BEVERLY — He was holding a metal lunchbox under his right arm, one that was adorned with white, orange and black Beverly High football stickers. It was, he said, a symbol of the team’s lunch pail mentality that they bring, both literally and figuratively, to the gridiron every week.
Marc Babcock then spoke the seven words that every Panther senior was certainly thinking.
“We got them,” said the offensive guard and team captain. “We finally got ‘em.”
Tied at halftime, Beverly High exploded for four second-half touchdowns, two from the mercurial Brendan Flaherty, and pulled away from Marblehead to capture the Northeastern Conference/Cape Ann League Tier 2 championship with a resounding 35-14 win before an estimated 5,000 fans Saturday at Hurd Stadium.
In one of the most highly aniticipated regular season games in recent North Shore history, unbeaten Beverly (10-0) didn’t disappoint its rabid (and ever growing) fan base, rolling up 421 yards of offense while knocking the defending league champions from Marblehead (8-2) off the conference’s perch. Flaherty’s 198 yards rushing and 301 yards of total offense (rushing, receiving and kickoff returns), not to mention the perseverance and depth of Beverly’s offensive line, was a big reason why.
“We lost to them as freshmen, as sophomores in the JV game and last year as juniors. But to win this one, as seniors on our home field and clinch the (league) title, it’s a great feeling,” said quarterback Dave Rollins.
“It’s a relief,” admitted senior lineman Mike Dooling, part of a unit that eventually wore down the Magicians’ front seven, allowing Beverly’s run game to run for 275 second half yards (158 of those by Flaherty, all in the third quarter).
“We had a sour taste left from last year’s loss (to Marblehead, which ended Beverly’s title hopes). We wanted to take back what we thought should’ve been ours last year.”
As the Panthers celebrated on their home turf after the game, normally reserved head coach Dan Bauer ran smack into the middle of the scrum, a huge smile adorning his face as he was engulfed by his joyful players.
“You gotta have fun once in a while,” said Bauer, who won his second league title in three seasons, said with a laugh afterwards.
For the second time since the school began fielding a football team in 1891, Beverly High sports a perfect 10-0 record. They can become the first BHS edition to go 11-0 with a win at home Thanksgiving morning against Salem (4-6).
“Beverly’s the strongest team in the league. I don’t care what their size is; they’re the strongest,” classy Marblehead head coach Jim Rudloff told reporters after the game. “You can’t play with them for four quarters; it’s impossible. Maybe Burlington (whom the Panthers will face in a Division 2A playoff semifinal the Tuesday after Thanksgiving) or (potential Super Bowl opponents) Walpole or Natick can, but good luck to them.”
Marblehead came out with a simple game plan: control the football and keep it out of Beverly’s hands on offense. It worked brilliantly for a half as the Magicians held the football for 14:09 of the game’s first 22 minutes and slowed the pace down considerably. As a result, the teams were deadlocked at intermission after Rollins’ 24-yard touchdown pass to captain Dom Abate early in the second quarter was matched on the very next offensive series by Marblehead, as quarterback Ian Maag drilled a 26-yard scoring strike to Dylan Cressy on 4th-and-5.
“At first, they came out and punched us in the mouth,” said senior lineman Brian Perry, better known as ‘Mustachio’ for the long, flowing mustache he’s grown this season. “They had a great game plan. But once we figured out what we had to do, we were able to change things.”
A team’s best player has to rise his game up in the biggest games, and Flaherty certainly did that on Saturday — particularly in the third quarter, when the game was completely turned around.
It began when he found a seam and returned the second half kickoff 52 yards to the Marblehead 25-yard line. “That was a big spark that got our adrenaline going,” Panther senior linebacker Rob Cattell said.
Six plays later, Flaherty dove into the end zone from six yards out, stretching the football over the goal line to give the hosts a 14-7 lead.
Following a Marblehead three-and-out, Flaherty strapped on the workhorse’s saddle and carried his team into the end zone. He carried the ball all five plays of the ensuing drive, breaking free on a fullback dive where he cut back left and outran the secondary for a 44-yard score, making it 21-7 for the Panthers.
Including the kickoff return, Flaherty carried the ball on 15 of Beverly’s 18 plays in the third quarter.
“Offensively we don’t focus on getting one person the ball; we attack with what’s working,” said Flaherty, who has 1,023 yards rushing, 19 total touchdowns and 118 points in 2012. “But if calling your number is working, you’ve got to be ready to do your job.”
Junior Isaiah White’s 13-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter gave the Garden City kids a comfortable 28-7 lead, but the Magicians wouldn’t quit. Maag (112 passing yards, 66 rushing yards) showed poise and leadership in directing his team 66 yards downfield, hitting Brian Daly with a 34-yard pass before running around the right end himself from a yard out with 6:33 to play.
But the Panthers held from there, and captain Kenny Pierce sealed the team’s title-clinching victory when he escaped for a 34-yard scoring run on 4th-and-6 with 41 seconds to play, and Harry Brown booted the fifth of his five extra points.
“The train keeps rolling along ... until we make our next stop,” said the well-spoken Cattell.
BEVERLY/MARBLEHEAD: BY THE NUMBERS Beverly Marblehead First Downs 18 13 Time of Possession 18:32 25:28 Total Yards 421 242 Rushing Yards 349 130 Passing Yards 72 112 Penalties-Yards 4-35 2-20 Fumbles-Lost 1-1 3-1 Quarterback Sacks 2 0 3rd Down Conversions 6-10 5-14 4th Down Conversions 3-4 5-9 Attendance Estimated at 5,000-plus 50/50 winner Took home $1,345