The temperatures are dropping. The wind is picking up with each passing hour. The days are getting shorter.
Keeping high school football players — who either saw their postseason dreams dashed last weekend or never qualified for the playoffs in the first place — motivated between now and Thanksgiving might seem like a thankless task.
But according to area coaches, it’s not as hard as you might think.
“The sting of being knocked out of the playoffs hurts, but it needs to be pushed aside,” said Danvers head coach Sean Rogers. “Our guys have worked too hard for too long to cash in the rest of the season.”
Seniors can see the end of their careers in sight; there are just three games, totaling 12 quarters, remaining. For most of them, this will be the last time in their lives they put on the pads, strap on the helmets and hit anything with an opposing color jersey in a game that counts. Sentiment, reflection and surely a flood of emotion will wash over them between now and when Thanksgiving dinner is served.
For the younger guys, the benefits of these final games are twofold. For established underclassmen starters, it’s the chance not only to improve themselves (and possibly their standing in the eyes of college football coaches), but coaches are also looking at who might best lead their teams as captains in 2014. For spot starters and backups, it’s their opportunity to impress the coaches with a nonstop motor or by showing that continual improvement over the course of the year will continue into the offseason and right into next season.
And of course, there’s the simple matter of playing for pride. You put on the jersey and you represent not only yourself and your family, but also your school and community. If nothing else, you play for pride.
“There’s definitely no quit in our guys,” said first-year Ipswich head coach Greg Brotherton, whose Tigers were rewarded for their hard work last weekend with their second win of the season, a wild 40-39 victory at Saugus.
“With everything so brand new (with a new coaching staff) and them learning a new system, our guys keep improving every week,” added Brotherton. “They’re a great group of kids who still practice hard every single day. I’m really happy about that.”
It’s strange — and new for all participants involved — that you can lose a playoff game, see any chance you have of capturing a state championship dashed — yet still have actual games on your schedule before the uniforms are turned in. It’s a by-product of the new statewide playoff system implemented for this year, and it will certainly take some getting used to.
It also meant some teams played rivals earlier in the regular season than they normally would have. It also means teams could meet again at this point of the season — such as Beverly and Danvers. If the Panthers win at Somerville tonight while Danvers does the same at Wilmington, these two long-time foes will battle next Saturday, with the Falcons looking for a season sweep while Beverly looks to avenge an earlier upset loss.
“What more incentive do you need than that?” asked Beverly (4-4) head coach Dan Bauer. “You don’t often get a chance to play a team twice in the same season, especially one that already beat you.”
Brotherton said his Tigers are excited to play new opponents in November as opposed to the same Cape Ann League foes they’ve spent their entire football-playing lives lining up against.
“It’s fresh for them,” he said. “They were excited to play Saugus for the first time last week, and now Swampscott (tonight’s foe) is another big step up for them. Swampscott’s record (2-6, same as Ipswich) is a bit skewed; they probably play the best schedule of any Division 4 team. It’s a big challenge for us, but our guys are definitely excited and I’m confident we can compete.”
Rogers said he’s thankful that his Falcons (6-2) love competition and will continue to fight over their final three games.
“Our team captains, Alex (Valles), Mike (Favreau) and Anthony (Cordoba) have had the team working out together since January. The seniors on this team have sacrificed a lot the past four years, and this season they have shown the underclassmen what it takes to be a successful team,” Rogers said. “The seniors are playing for pride especially ... their high school careers are coming to an end, and they want to end on a high note.”
For the first time this season, Salem High will get to play at Bertram Field as the newly refurbished stadium hosts the Witches against Boston Latin tonight (7 p.m.).
Fresh off of their second win of the season against Revere last weekend, the Witches (2-6) are excited to be back on their home turf. Head coach Scott Connolly’s club will get the opportunity to do so twice more, too, hosting Dracut next Friday night before taking on Beverly on Thanksgiving morning in their 115th meeting.
Salem does have a football history with Boston Latin (3-5) — but they haven’t met on the gridiron in 89 years. The Witches and Wolfpack played for seven consecutive seasons between 1902 and 1908; the loss in 1902, 24-12, was the only setback for the 12-1-2 Witches that season. After taking a year off, they renewed acquaintances again in 1910, then twice more in 1923 and 1924 (in legendary coach Bill Broderick’s first two seasons at Salem High).
Going into tonight’s matchup, Salem holds a 5-4-1 series lead against Boston Latin.
A New England Prep School Athletic Conference (NEPSAC) Bowl bid is on the line in South Hamilton tomorrow afternoon (3 p.m.) when Pingree (6-1) hosts Dexter (6-1).
Both teams lost to the same opponent: New Hampton. Pingree lost a wild 54-48 shootout three weeks ago, while Dexter was blown out by the Huskies, 52-20.
Pingree is among the highest scoring teams playing high school football in Massachusetts, averaging an absurd 47.1 points per game and having scored 50 or more in a contest five times. Dexter, which leads the Evergreen League’s Bonneford Division (Pingree plays in the Clements Division) is no slouch offensively either, putting up 34.7 points per game.
Sophomore Griffin Beal has had an outstanding first season as Pingree’s quarterback; he has thrown for an area-high 1,470 yards while completing 70 of 119 pass attempts. His touchdown-to-interception ratio (16 to 1) borders on the absurd.
“He’s so athletic and seems to be in sync with his receivers,” Pingree coach Chris Powers said of Beal. “He’s a threat to run with the ball (383 yards and 6 TDs on 54 carries) at any time as well.”
Johnnie Spears has been, well, Johnnie Spears; he leads the Highlanders in rushing (640 yards and 10 TDs on just 52 carries), receiving (544 yards and 8 TDs on 27 catches) and is the North Shore’s scoring leader with 120 points, thanks to 20 total touchdowns. When running the football or catching it, Spears is averaging — wait for it — 15 yards a pop. Those are video game numbers.
The return of monster tight end Kyle Lentini (8 catches for 214 yards and 2 TDs) from an early season hand injury has given Beal even more weapons from which to choose, also including Justin Assad (19 catches for 371 yards and 5 TDs) and Alex Salalayko (11 for 301 and 2 TDs). Junior running back Sal Fazio (247 yards and 4 TDs on 43 carries) is another vital cog in the Pingree engine.
Kevin Moyette, a junior guard and middle linebacker, leads Pingree in tackles. Two-way tackle Nino Leone, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound behemoth, is constantly fighting off double teams and forces opposing coaches to scheme for him, said Powers, yet remains dominant, particularly at left tackle. Senior safety Rob Vantuyl has been a ballhawk in the Highlanders’ secondary as well.
Adding to the atmosphere tomorrow will be the portable lights Pingree will bring in for the game; the mid-afternoon start means it will almost certainly turn dark before the four 12-minute quarters are completed and a Bowl bid is awarded.
Moving The Chains, a column on North Shore high school football, appears each Friday in The Salem News during the high school football season. Contact sports editor Phil Stacey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 978-338-2650, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN.