By Phil Stacey Sports editor
The Salem News
---- — BEVERLY — The Saturday before high school football practices officially began in late August, Marblehead football coach Jim Rudloff and his good friend, Beverly High head man Dan Bauer, got together with their wives and had dinner together.
Could they possibly have known that exactly 12 weeks after that supper sit-down, they’d be leading their respective teams in the biggest, and most talked about, game on the North Shore this season?
Everyone pegged Bauer’s Panthers to be a league powerhouse, and they haven’t disappointed, destroying any and all teams that have dared venture into their path. Rudloff’s Magicians were a different story; yes, they were the defending league champions, but lost 22 seniors off that squad and figured to be good, but not great.
But Saturday afternoon at what is sure to be an overflow crowd at Hurd Stadium, the visiting Marbleheaders will come in with an 8-1 mark as they attempt to upset the 9-0 Garden City boys in what figures to be a modern-day gridiron classic.
The stakes are simple: A Beverly win would make them 4-0 in league play and clinches the Northeastern Conference/Cape Ann League Tier 2 title and sends the team to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. It would also give the Panthers their second 10-win season in school history. A victory by the Magicians, however, would put them in the driver’s seat for league supremacy; they’d need only a win over archrival Swampscott on Thanksgiving to capture their second straight crown.
As far as regular season games go, they don’t get much bigger than this.
“I think I know my team very well, and the only way we have a chance to beat Beverly is if we play perfect football,” said Rudloff, whose squad defeated Danvers on the final play of the game last Friday, a hook-and-ladder touchdown that resulted in a stunning 28-25 triumph. “Very good teams have come real close to beating us when we hurt ourselves with mistakes and penalties; if we do any of that against Beverly, it’s all over for us.”
Rudloff’s message rings true; the Panthers haven’t hurt themselves this season, but rather inflicted a whole lot of hurt on their opponents. Defensively, their ball-hawking ways have resulted in interceptions, fumble recoveries and a minimum of big plays allowed.
On the other side of the ball, the Orange-and-Black have rung up some video game-like numbers, averaging more than 38 points scored per contest while outscoring their foes by a whopping 277 points, by far the best mark in BHS history.
Bauer, who put his team through an outdoor practice Tuesday until darkness set in before many of the players retreated inside to watch film, is cautioning his team not only against a very strong Marblehead club, but the outside influences that could affect a less focused team.
“We’ve said to them all along, ‘Obviously, there are going to be people very excited about this game, everyone’s going to be talking about it. People who weren’t all that interested in you at the beginning of the season are going to be really interested all of a sudden,” Bauer said. “But we need to keep the focus on ourselves, let’s work to get better and let’s go play.’”
If Marblehead has an edge in Saturday’s matchup, it might be that their linemen are, on average, bigger than the speedier Panther trench guys. Magicians such as Ty Bates, Liam Gillis, Tom Koopman and Kyle McCormack aren’t just large bodies; they’re agile, athletic and work well in unison to open up holes and provide substantial pass blocking for quarterback Ian Maag.
Senior captain Zac Cuzner and sophomore breakout star Brooks Tyrrell have combined with Maag to form a three-headed monster out of the Marblehead backfield, running for a combined 1,577 yards and 21 touchdowns. Maag (90 for 144, 1,273 yards, 13 TDs) has also had success putting the ball up and finding receivers such as Brian Daly (21 catches for 353 yards, 4 TDs), Jeremy Gillis (28 for 341, 3 TDs), Dylan Cressy (15 for 239, 2 TDs) and Nick Perry (6 for 142, TD).
“Certainly, they have a lot of weapons they can go to,” said Bauer. “They have two really good backs and Maag’s a winner, a real difference maker. He hurt us a lot in last year’s game. Plus, there are guys who can catch the ball and the line is very well coached.
“If you look at the season they’ve had, they’ve had some close games and almost always found a way to win. That’s a sign of good coaching. By and large everyone’s good to win a clump of games, but to get over the top the players have to buy in to what you’re saying. They’re obviously doing that, never giving up and playing right down to the last play to win some games.”
While Marblehead was an inexperienced squad coming into 2012, the same couldn’t be said for a veteran Beverly squad. Its marquee players have delivered while new varsity faces have stepped into key roles and contributed more than could have been expected, only adding to their overall team strength.
There hasn’t been a single game in which the Panthers — who are blessed with remarkable team speed in all areas — have needed their starters to play deep into the fourth quarter. When they’ve been replaced, there’s been virtually no drop-off from the backups or even third stringers.
The Panthers have rushed for 2,724 yards as a team (more than 1,000 yards better than Marblehead) and 35 TDs; their top three backs (Brendan Flaherty, Kenny Pierce and Isaiah White) all have more individual yardage than the Magicians’ top rusher, Maag.
Quarterback Dave Rollins, who missed four games with mono, has been quietly efficient (16 for 33, 294 yards, 5 TDs, no INTs) when it’s time to pass, with Brendan McGee (6 for 102, 2 TDs), Flaherty, White and Ryan Shipp among his favorite targets.
On the line, guys like Marc Babcock, Kevin Kennedy, Brian Perry, Rob Catell, Zack Duguid and 285-pound rock Alex Negron give opponents fits.
“They’re a team that 3-4 times a game will rip off an 80-yard run or pass for a score,” said Rudloff, who worked on Bauer’s staff in Beverly for several years before getting the head job in Marblehead. “Reasonable minds know that Beverly is a better team. I don’t think anyone executes as well as them, and their team speed is unmatched.
“I don’t think we’ll out-execute Beverly or be faster than them. But we are good enough that if we play our best game, we can compete with them.”
TALE OF THE TAPE Marblehead Beverly Record 8-1 9-0 League record 2-1 3-0 Points for 267 346 Points allowed 134 69 Pts for/against in NEC 101-72 110-25 MVP candidate Ian Maag Brendan Flaherty Breakout player Brooks Tyrrell Isaiah White Difference maker Tom Koopman Marc Babcock Last league title 2011 2010 Last Super Bowl title Never 2010 Head coaches Jim Rudloff Dan Bauer