By Phil Stacey
BEVERLY — George H.W. Bush had just been elected President of the United States four days earlier. The Escape Club's "Wild Wild West" hit No. 1 on the pop music charts this day, and the Celtics lost to the Milwaukee Bucks that evening in the fifth game of the season — and would lose Larry Bird to a season-ending back injury one game later.
The date was Nov. 12, 1988. It was the day that the 8-0 Beverly Panthers hosted the 8-0 Swampscott Big Blue in a Northeastern Conference football dream matchup. The host Panthers rolled to a 34-14 victory at Hurd Stadium, officially clinching the NEC title and the school's first-ever playoff berth in football.
That day was also the only time Beverly High has ever qualified for postseason play on the gridiron. Twenty-two long seasons later, the Orange-and-Black have a chance to finally get back to The Big Dance this Saturday afternoon.
The opponent and the venue just happen to be the same as that classic contest 22 years ago. And while the Northeastern Conference landscape is radically different than it was three decades ago — Beverly is 4-5 overall, but more importantly unbeaten (4-0) in NEC Small play — the stakes are just as high when Swampscott visits Hurd Stadium tomorrow (1 p.m.).
"I think it's pretty obvious to everyone they have talent, they have size and they've been able to pretty much manhandle everyone they've played up front," Swampscott coach Steve Dembowski said of the Panthers. His team takes a 2-1 league mark (7-2 overall) into this contest and must beat not only Beverly, but also Marblehead on Thanksgiving to win the NEC Small crown.
"Everyone was surprised they didn't start off with a better record," added Dembowski, alluding to the Panthers five straight non-league losses to begin the 2010 season, "but no one is surprised they're in the mix for the NEC South title. For us to be successful, we're going to have to play our assignments and be physical at line of scrimmage."
On a roll
Since beating Danvers for its first win Oct. 15, Beverly has scored 122 points in four games, all victories. The Panthers seem to finally have the kinks ironed out in their new Wing-T offense, with the team's experienced offensive line opening big holes for backs Brendan Flaherty, Nick Theriault and Kenny Pierce to dart through.
Flaherty, in particular, has exploded onto the North Shore football scene over the last month, so much so that he has to be considered one of the two favorites to win NEC Small Player of the Year honors (along with Swampscott's sublime QB, junior Mike Walsh). The 6-foot-1, 180-pound sophomore, who is so dangerous running the sweep by hitting full speed as he turns the corner, has rushed for a mind-boggling 822 yards and 12 touchdowns in the last month.
"All three of Beverly's backs have outstanding speed," said Dembowski. "Flaherty on the sweep, Theriault on the dive inside and Pierce on the counter — they can all bust a big gainer. They're willing to nickel and dime their way down the field, but if you make a mistake on a gap assigment, they can take it the distance."
Hulking linemen such as captain George Kallas (265 pounds), Alex Ego (6-foot-4, 245 lbs.), Andrew Cannata (245 lbs.) and George Kastrinakis provide time for plays to develop as senior captain Joe Wioncek runs the Panther ship at QB.
"We have a mixture of older and younger players at key positions," said Beverly head coach Dan Bauer, who was a member of Ivy League championship teams at Penn in 1986 and, ironically, 1988. "We've seen continued improvement and have really started minimizing our mistakes."
Big potential offensively
Conversely, Swampscott brings its famed Spread offense into Hurd Saturday with Walsh at the controls. A threat both running and passing the football, the first-year starter has accounted for 30 touchdowns, completed almost 61 percent of his passes and, as Dembowski said, "we wouldn't be in the position we are without him."
Pass catchers have long been a staple of Swampscott's success, and this fall is no different. A.J. Baker may lead the team in receptions (38), but captains Peter Yasi and Pat Costin are also constant threats while a plethora of others, such as Zach Beermann, give the Big Blue tremendous depth. In all, 12 different players have caught at least one pass.
"We're at our best when everyone makes plays and we spread it out," said Dembowski.
"If you look at what they've done over the season, it seems to me that they came from behind a number of times. They're always in games until the very end," added Bauer.
Both the stakes and emotions will be high come Saturday afternoon, but the teams know all the pre-game talks and rah-rah chants will go out the window once the opening kickoff takes place.
"Everyone knows it's a big game," said Bauer, "but we're not hounding and harping on that. We're just focusing on getting ready to play. That other stuff takes care of itself."