that they can put aside the outside world and just be a team.

“Sometimes I like the away games better because it’s just about us,” Crook admitted. “It’s a business trip, no outside factors, we’re here to play.”

This summer, the Renegades put it all together in the playoffs. They beat up on Pittsburgh, avenged a regular season loss to the D.C. Divas, and then blew out L.A. in the Super Bowl. When she competed in track, Crook only focused on her event. If she won, the team got 10 points but it was an individual effort to win. Football is different.

“It takes a lot for 11 people on the field to click at once and be successful and I think that’s why it feels so great,” she said about winning the title. “The hours that the team puts in on our own watching film, going over plays, or meeting up to go over skills. It’s a lot and it shows on the field.”

She wants everyone to take part in the fun. The Renegades played home games last year at Harry Della Russo Stadium in Revere and Crook hopes that more fans will come and enjoy the exciting action.

“They see us running routes and running schemes and seeing hard hits and helmets fly and they’re like, ‘wow, this is legit,’” she said. “Come out and watch a game, you won’t be disappointed. If you like football, the Patriots are over, and there’s football to watch.”

Before Friday night’s game against Franklin at Alumni Field, Crook was an honorary captain for the Hornets. When she was asked if she was going to join Mansfield coach Mike Redding’s staff, Crook just laughed and said she was still “a student of the game,” but her passion for football is higher than ever and she is already looking forward to next season.

“I want to play as long as my body will let me,” Crook explained. “Life happens, things change, but if I can play for another 10 years I would. I’m going to play as long as life will let me…it’s too much fun.”

Hornets Ride Defense, Ground Game to Beat Franklin

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Mansfield junior Vinnie Holmes accounted for 104 yards of offense and a touchdown, as well as double-digit tackles, as Mansfield beat Franklin at Alumni Field. (Josh Perry/HockomockSports.com)

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MANSFIELD, Mass. – Mansfield started Friday night’s league-opener at Alumni Field with back-up quarterback Jack Mousette under center. He lasted two series before an injury, following a 38-yard run, sent him to the sidelines for the rest of the night. With starter Damani Scott unavailable and Mousette on the bench with his arm wrapped in ice, the Hornets turned to senior Aidan Sacco to be the emergency QB.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

Sacco only threw five times in the game, but he completed three of those passes for 42 yards and the Mansfield defense clamped down, forcing three turnovers in the second half and shutting Franklin out until the final two minutes of a 24-6 victory.

“It’s a gutsy win,” said Mansfield coach Mike Redding. “Jack comes in and did a nice job running the ball but the danger doing that is your QB is going to run and get hit and he just landed funny. Aidan Sacco came in…he’s never played quarterback in his life and he leads us to a win against a good football team, so we’ll take it.”

Franklin started the season 2-0 for the first time since 2012 and was looking for its first win against Mansfield since its unbeaten 2009 season. The Panthers moved the ball well, but failed to finish drives, twice reaching the red zone but both times coming away with no points.

“It was one of those night where try as we may, we did everything wrong that we could’ve from bad special teams snap, we dropped two touchdowns, every time they put the ball on the ground they got it back” Franklin coach Eian Bain said. “I even think we executed, we just didn’t finish the big plays.”

The Panthers drove all the way to the Mansfield 15-yard-line on their opening possession. Junior Thomas Gasbarro completed two of his three passes, both to Sean Leonard (six catches, 82 yards), but a draw play at the 19 lost six yards and eventually his keeper on fourth and 15 only gained nine to end the drive.

Mansfield made quick work of an 85-yard drive, needing only four plays, to take the lead, but in the process lost its starting quarterback. After Nick Marciano broke free on the right side for a 28-yard gain out to the 43, Mousette raced for 38 yards down to the Franklin 19 but was forced to leave the game with a shoulder injury. Two plays later, Sacco went up the middle for a 14-yard score.

Sacco also fielded punts and his 29-yard return gave the Hornets the ball back at the Franklin 41. Junior Vinnie Holmes (11 carries, 65 yards) gained 27 yards on two carries to get the ball all the way to the Panthers 12, but a fumble on the next hand-off forced Sacco to retreat 18 yards. Two plays later, Michael DeBolt, who was also 3-for-3 on extra points, booted a 35-yard kick for a 10-0 lead.

Franklin’s offense went right back to work on its next possession. Senior Nick Gordon (10-23, 174 yards) was the new quarterback and he found Leonard twice in a row for 43 yards down to the Mansfield 17. On third and seven from the 14, Gordon scrambled and his pass to Ryan Driscoll in the back of the end zone was inches over the receiver’s head. The Panthers settled for a field goal attempt but Parker Chevrant’s kick was wide right from 30 yards.

Gasbarro intercepted a Sacco pass to end the next Hornets drive, but he slipped on the return and couldn’t gain extra yards after the turnover. Franklin was forced to punt from its own 32, but a high snap rushed the play and it was sliced out of bounds just six yards downfield.

Mansfield made the great starting field position count to add a score before the break. After an incomplete pass, Sacco hit Holmes in the flat for a 28-yard gain. Sacco was unable to handle the next shotgun snap but Holmes was able to scoop the loose ball and gain eight yards. On the next play, he bulldozed for two more and a three-score lead.

Redding said of the late touchdown to end the first half, “That was big. You outplay them but it’s only 10 and you give them the ball to start the half and they score and it’s a whole different game. Then we thought, if we can win the third quarter, which it ended up 0-0, as long as we didn’t let them get back to two scores.”

The third quarter was marred by turnovers by both teams. Gordon was intercepted by Cincere Gill and then sacked by Chris Copponi and Daenin Walker to end a possession. Austin Jordan recovered a Mansfield fumble to get it back for the Panthers but only three plays later the Panthers put the ball on the ground and Jack Barry recovered.

“We do a pretty good regrouping, but I think we pressed a little on the first drive coming out,” said Bain. “Then we moved the ball again and we moved the ball again, but we all took turns tonight, coaches included, making the little mistakes. When you play the best, you can’t play anything but your best and we weren’t at our best tonight.”

Late in the fourth quarter, Walker forced another fumble that was recovered by Copponi at midfield. Gill (eight carries, 95 yards) gained four yards on first down and then burst through the right side of the line and raced 46 yards for the touchdown that sealed the win.

The Panthers didn’t give up and responded in just four plays. Gordon hit Driscoll on a go route down the near sideline that made sure there wouldn’t be a shutout. The two-point conversion attempt fell incomplete.

Mansfield came away with a win, but the Hornets will now head into a showdown with two-time defending league champion King Philip with a third-string quarterback at the helm. According to Redding, the Hornets will be relying even more on their defense to come through.

“We had to get this one,” Redding admitted. “We lose this with a quarterback going down, now we’re fighting a losing battle. Now, Aidan’s got some confidence playing in a game. Our guys will be ready for next Friday. They’ve had our number the last few years and we’ll be ready to play.”

Mansfield (2-1, 1-0) will host King Philip at Alumni Field on Friday night, while Franklin (2-1, 0-1) will try to bounce back right away when Oliver Ames visits Pisini Field.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

Taunton Roars Past Oliver Ames In “Tiger Bowl”

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Taunton’s Javon Franklin intercepts a pass in the end zone in the second quarter against Oliver Ames (Ryan Lanigan/HockomockSports.com)
ByRyanLanigan_2016FollowRyanLanigan_2016
 
 
TAUNTON, Mass. – In the final minute of the first half, Oliver Ames found the end zone to cut Taunton’s lead in half, taking the momentum into the break.

But Taunton stole the momentum back, sandwiching a pair of 60-yard plus drives around an OA three-and-out to begin the second half. The hosts never looked back from that point on, earning a decisive 30-6 victory in the HockomockSports.com Game of the Week, dubbed the “Tiger Bowl.”

“I thought their offense did a good job of mixing it up on us,” said Taunton head coach Brad Sidwell. “I’ve run a no-huddle spread offense before and it’s different for the defense when you haven’t played against it, our guys had to adjust. But coming out in the second half, that first drive was a big deal. And then it was nice to get a stop and do it again on offense.”

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

Taunton was looking to add onto its 13-0 lead when it stopped Oliver Ames on fourth down just over midfield late in the second quarter. But the host Tigers fumbled just two plays into the series with OA’s Andrew Fraser falling onto the loose ball.

OA took advantage, marching 57 yards on nine plays to end the first half on a high note. Junior quarterback Cam Perron (7/18, 99 yards) scampered for 15 yards to begin the drive and back-to-back carries to junior Nathan Cabral (20 carries, 103 yards, touchdown) moved OA up the field 30 yards. An encroachment penalty on Taunton allowed Cabral to convert a fourth down inside the red zone on a short run, and two plays later, Cabral took a pitch to the left and ran in for a 9 yard touchdown, cutting the deficit to 13-6.

Taunton’s offense was unfazed but its deficit shrinking. Senior Tryton Zavala (18 carries, 117 yards) had four rushes on the drive while senior quarterback Noah Leonard (15/19, 213 yards, three touchdowns) went 3-for-3, hitting Wesner Charles (six receptions, 79 yards two touchdowns) for a 26-yard touchdown over the middle. Coby Adams’ extra point made it 20-6 with 7:45 left in the third quarter.

The defense did its part, highlighted by a sack from Taunton senior Max Moitoso on second down. OA ended up without a yard on the drive and had to punt quickly.

After OA’s three and out, the host Tigers once again worked their way down field. Facing a 4th and 7 at the OA 19-yard line, Leonard hit Cam Carroca, who fought his way past the first down maker. On the next play, sophomore Josh Lopes (seven carries, 59 yards) found a big hole on the left side and went in for a 10-yard touchdown and a 27-6 lead with 1:15 left in the third.

“Our guys battled across the board,” said OA head coach Mike Holland. “I thought our guys fought and it was a competitive game at half. Coming out in the second, we had a chance to do a couple of things. We didn’t and they capitalized to pull ahead. They finished strong and we didn’t.

“Football comes down to who can control the line of scrimmage, who can sustain long drives, and who doesn’t come out and go three and out offensively. They came out and drove the field, and offensively we sputtered and had to punt. They got the ball back, ate up some clock with a long drive and finished.”

To start the game, the teams traded punts and then Oliver Ames’ second drive ended on downs. On Taunton’s second drive, the hosts went 76 yards on 10 plays. Danny MacDougall (six catches, 96 yards) had an 11-yard reception and fullback Damian Manning grabbed a 15-yard pass on the drive. Three plays later, Leonard connected with Charles on a fade route for a 7-0 advantage.

Oliver Ames looked to respond, moving the ball into Taunton territory. Perron’s pass to sophomore Jeremy Clark went for 40 yards early in the drive and the junior quarterback also hit Sam Stevens for 12 yards to inch closer to the red zone.

It looked Perron had a man down the left sideline on the ensuing play but Taunton safety Javon Franklin came flying over and made the interception in the end zone.

Taunton took advantage of the turnover, needing just five plays to go 75 yards. MacDougall laid out to haul in a 34-yard pass, OA was hit with a dead ball foul to move the ball half the distance to the goal, and Leonard his Sean Quinlan in the corner of the end zone for a 13-0 lead.

After Taunton went up 27-6, a 39-yard kickoff return from Stevens put Oliver Ames in good position on the ensuing drive. The visiting Tigers got into the red zone when Perron hit Shane Kilkelly (three catches, 30 yards) for 11 yards and a first down. On fourth and goal from the 5 yard line, Taunton brought pressure and Sebastien Celestin came up with a big sack to keep OA out of the end zone.

It marked the third straight game Taunton has allowed just six points.

“We’ve been a little bit bend but don’t break on defense,” Sidwell said. “We got a big turnover in the first half in the end zone. We had a few more man rushes tonight so he couldn’t get comfortable back there. He had some scrambles on us but we were able to get to him a couple of times.”

Adams added a field goal in the fourth, connecting on a 21-yard field goal to cap Taunton’s only drive of the quarter (10 plays, 76 yards).

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

Taunton football finished with over 400 yards of offense, with 213 coming off the arm of Leonard and 205 yards on the ground. For Sidwell, it was a welcome sight to see after failing to get the ground game going consistently a week prior.

“I was frustrated last game against Durfee because in the second half, we couldn’t run the ball against similar type defense with everybody up in there,” Sidwell said. “You have to find ways to run the ball and I’m pleased with how we did tonight.”

Taunton football (1-0 Hockomock, 3-0 overall) is on the road next week when it visits Attleboro (0-1, 2-1) on Friday night at 7:00. Oliver Ames (0-1, 0-3) will try to bounce back when it visits Franklin.

Special Teams, Field Position Help KP Beat Foxboro

King Philip football
King Philip junior Ryan Halliday carries the ball against Foxboro in the third quarter. (Ryan Lanigan/HockomockSports.com)
ByRyanLanigan_2016FollowRyanLanigan_2016
 
 
WRENTHAM, Mass. – As King Philip’s new offense tries to get up, it’s going to need some help.

On Friday night, that help came in the form of special teams.

The Warriors leaned on a pair of good punt returns and their own punting game to win the field position battle, and as a result, a 17-0 verdict over visiting Foxboro.

Three of King Philip’s seven drives started in Foxboro territory, and all three resulted in points. The other four resulted in three punts and the end of the game.

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

“I was very happy with special teams, it really kept us in the game,” said King Philip head coach Brian Lee, who earned his 100th career victory. “But we have a lot of things we have to figure out still.”

King Philip’s defense had another strong showing after allowing just 14 points in the season-opening loss to North Attleboro. A sack from David Morganelli put a quick end to Foxboro’s first series.

A 23-yard punt return from Tim Nault gave King Philip’s offense a strong start, first down at the Foxboro 36-yard line. The Warriors got one first down on a Jack Webster run up the middle, but a tackle for loss from Foxboro’s Anton George and Will Ogbebor put the hosts in a hole.

KP quarterback Robbie Jarest (5-for-7, 32 yards) hit Morganelli (four catches, 35 yards) for an 11-yard gain but it was just short of the sticks. Junior Cole Baker drilled a 35-yard field goal to put the host Warriors ahead 3-0 with 4:05 left in the opening quarter.

King Philip’s defense stymied the Foxboro offense again during the second series, including a sack from Webster. This time the punt was hauled in by Aidan Bender just over midfield, and he raced it 35 yards back to the Foxboro 28-yard line.

Despite facing a 4th and 8, Jarest linked up with Morganelli for 11 yards to move the sticks. An offensive pass interference call moved the ball back at the end of the first quarter, but KP had an eight-yard scamper from Ryan Halliday (23 carries, 98 yards) and five more yards from Webster.

On 3rd and 7, Jarest rolled out right and hit Morganelli, who dove down to the 1-yard line. On the next play, Halliday went up the middle for a 1-yard touchdown and a 10-0 lead with 9:09 to play in the first half.

“Two bad punt coverages hurt us in the first half,” said Foxboro head coach Jack Martinelli. “It gave them great field position. We gave them short fields two or three times…they earned them, and we’re not good enough to play that way. We have a great kicker (Russell Neale), but we haven’t gotten into range to use him.”

Foxboro responded with its best drive of the game, moving into King Philip territory. The Warriors ran 11 plays for 50 yards, highlighted by passes from Liam Foley (9-for-21, 84 yards) to Keyshawn Sanders (8 yards) and Brian Derba (5 yards). Foley hit Shayne Kerrigan over the middle for 20 yards to convert a third down.

A 15-yard scramble from Foley gave Foxboro the ball at the King Philip 30-yard line but three plays later, King Philip’s Deric Casado tipped a pass and then came down with the interception to end Foxboro’s threat.

Baker punted for KP when its drive stalled, booting to the Foxboro 30-yard line. With a long field to go, Foxboro’s drive ended near midfield when time ran out on the first half.

Foxboro’s defense started the second half on a high note, forcing a punt. Again, Baker booted it to the Foxboro 30-yard line. Although Foley hit Pat Stapleton for 16 yards on the first play, a sack from Morganelli three plays later halted the drive.

Although Foxboro’s defense came up with a stop, KP continued to win the field position with another strong punt from Baker (47 yards). King Philip’s defense pushed the visiting Warriors back even further with losses of six and three yards on the first two plays.

On fourth down, Foxboro’s punt sailed out of bounds at its 36-yard line. Once again, King Philip cashed in on good field position.

This time the host Warriors ran seven plays to cover 36 yards, capped by a 3-yard touchdown from Halliday, who had gallops of 12 and nine on the drive. Baker’s extra point put KP up 17-0 with 9:13 to play.

“In the second half, when we were struggling on offense, to flip the field on the big punt from Baker was huge,” Lee said. “Punting and those two punt returns…short field allows you to be patient. It puts the defense in a bind right away. ”

Click here for a photo gallery from this game.

After giving up just 14 points last week, King Philip’s defense had another strong outing. Foxboro had just 92 yards of offense and KP recorded four sacks and one interception.

“We felt good about our defense, and we’re going to lean on them to get us going. We’ll play the field position and go from there. I’m very pleased with the defense. We don’t have a superstar this year. There’s no Shane [Frommer], no Mark Glebus, so we all have to chip in, we all have to contribute.”

Foxboro (0-2) will try to break into the win column when it plays Stoughton (1-1) at Canton High School.