By Mike Grenier
BEVERLY — The cynical football fan would say there is absolutely no reason to circle tomorrow night's Danvers High-Beverly High game on the calendar.
The game, which has already taken on a rare status because it will be illuminated by temporary lights at Beverly's Hurd Stadium (7 p.m.), is a matchup of teams that have combined for an 0-9 record.
Or, to put it indelicately as a cynic would, it's a meaningless game between a couple of lower tier teams.
So the cynical fan wouldn't have shown up at Beverly's half dirt/half grass practice field a couple of nights ago to watch the 0-5 Panthers put on a spirited workout that didn't end until it was virtually pitch black out. And he wouldn't have bothered to go to Danvers that same day, where the 0-4 Falcons were concentrating as hard as they have all season.
To the Beverly and Danvers players and the respective coaching staffs, this is a meaningful game — one they both feel is as significant as a meeting of unbeaten teams.
For one thing, it's the beginning of the Northeastern Conference Small segment of the schedule for each team, so somebody's going to be 1-0 in conference play late tomorrow night (weather permitting). Then there's the familiarity factor; these kids practically live on each other's doorsteps. That's more than enough to get the players' blood boiling.
"It's a clean slate and time for us to get untracked," said George Kallas, Beverly's 6-foot-2, 265-pound two-way lineman and captain. "You don't forget about those first five games, but it's motivation for conference play. It's another chance for us to get going and when you get to conference games like this, there's always a chance for postseason play. But we're looking at just this one game.
"I've only focused on our team and our games so I haven't seen Danvers play, but they're a good team. As much as people (might not want to believe it), that's the truth. They punched us in the mouth last year (in a 21-3 Danvers win). They'll come out hungry — and we'll be hungry. It comes down to who executes better and makes fewer mistakes."
Defenses must clamp down
The numbers tell you that it's an even matchup; perhaps a toss-up. Danvers has been a bit more productive on offense, averaging 16 points compared to Beverly's 13. Both teams are allowing more than 30 points per game, probably because neither offense has been able to stay on the field long enough to give the defense a break.
"I think last week against Lynnfield was the first time that we took a step backwards," said Danvers rookie head coach Sean Rogers of his team's 40-18 loss to the unbeaten Pioneers. "Before that we'd make mistakes, but we'd correct them for the following game. But against Lynnfield, we made multiple mistakes and they were repeat mistakes.
"With us, it's been something new each week," added Rogers. "Against Pentucket we had turnovers in the red zone. Against Revere it was a matter of not having the ball enough. In the last game against Lynnfield, it was penalties and turnovers in key spots. We haven't turned it over at a high rate, but when you're this young and struggling to find points, every turnover is devastating."
Beverly's offense has featured the running of Nick Theriault (55 carries, 302 yards) and the passing of Joe Wioncek (30-for-61 for 321 yards and 4 touchdowns). Sophomore Brendan Flaherty (37 carries, 134 yards), a very promising runner who's been nicked up for much of the season, is finally looking healthy and could be a big factor in this one.
Danvers counters with Nick Valles (33 carries, 164 yards) and Greg Little (22 carries, 114 yards) in the running game. Rogers has also liked Little's toughness at quarterback; he's 19-for-48 for 347 yards and four touchdowns.
Who wants it more
Rogers says that intensity is "never an issue" with his team, but the Falcons' focus has a tendency to drift. The players are well aware of it and realize it needs to be fixed for them to have any shot of beating Beverly.
"There are days that we practice well and days that we don't," said senior Pat McBride, who starts at linebacker and wide receiver. "If we have good practices all week, we have a good shot at winning. We have to be technically sound and physical and ready to win this week."
Danvers' two-way tackle Shane Tobyne has a healthy respect for Beverly but admits he hasn't followed the Panthers closely, mainly because he's trying to be part of the solution for his own team.
"We have to be fundamental and get it done," said Tobyne. "We want to win so badly. Beverly is one of the biggest games for us. Other than Swampscott and Gloucester (the Falcons' Thanksgiving Day rival), Beverly is a real big game."
Added McBride, "We have to sustain drives. When we don't sustain it, we have trouble. We'll have a good drive going and then we have a turnover or something. But we're very hungry and we'll see who wants it more."
Rogers called Danvers-Beverly a "border war" and talked about the winner having bragging rights. But from Beverly's standpoint, Kallas sees it differently.
"It's not so much for bragging rights — and I think I can speak for my teammates about that one," said Kallas. "For us, I think it's about coming together and playing better as a team.
"I'm looking at our first five games as a learning experience," Kallas continued. "You don't like losing — and I'm not saying we laid down. We fought hard in those games. But the next six games are huge: bigger than the first five. It's the conference season (plus Salem on Thanksgiving), which are always big."
For you history buffs, Beverly has a whopping 52-18-2 advantage in the all-time series vs. Danvers.