When Mike Pucko became head football coach at Holy Name Central Catholic High School back in 2005, and for several years thereafter, the Naps annually played — and beat — some of the perennial Central Massachusetts powers, like Fitchburg, Leominster, Wachusett Regional and Nashoba.
For the last few seasons, though, due in large part to realignment and declining enrollment numbers on Granite Street, Holy Name’s schedule has included smaller-but-well-heeled schools such as Algonquin and Auburn, not to mention the even smaller likes of North and Hudson.
The downgrade in the Naps’ schedule, along with fact that fewer and fewer student-athletes were choosing to play football every year, were the major factors in Pucko’s decision last month to resign.
“It’s been coming for a few years,” the 62-year-old Pucko said. “Things at Holy Name are changing; the numbers have been changing for several years now. We were just getting further and further away from what I was looking to do.”
Holy Name athletic director Jim Manzello said he does not have a replacement in mind for Pucko.
“Obviously, Mike is [the] type of guy you are not going to be able to replace,” Manzello said. “I honestly believe he’s the hardest-working coach out there. Certainly the hardest-working coach I’ve ever had. And, doing this job for 30 years and talking to other ADs, there are not many coaches I’ve ever heard of that work as hard as Mike. Obviously, I can’t replace that.”
“We used to play Fitchburg [his alma mater] and Leominster, Wachusett and Nashoba on a regular basis and we were not only so competitive with those teams, but we beat them on a regular basis,” said Pucko, owner of Pucci’s Jewelers in West Boylston. “The future for playing Fitchburg, Wachusett and Leominster is over. It’s disappointing not playing those schools, but we couldn’t have played them this year anyway because of where we’re at now.”
The Naps opened the 2015 season with a 37-20 home loss to Wachusett – “They just pummeled us,” Pucko said – and then lost to Doherty, 42-30, in Week 2. Holy Name managed to exact a measure of revenge on the Highlanders by season’s end, defeating them, 48-36, in the first round of the Central Mass. Division 4 playoffs.
“You’ve got to be realistic about it,” Pucko said of the changing landscape of Central Mass. high school football. “When I first started at Holy Name we played everybody. Let me tell you, it’s a lot of fun to be able to go to Leominster and beat Leominster. But that’s just not going to happen anymore.
“There was a certain level I wanted to coach at, but it got to the point where even our practices started to become very abstract because of the low numbers and injuries,” Pucko said. “It’s hard. It’s hard coaching at a small school now.”
Holy Name dressed just 26 players in its 28-6 loss to Auburn High on Thanksgiving Day.
“It was maybe 26, and that included freshmen and eighth-graders,” Pucko said. “We started some freshmen in that game, too, and you always cringe when you have to do something like that.”
Pucko said the declining participation numbers at Holy Name were a symptom of a larger problem.
“It wasn’t so much the numbers, per se, it was the dropping down a division every couple of years – obviously that becomes a continuing spiral – and you start losing the kids you should be getting,” he said. “We were competing with St. Peter’s [St. Peter-Marian] and St. John’s for the same kids and we weren’t getting them. St. Peter’s was getting a lot of the kids that we used to get. School choice is a big vehicle out there now, too; kids can pick and choose where they want to go.
“And the direction they’re going with the new alignment – it looks like Holy Name is going to go down [into] 3A, which is like 5A,” Pucko said. “To be honest, I don’t even know what the divisions are anymore; it’s all so muddled.”
In 15 seasons coaching West Boylston [2001-2004] and Holy Name [2005-2015], Pucko’s teams were 115-60 [26-18 coaching the Lions; 89-42 with the Naps]. Holy Name was 4-18 in the two years before Pucko took over, but the program quickly did an about-face when he brought his vaunted double-wing offense to Granite Street.
Holy Name went 10-2 in in 2005, a campaign capped off with a 37-12 win over Wahconah Regional of Dalton in the Division 2 [Central Mass. vs. Western Mass.] Super Bowl. The Naps were even better the next year, going 12-0 and winning another Division 2 Super Bowl, this time 36-6 over Mount Greylock Regional of Williamstown.
After a 7-3 mark in 2007, the Naps were 9-3 and won the 2008 Division 1A Super Bowl, defeating heavily favored Westfield High, 20-7.
Pucko’s resignation by no means closes the book on his coaching career.
“Come the fall I’ll be doing something. I’ll be on the sidelines somewhere, even if it is as an unpaid assistant,” he said.
“I would really like to get on board with one of these Division 3 college teams around here and do what I know we can do, but I don’t know if it will happen. College athletic directors, they look at high school coaches as the enemy, so I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not.”
So where does Manzello and Holy Name go from here?
“Right now I’m just sitting back and talking to different people to see if a name bounces across my desk that sounds real interesting,” Manzello said. “Obviously, I would like to get someone a lot like Mike, but that’s going to be hard to do.
“We haven’t really opened it up yet,” he said. “I’m going to take some time and do a little bit of reflection and see if anyone comes to my mind. But, right now, I don’t know what we’re going to do moving forward in terms of replacing Mike.”
Pucko said he had been contemplating this move after each of the past three seasons.
“It’s hard to pull the trigger,” he said. “Jim Manzello was so good to me and the kids always gave me everything they had – they always gave me 100 percent and always played their asses off for me; that made it hard to just walk away.
“So, it’s hard to walk away, but at some point, enough is enough,” he said.
Manzello said none of the assistant coaches on Pucko’s staff this past season are viable options to replace him.
“Being a high school football coach is a demanding job. It’s really a full-time job, but it doesn’t pay like a full-time job. And the hours are crazy,” Manzello said. “It’s hard to get a real good person. Even if it was someone in the building, they just don’t make head football coaches like Mike Pucko anymore. I understand that. I know I’m not going to get someone who is going to put in that type of time and energy and commitment and sacrifice.
“That’s why I just want to reflect a little and make sure that I really know what I’m doing with this position; that I look at it thoroughly,” Manzello said. “The bottom line is you just plug away, say your prayers and reflect. We’ll be fine.”
Pucko quickly dismissed the notion that he was stepping down because he was frustrated with some of his players not playing hard at the end of the season.
“That happens with the new playoff format,” he said. “If you got into the loser’s bracket you’re not going to be able to tell a basketball player – whose coach doesn’t want him playing football anyway – that even though you’re in the loser’s bracket you still need the same effort right up until the end.
“In the old days, you’d play right up to Thanksgiving and if you make the playoffs you go to a Super Bowl,” Pucko said. “Now the regular season is over at Halloween. And kids aren’t stupid; they know when they’re out.”
Holy Name was in the mix this past season right up until Thanksgiving, having lost to Grafton, 28-16, the Saturday before.
“After we lost to Grafton we just had Auburn on Thanksgiving left and nobody practiced,” Pucko said. “There’s no rivalry with Auburn. Things don’t mean what they used to. We played Auburn on Thanksgiving for the first time ever and nobody cared. That’s the way it is now.
“Kids aren’t stupid,” he said. “They’re getting ready for basketball or they’re beat up. It’s a different mindset now. The kids gave me everything they had, but at some point, when push comes to shove, they’re a little beat up and they say, ‘I don’t need this. It doesn’t mean anything.’ ”
CMASS GRID ALL-STARS ANNOUNCED The Joe Mewhiney Chapter of the Central Mass. Football Coaches Association has announced its Divisional All-Stars for the 2015 season. They are:
Division 2 MVP (overall): Jake Benjamin, Nashoba
Offense: Tim Cassidy (MVP), Sean Ragan, St. John’s; Liam Shanahan, Sam Dias, Marlboro; Noah Grey, Anthony Dandini, Leominster; Billy Polymeros, Jack Gerulskis, Algonquin; Will Phaneuf, Nashoba; Alex Marrero, Fitchburg; Matt DiPano, North Middlesex; Ryan McCarthy, Wachusett.
Defense: MacBrien Nkongchu, Jake Fields, Mike Corinne, St. John’s; Mike Curtin (MVP), Tony Kennon, Nashoba; Nmandi Okaka, Jake Cohen, Shrewsbury; Connor Skinner, Leominster; Thomas Polutchko, Algonquin; Anthony Casparriello, Westboro; Marc Merchant, Fitchburg; Nick Zottoli, Wachusett.
Division 4 MVP (overall): Matt O’Brien, Grafton
Offense: Kevin Mensah II (MVP), Liam Barry, Holy Name; Shane Dawson, Groton-Dunstable; Tavian Vassar, Doherty; Manny Brown, Roman Narain, Doherty; Anthony Baldino, P.J. Barry, St. Peter-Marian; Matt Bressette, J.J. Howland, Tantasqua; Zack Paul, Quabbin; Cole Fontana, Grafton; Alec Lindstrom, Nathan Healy, Shepherd Hill
Defense: Sean McKeon (co-MVP), Nick Ostrowski, Shepherd Hill; Alec Simonovich, St. Peter-Marian; Ali Boothe, Doherty; Andrew Bitar, David Howard, Burncoat; Jack Fontana, Ifeatu Melifonwu (co-MVP), Grafton; Jesse Nemerowicz, Hudson; Anthony Zola, Tantasqua; Peter Schiloski, Nipmuc; Christian Morales, North.
Offense: Koby Schofer (MVP), Chandler Brooks, Northbridge; Antonio Venturim, John Reumann, Millbury; Giovanni Ortiz, Southbridge; Jason Balderelli, Clinton; Malachi Ceely, Leicester; Jake Keenan, Tyngsborough; Dustin Powell, Lunenburg; Oliver Sawyer, Uxbridge; Ryan Handlin, Oxford; T.J. Medlin, Auburn; Liam Gorman, Oakmont.
Defense: Mike Quinn (MVP), Jake Wood, Northbridge; Brent Whitlock, Cam Stewart, Uxbridge; Scott Bailey, Southbridge; Tom Russell, Clinton; Casey Green, Leicester; Jack Buckley, Tyngsborough; A.J. Robbins, Lunenburg; Cameron Bourke, David Prouty; Brett LeBeau, Bartlett; Ben Jette, Auburn; Sam Gallant, Gardner.
Offense: Cooper Bigelow (MVP), Sean LaFlamme, St. Bernard’s; Connor Bassett, Littleton; Tucker Haerle, Sutton; John Hogan, Quaboag; Hector Petri, Blackstone Valley Tech; Gabe Souza, Assabet Valley; Tyler Popp, Monty Tech; Zach Uglevich, Maynard; Kyler Hamilton, Ayer-Shirley; Matt Buscanera, Narragansett; Bobby Dumas, Nashoba Tech.
Defense: Gavin Mott, Cole McCubrey (MVP), Tim McQuade, West Boylston; Ben Gallant, Blackstone-Millville; Jared Cormier, Akram Semakula, Maynard; Festus Konneh, Worcester Tech; Dwight Richards, Ayer-Shirley; Brandon Contois, Monty Tech; Steve Collins, Littleton; Nick Spain, Sutton; Zach Merchant, St. Bernard’s.
Special Teams: Chris Renaccio, Littleton; Zach Bingham, St. Bernard’s.