By Phil Stacey
---- — Johnnie Spears is up at 5:30 a.m. every morning.
He gets ready for school, hops in his car and makes the 15-minute drive from his home in Haverhill to Lawrence. From there, he boards a bus that takes him one hour away to South Hamilton, where he arrives at the Pingree School by 7:45 a.m.
“I don’t mind the commute,” said the 18-year-old Spears. “Going to Pingree was one of the best moves of my life.”
The folks at Pingree aren’t complaining, either.
Spears, who scored a remarkable 18 touchdowns in just six games last fall, is back as one of the lynchpins of Pingree’s highly skilled football team. The Highlanders begin their season tomorrow at Portsmouth Abbey in Rhode Island, the first step in what they hope will end with another prep school Bowl championship.
Quite simply, Spears is the best North Shore football player you’ve probably never seen play live.
“When college coaches call asking about Johnnie, there’s one word I always use: electric,” Pingree head coach Chris Powers said. “When he touches the football, it’s just electric. He’s really fun to watch with the ball in his hands.”
Unique is also a good word to describe Spears. The senior captain isn’t big — 5-foot-8 and generously listed at 165 pounds — but he runs like a deer, can pack a wallop when he hits and has a football IQ, said Powers, that is off the charts for a high school player.
“Johnnie gets absolutely everything out of his ability,” said Pingree’s ninth-year head coach, who started the program a decade ago. “When he sets foot on that field he won’t ever take a single play off; that’s part of his special makeup.
“When I say Johnnie is quick, I don’t just mean forward and backward quick. He can be running in any direction and change, at full speed, without losing a step. It’s amazing.”
Most of the time, Spears lines up in the slot. In the Highlanders’ no huddle, fast-paced spread offense, they love to get the ball to their athletes in space and let them do what they do best. No one is better at this than Spears, who often has absurd mismatches when linebackers try to cover him 1-on-1.
“Sometimes I’ll see (a linebacker) across the line from me and just give him a smile,” said Spears with a soft chuckle.
“We run a lot of screens, which is where I get most of my receiving yards. I like to joke with our quarterbacks that if (they) throw me a screen, that’s the quickest way to get (their) passing yards up.”
Seven of the 24 passes Spears caught last year went for touchdowns. His receiving yards totalled 607; he led the Highlanders in all three categories.
Pingree will also line him up in the backfield, where he carried 48 times for 595 yards a year ago. Again, he hit paydirt often with 10 scores via the the ground.
That means Spears had 72 touches either rushing or catching the football last year and scored an amazing 17 times — or nearly 24 percent of the time. He also returned a punt to the house.
“And coach said I can plan on getting the ball a lot more this season,” said Spears, whose brother Jamie started at Amherst College as a freshman in 2012. “I’m ready to make the most of those.”
Defensively, Spears is a demon at cornerback; he picked off three passes this preseason as opponents look at his size, figure they can exploit the matchup and end up getting burned. He also packs a wallop; according to Powers, he trucked the returning Evergreen League MVP from the Hyde (Conn.) School last week en route to a touchdown.
“It’s either take a hit or give a hit, and I’m not taking too many hits,” said Spears, who played at Georgetown High for two years before transferring to Pingree and repeating his sophomore year.
College football coaches love what they see in Spears, a player with long arms and ability to jump (a basketball all-star at point guard, he can easily dunk) in addition to his natural athleticism on the gridiron. A plethora of schools — Villanova, New Hampshire, Maine, Bowdoin, Bates, Stonehill, Amherst, Colby, Williams, Lehigh, Springfield, Western New England, Endicott, Curry and UMass Amherst have all expressed interest in him. And that doesn’t even include the schools that have cast an eye Powers’ way for his basketball exploits.
“He’ll have good choices when that time comes,” said Powers.
“As of right now, I’m leaning towards football,” said Spears, when asked which of the two sports he’d rather play in college. “I think about after college, which (sport) I’d have more of a chance to keep playing, and I’d definitely be football. But at the end of the day it’ll come down to what’s best for me and my family.”
Spears has taken to heart many of the things taught to him by his grandfather. Phrases such as ‘it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog’ and ‘hit the hole hard and you’ll always be fine’ are seared into his memory bank. His attention to detail and insistence on always doing the little things correctly have elevated him to superstar status.
“The play is never, ever over until you hear that whistle blow. I’m always going to go hard until I hear it,” he said. “You let up for even one play, and you’ve got to watch it in film the next day and won’t feel good. I don’t ever want to feel that way.”
Spears has it all wrong. Usually, it’s his opponents that are left with a pit in their collective stomachs after trying to stop him.
While certainly a dynamic player, Spears is hardly a one-man show. Pingree boasts a slew of talent at the skill positions and, after starting as many as seven freshmen a year ago, is chock full of experienced players.
Powers calls 6-foot-4, 200-pound wideout Justin Assad “maybe the best pure athlete that’s come through Pingree in my time here. He’s a special athlete.” Junior Sal Fazio of Middleton is almost a carbon copy of Spears, a slot receiver who can contribute in a myriad of ways. Captain Alex Salalayko of Peabody is a three-year starter at wide receiver, and fellow captain Kyle Lentini, a mountain of a tight end at 6-5 and 230 pounds, has developed remarkably fast in just his third year playing football. Sophomore Griffin Deal will be getting them the ball, having won the team’s quarterback battle.
The team’s fourth captain is William Ager of Middleton, a powerful offensive lineman and defensive end. (He, like Lentini, may not play tomorrow at Portsmouth Abbey due to injuries). Powers is also very excited about 6-5, 305-pound sophomore Nino Leone of Middleton, a two-way tackle who will play defensive end tomorrow.
“Nino can run like nobody’s business. He’s an incredible athlete,” said Powers. “He moves so well and we have so much confidence in him that we’d easily be comfortable with him playing middle linebacker if we needed him to.”
Swampscott and Winthrop will mash helmets for the 100th time in their storied rivalry tonight at Miller Field in Winthrop (7 p.m.). The visiting Big Blue come into the contest holding onto a slight 50-47-2 all-time series edge, but more importantly are in search for their first win in three tries this season.
The Big Blue and Vikings have split each of the last 12 meetings. The series began in 1911 and has been played every single season since 1929, one of the oldest streaks on the North Shore.
Looking at some of this weekend’s other matchups:
Peabody will renew acquaintances with Somerville in its home opener tonight (7 p.m.). The Tanners haven’t met their old Greater Boston League foes since 2006, the last year before they switched over to the Northeastern Conference. Peabody holds a commanding 28-5 series edge.
Since 2008, a nice rivalry has built up between Masconomet and Gloucester; the eighth such installment takes place tonight at Roberts Field in Topsfield (7 p.m.). Gloucester won the first five contests, including twice in the playoffs, in convincing fashion before the Chieftains won the last two meetings by 5 and 2 points, respectively.
The biggest thorn in Ipswich’s side for many years has been Newburyport, which hosts the Tigers tonight (7 p.m.) at World War II Memorial Stadium. The Clippers have won 34 of the 47 games between the two Cape Ann League schools; Ipswich’s last win in the series came in its Super Bowl season of 2006 (27-0). Since then, the Tigers allowed 34 or more points in four of the six meetings, including 47 back in 2007.
Two other schools battling tonight for the 48th time, Hamilton-Wenham and host North Reading (7 p.m.), has also been one-sided over the years; H-W holds a 33-12-2 edge. Starting in 2000, the Generals won 11 straight meetings before the Hornets snapped that dubious streak last year, 47-27.
One of the premier matchups in Eastern Mass. this weekend, St. John’s Prep at Central Catholic (tonight in Lawrence, 7 p.m.), expects to be another close battle, as has been the case recently. They’ve split their last four meetings, with three of those decided by a single point (including both Central wins). St. John’s still has a clear 23-12-1 series advantage and has won 10 of the last 13, but it’s evident the Raiders are no longer an easy ‘W’ on the Eagles’ schedule.
Beverly High’s first Super Bowl team, the 1998 squad that went 10-0 and played Dracut at the old Sullivan Stadium in Foxborough, will be honored during a 25-year anniversary celebration for the squad at halftime of the Beverly/Marblehead game on Saturday, Oct. 12 at Hurd Stadium.
All players and cheerleaders who were members of that 1988 team are encouraged to attend. A tent will be set up for the 1988 squad before the game, and at halftime they’ll be feted during an on-field ceremony. Following the game, an informal get together will take place at E.J. Cabot’s Restaurant and Lounge.
If you were a player or cheerleader on that 1988 Beverly High team and would like to take part, please call one of the three football captains from that season: Steve Costa (978-810-8550), Winston Trefry (978-998-0524) or Lon Hamor (978-223-3346).
Moving The Chains, a column on North Shore high school football, runs each Friday during the fall sports season. Contact sports editor Phil Stacey at email@example.com or at 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.