SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

December 1, 2012

Unbeaten champions never let go of the rope all season

Phil Stacey
The Salem News

FOXBOROUGH —

Mike Dooling reached into the waistband of his white Beverly football pants and fished out a piece of history.

It was a small piece of white knotted rope, probably three or four inches long and beginning to fray from wear and tear. Dooling's was similar to the one that each of his teammates had been given by assistant coach Ben Goodhue some three-and-a-half months ago. 

"That rope is our season in a nutshell," said fellow senior lineman Brian 'Mustachio' Perry. "Ripped apart and tattered, but it never broke."

Neither did Beverly's will to win. 

The Panthers completed their season-long mission by becoming the first BHS team to finish 13-0 by winning their second Super Bowl in three seasons, defeating Natick, 28-21 Saturday evening at Gillette Stadium. Star players, role players, special teams performers -- they all had a hand in finishing the journey.

"We never let go of the rope," said Dooling, the right tackle/defensive end who gutted out the final three games of his senior season by playing on a badly injured ankle. "One guy falls down, everyone else picks him up. That's what the rope is all about."

"We must have said 'Hold the rope! Hold the rope!' about 90 times during the game," admitted Perry.

Virtually every team in every sport, from high school on up, looks for something to symbolize what they hope will be a championship campaign. A catchy slogan, a simple gesture, a trinket that holds special meaning ... they've all been used to inspire teams to glory.

The Panthers came up with their own bit of verbal encourgement -- 'finish the journey,' which was originally picked up by the coaches during a leadership training seminar last spring. It was later shortened to simply 'finish,' which the players had plastered across the back of their team T-shirts.

But it was the rope that truly defined the makeup of the 2012 Beverly Panthers, who meshed superstar talent with unselfish role players and a what's-good-for-the-team-is-good-for-me mentality into the greatest football season in school history.

"What does the guy do who's hanging off the end of a cliff? He relies on his friends to pull him back up," said head coach Dan Bauer. "That's all these kids did all season -- pull each other up when one of them needed it. I'm very fortunate to have been part of this team."

Sure, stars such as Brendan Flaherty (175 yards and two touchdowns on a career-high 30 carries), Kenny Pierce (71 yards and 2 TDs on 7 carries) and junior Isaiah White (87 yards on 11 carries) carried the rope in much the same fashion they'd done all season. But the rope was just as much, if not more, symbolic of the way certain players would step up and make a huge play that proved critical in the final outcome.

Saturday evening, seniors Ryan Shipp and Brendan McGee were those two players.

Shipp is a wide receiver on a Wing-T team that runs the ball more often than Christmas commercials are shown this time of year. He's better known as a ball-hawking cornerback in the Panther secondary, and he was busy on Saturday against Natick and their gunslinging quarterback, Troy Flutie.

In a 7-7 game midway through the second quarter, Natick was driving for the go-ahead score when Flutie lofted a high, arching pass to Justin Robinson along the right side. Robinson caught the ball in stride, cut left towards the goal line -- and was promptly relieved off the football by a monster hit from Shipp at the 2-yard line.

Shipp wasn't finished. He immediately shot up, spotted the bouncing pigskin in the Beverly end zone and pounced on it for a touchback. Nine plays and 80 yards later, the Panthers scored to take a lead they'd never relinquish.

"I saw (Robinson) break free and made a beeline for him, hit him with my shoulder and the ball popped out," said the 17-year-old Shipp. "So I just sprinted for the ball and managed to fall on it.

"That's the thing. I know my role on this team: It's to play solid defense and make plays when I need to," Shipp continued. "I don't need to be on the front page of the paper; I just do my job to help us win."

McGee could have echoed those same sentiments. A tight end and special teams maven, he prides himself on getting downfield quickly on punts. Prior to Saturday, one of the biggest plays of his career came last year at Manning Field in Lynn, when his forced fumble off a punt helped the Panther reverse a 21-0 hole into a remarkable 35-34 win over Lynn English.

But following a three-and-out by Beverly on its opening drive of the second half, McGee got a new Biggest Play Of His Career.

Sprinting straight upfield after Harry Brown's punt, McGee drilled Natick's punt returner, Brian Dunlap, forcing a fumble before falling on it at the Redhawks' 18-yard line. Again, Beverly quickly made the Bay State Herget titlists pay by pounding in another touchdown, this one a 3-yard fullback trap from Flaherty to go up by 14 (21-7).

"Good things happen for me on special teams," said the affable McGee. "I'm always trying to go full speed downfield and make something, anything, happen. I was able to get a hand in there, knock it loose and get both hands on the ball before one of their guys jumped on my back.

"That's the thing that sets this team apart. We make big plays on defense, but then turn around and capitalize on them."

In a season full of them, those two game-changing turnovers were the biggest of the entire Beverly season.

"Those two plays came out of nowhere by Shippy and McGee," said Bauer. "That wasn't coaching; that was all heart and desire."

Thirteen games. Thirteen victories. Nary a loss.

And 55-odd pieces of torn and frayed rope.

It all adds up to one perfect season for the history books.

Phil Stacey is the sports editor of The Salem News. Contact him at pstacey@salemnews.com or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.