By Matt Williams
---- — What’s the best way to measure the success and progress of the 2013 Peabody High football team?
A year ago the Tanners didn’t win a game, didn’t hold the lead in any contest and gave up a school record 420 points.
Fast forward 12 months and the Tanners (3-7) have led in all but two of their 10 games and have nearly tripled last year’s point production.
There’s no question the team is better. First-year head coach Mark Bettencourt believes that fact is rooted not in those tangible improvements, but in the culture of a locker room that is not satisfied with simply being competitive.
“Coming in, the biggest thing we had to do was build a mentality, and that’s been mission accomplished,” said Bettencourt.
“I’m so pleased with the attitude. Coming off a loss, our bus is silent. The kids are angry. It took some time to build that in baseball (where he is also the head coach at Peabody High), and these guys have it right away.”
Tomorrow morning, the coach would like nothing better than to send his nine seniors out with a win over Thanksgiving rival Saugus (10 a.m., Stackpole Field).
“I almost look at it as a must-win for us,” said Bettencourt. “I look at the four years of some serious ups and downs those guys have been through. To have them come off that field and go have their turkey as winners is very important to me.”
Captains Cody Wlasuk, Michael James, Brandon Rapoza, Joe Molica and Chris Sierra spearheaded the team’s complete buy-in to Bettencourt’s philosophies.
“We’re committed. No one skips practices, no one comes late,” Rapoza said of the biggest difference between this year and last year. “The captains have taken charge and made sure everybody’s working hard.”
Coming into 2013, the Tanners needed a program-wide reboot. Their freshman and junior varsity teams each went 6-4 this fall after combining for one win in 2012. Of 22 starting positions, 14 are occupied by underclassmen.
Bettencourt, the quarterback of Peabody’s 1990 Super Bowl championship team, filled his staff with former players like Dave Bettencourt, Bob Murphy, Matt O’Brien, Steve Lomasney and Jimmy Festa. They’ve been demanding of the players but they’ve also been patient, and most importantly have remained on the same page.
“The senior class, specifically, gets the credit. They’ve bought in from Day 1 and they’ve motivated the younger guys to do the same,” said Bettencourt. “I’m not an easy guy to play for. There’s yelling and it takes dedication, discipline and work ethic.”
In trying to rebuild Peabody’s program (which hasn’t had a winning season since Ed Nizwantowski was let go after 2004), Bettencourt turned back to an offense he estimates is 80 percent of Nizwantowski’s pro-set, power running system.
Sophomore Doug Santos has 737 rushing yards and eight TDs, while senior Cody Wlasuk has 424 and six scores and junior Ryan Collins has 483 and 7 scores. Junior QB Michael Raymond (1,080, 8 TDs) is the first Tanner signal caller with 1,000 passing yards since 1997. Tight ends Tanner Moquin and Andrew McLaughlin (the latter an all-star pitcher who came out for football for the first time as a senior) have been his main targets.
Peabody’s scored 209 points despite enduring a season-ending injury to O-line anchor Mike Heafey and having all three running backs healthy for just three games.
Defense has been another story. Two-way line fixture Ethan Mercedes (an All-NEC pick) has been a handful for opponents and Billy Teehan is nearing double-digit sacks. But the Tanners have given up 304 points while struggling with open-field tackling, big pass plays and getting off the field on key third and fourth downs.
“What we’ve found is teaching kids to block has been easier than teaching kids to tackle,” said Bettencourt. “It’s been a glaring weakness, and that’s the biggest thing we have to fix from Year 1 to Year 2. Offensively, things have clicked and we feel like we’ve gotten a lot done.”
Peabody went 3-4 in the ‘regular season’ before losing all three of its Division 1 North consolation matches against teams from the Merrimack Valley Conference. They’ve played seven games decided by fewer than two scores.
“I love that we’re in these games, that we’re close, but at the same time I hate the close ones because it’s nervous,” said Rapoza, a two-way lineman who was third in the NEC in the 220-pound wrestling class last winter.
Host Saugus is 2-8 overall, though they’ve scored 109 points in their last three games. The Sachems have won three of the last five meetings against Peabody, including last year’s sobering 43-0 win over the Tanners.
“We want to show them what Peabody football really is. Last year wasn’t it,” Rapoza said. “To do that, we have to put everything on the line every play. We have to treat it like it’s the hardest game we’ve played all year.”
Considering all the team’s seniors have endured over the last 12 months, one more game feels like a gift. Since last November, they’ve been thinking about Route 1 bragging rights and just how great earning them might feel.
“It would be one of the greatest moments ever. We wanted to win the last three games, too, but I’ve been thinking about Saugus for a while,” said Rapoza. “We have to finish with a win.”
PEABODY STARTING LINEUP OFFENSE No. Name Yr. Pos. 22 Tanner Moquin Jr. TE 69 Marcus Vierra Jr. T 55 Matt Crawford Sr. G 64 Brandon Rapoza Sr. C 54 Joe Molica Sr. G 53 Ethan Mercedes Jr. T 17 Andrew McLaughlin Jr. TE 4 Michael Raymond Jr. QB 2 Billy Teehan Jr. FB 5 Cody Wlasuk Sr. TB 32 Doug Santos So. RB DEFENSE 70 Chris Sierra Sr. DT 79 Emilio Cantone Jr. NG 53 Ethan Mercedes Jr. DT 2 Billy Teehan Jr. LB 5 Cody Wlasuk Sr. LB 32 Doug Santos So. LB 20 Frank Falco So. LB 21 Michael James Sr. CB 3 Ryan Collins Jr. S 23 Cam Cordero So. S 4 Michael Raymond Sr. CB SPECIALISTS 15 Patrick Touhy Jr. K 17 Andrew McLaughlin Sr. P