The Hamilton-Wenham football team had to watch the scoreboard last Friday night, knowing that if Manchester Essex upset Amesbury they’d be able to control their own playoff fate in their own game on Saturday.
Once the Hornets did their part, there was no stopping the Generals, who beat Georgetown 27-6 to clinch a spot in the Division 4 North playoffs.
“When I heard Amesbury lost I was psyched,” said senior Ian Dickey, who tied his own school record with 31 carries in the win over Georgetown. “It was a whole new zone getting ready for the game. We knew we had a chance.”
Hamilton’s reward is a date with No. 1 seed Pentucket (6-1) tomorrow at 2 p.m. The Sachems are a familiar foe, having beat H-W 34-15 last year. The Generals won the previous two meetings between the teams, though, and Pentucket is coming off its first loss of the season last weekend.
“They’re a really good team but I think we have a shot,” said Dickey. “Obviously you want to believe in yourself and you have to go into a playoff game thinking you have a shot. They have some good players, and hopefully we can find some good match-ups.”
Dickey has been a revelation at running back for Hamilton-Wenham, a club that lost projected top running back Cam Macri on the second play of the season opener. In the six weeks since, Dickey has vaulted into the area’s top 10 in rushing with 809 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s also been a workhorse, carrying a school-record 31 times twice and ranking second on the North Shore with 155 total carries.
“Ian worked his way into being a two-way started at receiver and linebacker last year, and he had a tough summer with some injuries. He was a little down fighting through that, and we’ve been so happy to see him respond the way he has,” said H-W coach Andrew Morency. “He’s a hard-working kid that’s become a leader. He deserves the success.”
Dickey had a career-high 239 yards in the win over Georgetown that clinched the playoffs. He’s run for 100 yards or more in five straight games, and says his strategy is simply to look for daylight behind his offensive line.
“It was a little unexpected at first, but I always prepare for each week and try to do my best. I’ve got a great line in front of me helping the whole time,” said Dickey. “I think a lot of it was just me getting used to playing the position, getting used to reading the blocks and understanding my role.”
H-W’s line is led by stalwart Nolan Wilson, a converted tight end, at tackle. Senior leadership and toughness have played big roles on the interior line, with guards Andrew Cavanaugh and Luke Sproce opening holes and center Drake Little making calls. Sophomore James Craig has been solid at the other tackle spot.
They’ll need to be on thier game against a physical Pentucket team that wants to control the pace and the football. Signal caller Ryan Kuchar had thrown for 563 yards and 6 TDs and the Sachems’ lead rusher is Jeff Porter (372 yards, 6 TDs).
“It’s a team typical of coach (Steve) Hayden, with a bevy of running backs, a disciplined line and some good tight ends,” said Morency. “The thing that really stands out is they have a really good quarterback. He looks like one of the tougher guys around.”
Generals QB Jack Clay can move the chains, too, with 880 yards passing and two big targets in Christian Ecker and Jimmy Campbell. H-W is also hoping Macri, who has been cleared to practice and figures to be a game-time decision, can contribute.
The Generals started the year 0-2, and have won three of their last five to get to 3-4. By winning the tiebreaker to finish second in the Cape Ann League’s Baker Division, they earned an automatic qualifier into the playoffs.
“It was a little heartbreaking thinking we might not be in the playoffs,” said Dickey. “Now you can tell a lot of the guys are really excited and pumped up. We know we’ve played a lot of close game that didn’t go out way, so we have to focus on playing a full game and playing the way we know we can play.”
Hamilton-Wenham’s player know they’ll have to play mistake free football to hang with a Pentucket team that could be destined for an all-CAL D4 North final against Lynnfield. Mistake-free isn’t impossible, though, and the Generals are looking forward to taking their best shot.
“The kids are fired up,” said Morency. “It’s been an emotional, up and down year so far and with the way it all turned out they feel like they’re kind of back in it. It’s like the cat having nine lives, and it feels like the kids are in a mode where they don’t want to let this one slip away.”
“Being in the playoffs is what you hope for,” added Dickey. “Not every single week went the way we wanted, but being here was the big goal.”
If it seems like workhorse running backs are making a comeback on the North Shore, it might be because they are. Four different player ran for more than 200 yards last week, bringing the total number of 200-yard games by area rushers to an impressive 12 with a month to play.
Johnny Thomas of St. John’s Prep had two 200-yard efforts before a knee injury ended his season, and Beverly’s Isaiah White and Danvers’ Alex Valles have also each eclipsed the 200-yard mark twice.
North Shore Tech’s Ross Murphy, Bishop Fenwick’s Rufus Rushins, Beverly’s Peter Mulumba, Hamilton-Wenham’s Ian Dickey and Peabody’s Cody Wlasuk have also each run for at least 200 yards in a game.
The only 300-yard game in the area so far this season belongs to Beverly’s White, who ran for 303 against North Andover.
In all, there have been 61 100-yard rushing games so far this fall by 22 players. Marblehead’s Brooks Tyrrell, White, Murphy all have six 100-games on the season to lead the area, while Valles, Rushins and Dickey all have five.
Breaking the century efforts down by team, Danvers (Valles, Chris Behan and Anthony Cordoba), Peabody (Wlasuk, Doug Santos and Ryan Collins), St. John’s Prep (Thomas, Cody Harwood and Dillon Preston) and North Shore Tech (Murphy, Dan Bailey and Mike Nuernberg) all have three guys with a 100-yard game.
Beverly and Gloucester meet again at Newell Stadium tonight, and if the Division 3 Northeast playoff game goes anything like the first meeting it'll come down to stopping the big running back and taking care of the ball. Beverly's lead back White ran for 124 yards in the Panthers' 18-14 loss last month and accounted for 53 percent of his team's 235 total yards. The Panthers will certainly want to get more production from their complimentary backs tonight, as they combined for 49 yards on 16 carries a month ago.
For the Fishermen, Jordan Pallazola carried the load to the tune of 190 yards on 18 carries. Beverly will be looking to bring down that yards-per-carry average in order to advance tonight.
The Panthers held the lead up at Newell in that first meeting, as well, and they'll need to avoid costly fumbles to hold that lead if they gain it again in the playoffs.
Danvers’ Sean Rogers will be trying to become the first football coach in the history of his school to win a playoff game when the Falcons host Masconomet tonight. Let's check out the area's other coaches, and their respective playoff records, heading into tonight's historic beginning of the new statewide football playoff.
The most experienced playoff coach is St. John's Prep's Jim O'Leary, who has his Eagles in the postseason for the ninth time and has a record of 5-6 as the Prep hosts Lowell tomorrow. Rogers' opponent, Masco's Jim Pugh, has taken the Chieftains to the playoffs for the seventh time, though he's 2-6 in previous postseasons.
Bishop Fenwick’s Dave Woods is leading the Crusaders to the playoffs for the sixth time in his tenure when they host St. Mary’s tonight. He is 2-3 including a pair of Super Bowl titles in 1999 and 2000. Paul Worth is bringing North Shore Tech to the playoffs for the fifth time with a record of 1-3.
Beverly’s Dan Bauer is a perfect 4-0 in the playoffs and lead the Panthers to the postseason for the third time. Jim Rudloff of Marblehead and Andrew Morency at Hamilton-Wenham are making their third playoff appearances each with identical records of 1-2.
There’s been some talk that teams that didn’t qualify for the postseason and are playing out the string in the MIAA consolation games may not be excited. This is certainly not the case in Peabody, where first-year coach Mark Bettencourt has been impressed with the way his team has come to work every week this season.
“After losing to Revere (two weeks ago), you could’ve seen guys hang theirs or revert back to the old ways, so to speak,” said Bettencourt. “I’ve seen none of that. These have been resilient, relentless kids.”
As it turned out, the Tanners (3-4 at Chelmsford tonight) probably would’ve needed to go 5-2 to qualify in Division 1 North.
“As a first year coach, I look at it and say, are we ready to play in that tournament? I’m realistic. Are we ready to play against Everett and St. John’s Prep or Central Catholic? Maybe that’s a little overboard for our program at this point. Maybe that’s something we can look at next year, see how we do if we continue to build on this," said Bettencourt.
According to Salem News records dating back to 1930, Peabody and Chelmsford are meeting for the first time in football tonight. The Tanners last faced Week 10 opponent Lawrence in 1973 (a 0-0 tie) and don't appear to have ever played week 9 foe Andover.
Moving the Chains, a column on North Shore high school football, appears in The Salem News every Friday during the fall sports season. Contact assistant sports editor Matt Williams at MWilliams@salemnews.com, 978-338-2669 and follow him on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.