By Phil Stacey
---- — BEVERLY — The early season rust has been shaken off. The newcomers are settling into their roles.
And the Beverly High football team? Well, they’re starting to play Beverly High football.
The Panthers host Swampscott at Hurd Stadium Saturday (1 p.m.) looking not only for their third straight win of the 2013 campaign, but also to get over .500 for the first time this fall.
In its final game before the Division 3 Northeast playoffs begin next weekend, Beverly (3-3) wants to continue to trend upward by playing a full 44 minutes against the always-ready-to-battle Big Blue (1-5). They’re not at all focused on potential playoff matchups or who they could be playing in November; their sole focus is on their long-time Northeastern Conference rivals.
“At the beginning of the year, turnovers killed us,” said captain Isaiah White, who needs just 65 yards rushing to hit 1,000 for the season. He’s averaging over eight yards and carry and has crossed the end zone 11 times.
“But now we’re focused on what we need to do and not making those mistakes. Changing the pace of the offense has helped; our stingy defense is coming together, too.”
Since dropping their first two games to Haverhill and Danvers by a combined seven points, the Orange-and-Black have won three out of four. They piled up a staggering 600 rushing yards in a 48-28 win over North Andover, then shocked previously unbeaten Marblehead, 17-14, three weeks later.
“We might not have the biggest or toughest guys out there,” noted senior quarterback Nick Manthorne, “but if we do all of our blocking assignments like our line has been, if Isaiah hits the holes and me carrying out my fakes and everyone getting in sync last year ... we’re going to be all right.”
For a team that lost a plethora of starters from last year’s unbeaten Super Bowl champions, the Panthers knew they’d need to rely heavily on the seniors they had back. They’ve delivered, too; White has been a beast out of the backfield; linebackers (and fellow captains) Sam Mulumba and Sean Winston have performed likewise at linebacker; Zack Duguid has been as good as advertised as a two-way lineman and Jay Kozlowski has been valuable both split out and in the defensive secondary.
But just as importantly, there have been younger Panthers stepping up and assuming key roles that have helped vault them back up the standings.
“We knew we’d be needing a lot of young guys to step up this year and tried to get them ready and prepared as best we can,” Sam Mulumba said. “They’ve all shown they really want to play, contribute and help us become a good team. As a sophomore I can’t even think about doing what these guys are doing. Matt (Madden), my brother (Peter), all those guys are doing a great job helping the team and getting things done for us.
“The first couple of weeks were tough; the younger guys probably weren’t as confident as they are now,” added Mulumba. “I feel like we’ve grown more together like brothers in a family; the tough losses have made us better and more prepared for what’s ahead.”
As compliments to White out of the Beverly backfield, Peter Mulumba (348 yards, TD, 7.9 yards per carry) and Madden (313 yards, 5 TDs) have given the squad offensive balance. Jimmy Kastrinakis has been a surprise at both tackle and weak side linebacker, as have sophomores Chris Faust on the offensive line and Jake Berry on the defensive side.
Junior James Aaron has also made big contributions both at defensive end and nose tackle, and lately has been doing the same at tight end. This latter move has allowed Sam Mulumba to move inside as the Panthers’ X (i.e., slot) receiver, diversifying the offense even more.
“Last year, all the starters were in sync with each other and had been together for three years,” added Manthorne. “It took us some time, but you can tell now — no fumbles, no missed snaps from me. The offense is moving a lot more smoothly, and there aren’t as many mental errors.”
The Beverly coaching staff is quick to point out that Manthorne has steadily improved with each game, adding to Beverly’s good fortune.
“It’s all about getting the reps in,” said Manthorne. “You’re not going to get it right until you do it wrong. That was my biggest thing; it’s about learning from mistakes and not getting mad over it. It’s about taking the coaching and not doing it my own way.”
Swampscott will bring its spread attack to Hurd Saturday, something the Panthers have faced against the likes of North Andover, Marblehead and Lynn English this fall. Desmond Wilhelmsen (421 yards and 5 TDs on just 58 carries) is dangerous with the football tucked under his arm, and the hosts know what kind of damage Big Blue QB Brendan McDonald (1,041 passing yards, 9 TDs) can do, especially when he looks for favorite targets Ben Faulkner (26 receptions for 406 yards and 2 TDs) and Mike Faia (9-142-3).
“Stop (Wilhelmsen), stop their passing game and you stop Swampscott,” said White.
Either said that done, of course. But the Panthers say they’re up to the challenge.