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WOBURN — Before the season started, there weren’t many who thought the third-year KIPP Academy football team would be the last Lynn team standing in the MIAA playoffs. And there certainly weren’t many who penciled the Panthers into the Division 8 state semifinal.
But the Panthers believed in themselves and that’s what mattered most.
“I don’t have the words to describe how proud I am,” KIPP coach Jim Rabbitt said after his Panthers lost to West Bridgewater, 19-8, in Saturday’s state semifinal. “Just the adversity that this team fought over the past two years to get to this point. I know no one really expected us to be here but we did. Internally we knew we had the ability to get here. We proved a lot of people wrong to get here. Our ultimate goal was to go all the way and we fell a bit short. But our change of culture is because of our guys. I’m nothing but proud.”
KIPP didn’t start its season the way it set out to. The Panthers dropped their opener, 25-0 to Manchester-Essex, before logging their first win of the year in a 50-16 rout of Chelsea. Then KIPP fell to 1-2 after a 43-14 loss at Nashoba Valley Tech.
That’s when the Panthers realized their potential and turned their season around.
“It was a wake-up call for them,” Rabbitt said. “We knew we were a lot better than that score indicated. It was a lopsided game but we should’ve won it. We made a lot of mistakes. We weren’t there mentally and because we weren’t there mentally we couldn’t play physically. We flipped the switch little by little over the next few weeks. We started to execute everything mentally. We ran on all cylinders. We needed that wake-up call.”
The Panthers proceeded to win their next seven games, including victories over Charlestown (35-6), Roxbury Charter (19-2) and Keefe Tech (49-13) en route to the program’s first Division 8 North championship.
West Bridgewater simply proved to be a bit too much to handle. With a trip to Gillette Stadium on the line, the Wildcast relied on their ground game, scored on their first two possessions and played lock-down defense through the majority of the game.
But the Panthers have nothing to hang their heads about. With all but two seniors returning to the fold next season, KIPP has high expectations moving forward.
Sophomore quarterback Piero Canales will return to run the offense. Junior running backs Dave Filias and Daniel Oluwasuyi will command the ground game as seniors next year. Taj King has another season to guide the receivers.
Defensively, Mike Brice, Jose Castillo, Taofeek Lamina, Bhenzel Cadet and Juan Setalsingh all return, to name a few.
“Just the continuity of having everyone coming back is huge,” Rabbitt said. “West Bridgewater got to this point last year and lost. They had the experience in this game and now we have the experience in this game. If we’re fortunate enough to get back to this point next year we’ll have the experience under our belts. Hopefully that drive to get to Gillette is there all year next year.”
KIPP closes the season Wednesday (5) when the Panthers take on Thanksgiving rival Lynn Tech at Manning Field.