By Dan Harrison
---- — The 2011 Division 3A Super Bowl runner up Hamilton-Wenham Generals believe there’s no better football team to come through the Cape Ann League Small over the last decade.
The 2006 Division 3A Super Bowl Champion Ipswich High Tigers would beg to differ.
Both teams have a legitimate claim as the best CAL Small team of the last decade — and for very similar reasons. The Tigers finished 11-2 but won the Super Bowl, while Hamilton-Wenham went 11-1, falling only to Bourne High in the championship game. H-W’s one loss does come with a caveat; junior quarterback Trevor Lyons, who was the focal point of the offense, went down with an injury in the second quarter and did not return.
However, when it comes to the Tigers’ two losses, it’s important to note their opponents: much bigger schools Wilmington (by 2 points) and Masconomet (by 1 point), plus the fact that the 2011 H-W team didn’t play either of those squads.
The Tigers and Generals share more than just 11-win seasons. Both boasted ferocious versions of the 3-4 defense, had loads of senior experience and were led by a stud player on offense: running back Steve Phaneuf for Ipswich and the aforementioned Lyons for Hamilton-Wenham. Even the head coaches, H-W’s Andrew Morency and Ipswich’s Ted Flaherty, spent time coaching together at Beverly High in the early 2000s under Dan Bauer.
No one will ever know how the game would play out if the ‘06 Tigers and ‘11 Generals squared off — but it sure is fun to speculate.
“I would pick us because of the sheer number of talented football players on our team,” said Flaherty, who was a senior for Ipswich when the Tigers and Generals first played on Thanksgiving in 1975. “We had 14 really good football players and I think (the Generals) were in the 8-10 (talented player) range. I thought we had a little bit more depth, a few more one-way players and more speed. Trevor (Lyons) was fast, but top to bottom I thought we had more experience and faster people.”
Morency, whose first season at H-W was in 2006, sees it differently. When he faced Ipswich in 2006, his team fumbled just five yards from the end zone in the fourth quarter down 7-0.
“I’m going to have to say it would be tight and low scoring — 8-6 us,” said Morency. “I envision it coming down to the two-point play like that first year in some sweet irony. My dream would be to grind it down, pound it in ... then go for two to win it.”
Two stellar defenses
The 2011 Generals finished the year with three shutouts in 12 games, giving up just 8 points per contest for one of the lowest marks in the Commonwealth that year.
As impressive as that is, the Tigers were better statistically. Ipswich had seven shutouts in 13 games, allowing just 5.9 points a game. The team only gave up 10 points or more three times, and 10 of the 11 Ipswich starters on defense were seniors — and they were all fast and physical.
“Once we got going, we realized how special our defense could be. We wanted to stop everyone in their tracks. We knew we had a chance to pitch a shutout every week,” said Ipswich middle linebacker and captain Alex McCarthy, who led the team in tackles.
McCarthy was the heart of the defense and is one of the best middle ‘backers Flaherty has seen coaching football. Unparalleled in his toughness, McCarthy played on a ripped up ACL at the end of the season as the Tigers recorded shutouts in each of its final three contests, including a playoff win over Manchester Essex and the Super Bowl win over Cape Cod Tech.
“I had all the confidence in the world in our defense,” said McCarthy. “It was the heart and soul of our team. I would put those guys up against anyone.”
Andrew Ruta was the other big linebacker for Ipswich while Kevis Reid, Dan Curley and Matt Antenucci (a hybrid LB/DE) anchored the defensive front. Kevin Michaels and Ryan Gagnon were extremely aggressive safeties who lined up just a step behind the ‘backers while Phaneuf patrolled the outside at cornerback.
One of the most impressive things about the Tigers defensively was their ability to prevent big plays. The only play that went for more than 25 yards against them was a late 95-yard touchdown run in a blowout win over Amesbury.
“We were big and a very tall team. Usually tall kids aren’t that agile, but we could get off blocks easily and fast,” said Flaherty, who would often let McCarthy call specific blitzes. “(McCarthy) is one of the guys that gets to the second and third level mentally where he’s looking at the color of a guy’s knuckles or the gaps between people. He was so smart, so fast and had such desire. He was a bull. If he didn’t hurt his knee, he easily could’ve been a classic strong safety in college.”
The Generals had their own defensive studs, but mostly the team thrived off an outstanding linebacking core with Elliott Burr, Kevin Anthony and Shane Jenkins providing the Generals with linebackers who could both stuff the run and cover the pass.
Jenkins, the teams guard on offense, looked like a defensive lineman but had the footwork to excel in coverage. Defensive ends Taylor Drinkwater (11 sacks) and Luke Wendt could pass rush and set the edge for Hamilton-Wenham, while Paul Kim and Ryan Forringer were solid defensive tackles.
Lyons, Matt Putur, Steve Turpin and Christian Ecker were phenomenal defensive backs, which showed when the group shut down Newburyport’s potent passing attack in a Generals’ 7-0 playoff win.
“Our defense was very hard to run on and very rarely did teams throw passing touchdowns on us,” said Lyons. “We had a senior-based team, but also had sophomores and juniors behind them that were intelligent and athletic. A team like that was very hard to come by in Hamilton and made an impact on the entire town.”
Lyons and the Generals’ offense vs. Phaneuf and the Tigers’ attack
The 2006 Tigers and 2011 Generals had different looking offenses, but the results were eerily similar. Ipswich averaged 23.9 points per game while H-W checked in at 23.8 ppg.
Hamilton-Wenham was led by a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Burr (1,000 yards, 10 TDs) and Lyons (1,408 yards, 19 TDs), but it was Lyons that really made the offense go.
Ipswich, meanwhile, relied heavily on the backfield domination of Phaneuf (1,634 yards, 25 TDs), who went to Division 1AA Marist as a wide receiver, even seeing time on special teams as a sophomore before not playing his final two seasons.
“If you didn’t overplay Steven, he would kill you,” recalled Flaherty. “So what we would do each week was look at where (opposing teams) were robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Phaneuf himself doesn’t think there was another group who could match the Tigers, not only in games but also in practices.
“What made us great was a deadly combination of ability and unmatched work ethic,” said Phaneuf. “Offensively we knew our numbers would come because we had a tremendous line. We always executed offensively.”
On Thanksgiving Day 2006 Ipswich defeated the Generals, 7-0. Hamilton-Wenham actually held Phaneuf in check with what Morency and Mike Drinkwater believe was an inferior defense to the 2011 team. Mike Drinkwater was a senior for the Generals in 2006 and was a coach for the ‘11 team. He saw both Phaneuf and Lyons and what each kid meant to their team. In his opinion he’d take Lyons, no question.
“Anytime you have a player like Trevor, you can’t predict how the game’s going to go for the other team’s defense” said the elder Drinkwater. “He’s going to score a TD, you know he is, it’s inevitable. The true question is: how many?”
Lyons lined up under center and in the shotgun formation and found success both on quarterback sweeps and read draws. With track-like speed, when Lyons got the edge he was gone. He will compete for the quarterback job at Bates College this fall.
Ipswich, meanwhile, had one of its best offensive seasons in the Wing-T with Phaneuf, McCarthy at fullback and Gagnon (10-plus yards a carry) also in the backfield with quarterback Alex Harrington. The offensive line was as good as any with big, 240-pound tackles in Neil Berzins and Michael Fentron and athletic guards in Chris Tolios and Ruta. John Marcus was a more-than-capable center and with Antenucci on the outside, the Tigers rushed for 2,925 yards.
With the exception of Ruta, the rest of the line played just offense, allowing them to stay fresh and punish teams in the fourth quarter. Hamilton-Wenham also relied on a dominant offensive line with Matt Vogus at center, Anthony and Jenkins at guards and Drinkwater and Forringer as the tackles.
“We really had a sense of control when we had the line going,” said Morency. “Those low scoring games, we outrushed our opponents and controlled from the 20-to-20. Our line was big and physical, and that helped Trevor. When he was working to get to the edge, with our line, it was tough to get a visual on him.”
In the passing game, neither team was prolific — but neither needed to be. Ipswich threw for under 600 yards and Harrington completed less than 50 percent of his passes; however, he did throw seven touchdowns to zero interceptions. Lyons threw for 610 yards and seven scores of his own, but did throw two interceptions. His accuracy wasn’t excellent, but Lyons often made his best throws in the biggest moments of games.
Special teams, health and other factors
While the special teams for both teams weren’t overly impressive, there is one factor that jumps out when looking at the hypothetical matchup. Considering the defensive prowess of both clubs, field position would be extremely important. And here, the Generals appear to have a clear edge.
In the second half against Newburyport in the playoff semifinals, Jenkins, the Generals’ punter, somehow corralled a high snap, made a move on a defender before booting a solid punt. Jenkins was demolished for his efforts, and the 15-yard penalty assessed to the Clippers gave H-W a big first down.
On the flipside, the Tigers punting game actually cost them in their two losses. Flaherty recalls the team shanking a punt against Wilmington before the half that gave the Wildcats life. A bad punt also hurt the Tigers against Masco, when when the Chieftains converted a Hail Mary at the end of the game to prevail.
In a low-scoring, field position kind of game, the punting advantage for H-W could be key.
Another factor would be health. Lyons suffered a game-ending shoulder injury in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, while McCarthy was practically playing on one leg at the end of the season.
There isn’t a person associated with the 2011 Hamilton-Wenham football team that believes there’s any way the Generals would have lost the Division 3A Super Bowl to Bourne. “Oh my God yes, and I say it emphatically,” noted Morency. “Even on drives we didn’t score, I felt we moved the ball and had them right where we wanted.”
“No doubt in my mind we win if Trevor doesn’t get hurt,” added Putur.
Even with both rosters full and healthy, one has to consider the two men coaching. Flaherty and Morency clearly know each others’ styles, but it was Morency who held the head-to-head advantage. From Morency’s first year in 2006 to Flaherty’s last in 2012, the Generals went 5-2 against Ipswich in those matchups with a 15.4 point average margin of victory in wins. Ipswich, meanwhile eked out its two wins by a combined score of 21-13.
If Flaherty had his ‘06 squad going up against the ‘11 Generals, he wouldn’t do anything special. From his viewpoint, it would be up to H-W to stop the Tigers. He’s confident his players and their scheme could prevent Lyons from hitting the big play, while his offensive line would get stronger and stronger and remain relatively fresh throughout the game.
Morency, meanwhile, would use Putur and Jenkins to keep an eye on Phaneuf defensively without overcomitting too much. Offensively, the Generals would stick with the ground and pound, trying to wear down the fast Ipswich defense.
Drinkwater believes the Generals would prevail for one big reason. “I mean Trevor Lyons, the kid is just a playmaker,” said Drinkwater. “He knows how to play football and he’s on the field to win. It’s a characteristic you rarely find in people. There’s a difference between knowing and thinking you’re going to win — and he knows.”
Phaneuf, naturally, has a different opinion.
“Asking if we would win is like asking if the sun rises in the East,” said Phaneuf. “Every game we made it a goal to hold our opponents scoreless by winning in a punishing fashion ... as would be the case if we played the runner-up Generals of two years ago.”
If the two teams ever did meet, this reporter imagines it would be as smashmouth a football game as Vince Lombardi could ask for. Ipswich would score late in the first half on a Gagnon touchdown run to go up 7-0, but early in the fourth quarter a botched Tigers’ punt would put H-W within striking range. Lyons would find the end zone and Morency, true to his nature, would go for the win. Putur would get the counter, but McCarthy stays disciplined, meets him at the one-yard line and keeps him out. Ipswich takes over, and the rested offensive line grinds out enough first downs to run out the clock. Ipswich wins 7-6.