By Phil Stacey
---- — One team could have essentially come onto the field, thrown their offensive playbook at the feet of their opponents and said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to run; try and stop us.’
Their arch rivals couldn’t have been a more polar opposite. Like the world’s greatest mathematicians trying to stump Will Hunting, they constantly kept you guessing, wondering, dreading what they’d run next.
The 1999 Salem High football team ran a power Stack-I offense and everyone knew it; aside from an occasional misdirection or trap, there wasn’t much mystery about what they’d be doing with the football. But no one could stop it and the Witches, behind their beefy line, a dominant running back and a defense who came up biggest when the stakes were highest, ran roughshod over their foes all the way to a Super Bowl championship.
The 2012 Beverly High football team would run any play out of any formation at any time. A Wing-T team that had zero problems switching over to a spread formation, the Panthers smashed school records on offense like a pinata at a child’s birthday party. Behind a technically proficient line, a stable of strong backs and a defense that also had a penchant for making big plays, they finished with the best record in school history en route to a second Super Bowl title in three seasons.
Two of the best teams, respectively, in these two storied programs that date back to the late 19th century.
But what if they faced each other? Who would ultimately prevail: the 1999 Witches or the 2012 Panthers?
“It’d be a great football game because it’d be two totally contrasting styles,” said Sean Gallagher, the man who probably knows this better than anyone else on the planet. He was 30 years old when he led Salem to its first Super Bowl during that magical ‘99 campaign; he’s now the principal at Beverly High School and watches every football game (often doing color commentary for radio) with keen interest. “There are definitely some things with our Salem team that Beverly would have trouble with, and there were certainly some things that Salem would have had trouble stopping Beverly on.
“But there are a lot of similarities between the two. The tenacity I saw last year from (Beverly) reminded me a lot of (Salem in ‘99). What I really liked was that when the chips were down for both teams, it was the way in which they responded. They rallied and motivated each other to overcome any adversity they faced. They never lost that fight.”
To get a better understanding of what made these two legendary teams click, it’s time to delve a little deeper.
Salem had one thing on its mind coming into the 1999 season; win the Northeastern Conference title and earn a coveted Super Bowl berth. The Witches were coming off of a 6-4 season that ended in disappointment, having lost their 100th meeting against their arch rivals from Beverly, 8-7, the previous Thanksgiving. That bitter memory fueled the players leading up to the season, and once the games began again they weren’t going to let anything derail their dreams.
“I think of it in terms of the attitude we had going into that year,” said Salem captain Matt Keller, a two-way tackle who went on to play four years at Tufts University. “I remember running laps at Bertram Field, up and down stairs, multiple days a week, the whole team coming together.”
The pieces were certainly in place for such lofty thoughts. It all began with the team’s tailback, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound wrecking ball named Matt Horgan. Explosive and powerful at the same time with tremendous leg drive and upper body strength, Horgan didn’t just power his way through the holes; he also outran everyone once he did. Horgan finished 1998 with seven straight games of 100 or more yards rushing and ended up with 1,271 rushing yards; he was ready for an even bigger workload as a senior.
Sophomore DeWayne Penn added a perfect complement to Horgan with his breakaway speed. Fullback Eric Gonzalez (6-1, 225 lbs.) didn’t carry the ball much but was content to take on anyone foolish enough to blitz, or he’d be the lead blocker on any given play. Lito Gonzalez, a junior, ran the offense with deft and precision at quarterback.
The seven young men on the line were like their own security force; with a combined weight of 1,625 pounds they looked more like college trenchmen than high schoolers. Keller and P.J. Bock were a pair of 275-pound tackles, flanked by Hugh Galligan and captain Joel McNamee on the ends (with Chris Felton rotating in), and Brad Sano and Justin Bezzatti at guard. Deni Gaito balanced the middle out at center, working in perfection synch with Lito Gonzalez.
“We prided ourselves on being physical,” said Gallagher. “Real basic, real physical.”
Defensively the Witches were staunch out of their 5-2 alignment; Horgan and Derek Sprei were the linebackers behind a defensive line consisting of Galligan and McNamee as ends, 265-pound Keith Schroeder and Keller at the tackles and Eric Gonzalez as the nose guard. When teams tried to beat the Witches through the air or on sweeps, the secondary of Penn and Lito Gonzalez, as well as safties Guesty Tavares and Anthony Valdez, put an end to those hopes.
The season started with a hiccup — a 24-15 non-league loss to traditional rival Peabody — but it wound up being a blessing in disguise. Salem, for all its power and might, learned it couldn’t win on sheer brute force alone, and ultimately that setback to the Tanners wound up turning the season around.
Conference play began the following week with a win over Lynn English before a devastating tragedy hit the Salem community: the senseless death of beloved Boys & Girls Club Director and Salem Little League coach Steve O’Grady, who was killed by a drunk driver. Many of the Witches had played for or against O’Grady and/or knew him well from the Boys & Girls Club, and were shocked when they heard the news.
“That was an extremely tough week,” said Gallagher. “We went to a lot of the O’Grady services and were emotionally exhausted, all of us. It was just surreal.”
The feeling carried over into the weekend, when Salem had to play at Swampscott and were down, 8-6, at halftime. Finding their resolve in the second half, though, the Witches scored in each of the final two quarters, including a 12-play, 80-yard drive in the fourth to seal the deal for a gutsy 18-8 win. In controlling the line of scrimmage — a theme that would play out for the rest of the season — Salem outrushed the Big Blue, 328-35.
“After that we certainly had other big games: Classical, Gloucester, Beverly,” said Gallagher. “But after we went through that week and all those emotions and all, it’s like they weren’t going to be denied.”
Historic win leads to historic season
The wins started coming fast and furious from that point on: a 36-0 home pounding of Winthrop in which the Witches rushed for 453 yards (including a career high 212 for Horgan and 121 more from Penn); a 31-8 bashing of previously unbeaten Lynn Classical in Week 6; and a 60-24 pasting of Saugus in which the Witches set a school record for points in a game.
“Schroeder would be the pancake, (Eric) Gonzo the syrup and Horgan would score the touchdown,” laughed Gallagher, “all behind a big block by Keller on the right side.”
“We weren’t individualistic at all,” said Keller, now 31 and working product management for a software company. “Matt would be the first guy to say ‘I have to give credit to the line’, or if someone had a sack they’d say ‘I have to give credit to our coverage.’ That’s just the way we all were.”
It all led up to that season’s Game of the Century in Week 8 when Salem (6-1, 6-0 conference) traveled to Gloucester to face the unbeaten Fishermen (7-0). It was a tall order for Gallagher’s club; the Fishermen were 44-5-1 in their previous 50 games (the only NEC team to beat them during that time was Swampscott), including 21 home wins in 23 tries.
Before a crowd estimated at 8,000 fans at Newell Stadium, Salem produced one of the greatest victories in team history. With Gloucester leading and trying to run the clock out, Eric Gonzalez caused a fumble and Penn dove on it, giving his team possession at the hosts’ 23-yard line with just 1:41 to play. With eight seconds remaining, Horgan took his 42nd and final carry of the game on a 42-blast (a staple of the SHS playbook), ran behind Gaito and Keller and leaped into the end zone from three yards out. His fourth touchdown of the game gave Salem a victory for the ages, 24-21.
“Once we got that break we needed,” said Keller, “we absolutely knew we were going to score. I still remember throwing my block and looking off my shoulder to see Matt diving into the end zone.”
Salem topped winless Marblehead the following week to officially clinch the NEC title; shut out Beverly, 14-0, on Thanksgiving and capped off the season with a 25-12 Division 3B Super Bowl triumph over Attleboro at Bentley College in Waltham, where Horgan had his fourth 4-TD performance of the season in addition to his 178 rushing yards.
Horgan, who rushed for 1,704 yards and 29 touchdowns that year, had 100 yards or better on the ground in each of his last 18 high school games. He averaged almost seven yards a scamper for his career, in which he finished with 3,322 yards rushing. As a team the Witches averaged 307.9 yards per game on the ground, finishing the year with 3,387 yards as Penn (78 carries, 726 yards, 5 TDs) and Lito Gonzalez (58 carries, 406 yards) also carried the mail nicely.
Since that championship season, Salem has only had one winning season (6-5 in 2010).
Beverly’s dominance during the 2012 high school football season has been well documented in these pages. The Panthers didn’t just beat their opponents en route to going 13-0; they mauled them the way a ravenous tiger tears through a piece of meat.
Head coach Dan Bauer’s Panthers never scored fewer than 28 points and set a myriad of offensive school records, including most points in a season (472), most times scoring 40 or more points (5); most rushing yards in a season (4,392), most total yards in a season (4,987), most yards per game average (383.6), most points per game in one season (36.2) and biggest points for/points against differential in school history (a gap of 338 points). Their first team defense allowed a scant five touchdowns during their 11-game regular season slate and blanked their foes in 33 of 52 quarters played.
Want to know what’s probably the most unfathomable stat of all? The Panthers trailed for exactly three plays the entire regular season. If that’s not sheer and complete dominance, what is?
“A lot of us seniors had been playing football together since the second grade, and we knew playing for the high school team would be a special part of our lives,” said running back/defensive back Kenny Pierce, now a freshman playing at St. Anselm College. “We all thought simply playing for Beverly would be that special part, but being a part of the school’s best-ever team — that’s the most special thing.”
Beverly’s O-line had six of seven senior starters: tackles Kevin Kennedy and Mike Dooling, left guard Marc Babcock, center Brian Perry, tight end Brendan McGee and wideout Ryan Shipp, along with junior Zack Duguid at right guard. Senior Dave Rollins was the perfect quarterback to run the offense, with weapons such as Flaherty, Pierce, senior Dom Abate (a team captain like Babcock, Dooling, Pierce and Flaherty) and explosive junior transfer Isiah White.
It was the same story defensively in the team’s 3-4 alignment as Dooling, Perry and Duguid were the first line of defense; juniors Sam Mulumba, Sean Winston and White, along with senior Luke McDonald, lined up as linebackers; and the secondary was covered by senior Ryan Shipp, Pierce, Abate and Flaherty. Harry Brown was the kicker extraordinaire to boot.
The Panthers had only one opponent come within 22 points of them (a 30-14 win at Masconomet) through nine weeks when Marblehead came to Hurd Stadium in Week 10. Hungry to defeat the team that knocked them out of the 2011 title chase, the Panthers got 217 yards and five touchdowns from Flaherty and finished with 408 yards on the ground in a 32-14 victory to clinch the NEC. A 28-14 Thanksgiving win over Salem (the Witches scored two fourth quarter TDs against Beverly’s backups) completed an unbeaten regular season.
“We were a mature team, pretty good at blocking everything else around us out,” said Pierce. “And the guys we had, we could utilize them in so many ways.”
In a light snow, the Orange-and-Black found themselves trailing (14-13) for the first time all year against host Burlington before scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half of a 34-21 state semifinal win. Flaherty (13 carries, 251 yards, 4 TDs) had a 44-yard punt return early in the third quarter, in which he broke out of eight Red Devil tackles, that set the whole thing up.
Back at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough for the second time in three years, Beverly completed its season-long mission with a 28-21 victory over Natick. In control throughout, the Panthers rushed for 347 yards, got two TDs each from Pierce (71 yards on 7 carries) and Flaherty (175 yards), went 3-for-3 on fourth down tries and never trailed.
Flaherty finished with 1,496 rushing yards and 18 TDs on just 160 carries, averaging 9.35 yards a clip. He also caught four touchdown passes and had 160 total points. For his career, he ended with 3,503 rushing yards and 41 TDs on 423 carries, and his total offensive output was 4,349 yards, 61 touchdowns and 380 points.
Pierce was no slouch; he had 901 yards rushing in 2012 while amazingly scoring more than 20 percent of the time (15 TDs, 72 carries). His 217-2,075-28 career rushing totals also shone.
No easy answer
So in this hypothetical gridiron clash, what exactly would transpire?
Salem would have to find a way to slow down this multi-faceted Beverly offense. It would have been Salem’s job to study film, try to find tendencies and defend against the entire offense, not just one player.
“Coach Bauer and Coach (Roger) Day (the offensive coordinator) loved it when teams tried to focus on Brendan, because it would open up the whole offense,” said Gallagher. “We’d work on the (offensive) guard reads and the line play, because if you read your keys well it’ll dictate a lot of those plays.”
A big matchup would be Sprei and Horgan, Salem’s linebackers, on Babcock and Duguid, Beverly’s offensive guards, said Gallagher, whose team would also employ various blitzes and stunts. But the key would have to be winning the line of scrimmage and exploiting mismatches wherever possible. “If Flaherty got to those linebackers untouched, we’d be in trouble,” said Gallagher.
Salem never really had to face a spread attack, an entirely new element they’d have to contend with. No doubt Flaherty, Pierce and Abate would all line up in various spots in an attempt to spread Sprei and Horgan out; with Flaherty flexed out, Gallagher said he probably would put the speedy Penn on him, with Valdez on Abate and Lito Gonzalez on Pierce.
Beverly’s problem would be contending with all that Salem beef in the trenches; not only were those linemen big, but incredibly skilled and worked cohesively. They wore down many of their opponents with equal parts brute force and precision, something the quicker yet much smaller Panther grunts would have to adjust to.
“We’ll never know for sure what would happen,” said Gallagher, “but I do know this: that’s a game I’d pay to see.”