Every eye in the stadium is looking at them, waiting for them to bark out the signal that starts that week’s most important play. If they feel any pressure, they don’t let you see it.
They are the battle-tested chosen few that can withstand the crucible that is a high school football huddle: the North Shore’s quarterback Class of 2019.
More than ever before, QBs are seeing new responsibilities in local offensive schemes, new chances for success and new obstacles to overcome.
What’s it feel like earning that exalted position? What’s it feel like to be the center of attention, to know a school rises and falls with your play? What kinds of things make a great high school QB, and what draws kids to the position?
The North Shore’s foremost football experts — Salem News sports gurus Matt Williams and Phil Stacey — sat down with some of the area’s returning quarterbacks just before training camps in mid-August. Joined by Beverly’s Danny Morency, Salem’s Wayne Holloway, Peabody’s Alex DeNisco, the Danvers duo of Ezra Lombardi and Darren McDermott, Hamilton-Wenham’s Ian Coffey, St. John’s Prep’s Matt Crowley and Swamspcott’s Graham Inzana, they opened up about anything and everything heading into the 2019 season.
SN: Was everyone a quarterback right away as a kid? What drew you to the position?
Graham Inzana: When I was in first grade, I was a left tackle. I think in second grade I started at QB because I had a good arm.
Ezra Lombardi: I only played QB one year in youth football and it was before anyone knew how to throw, so I’d just take the ball and run outside.
Darren McDermott: I was a receiver, but when coach saw me throw it back to the quarterback in practice, they turned me into a quarterback.
Ian Coffey: I played QB in youth, but moved (aside) just to get on the field. I’m excited to be back at the position now.
Matt Crowley: I played wideout and tight end all through youth, but then freshmen year I was drawn to the position.
Danny Morency: I’ve been QB my whole life. My brothers (Jack and Kevin) and my dad (John) were so I had to be one, too.
Alex Denisco: I played tight end in youth, finally moved over to QB around middle school and then stayed there. I love it now (and) wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
SN: Is the mental side of playing quarterback almost more difficult than the physical side sometimes?
Denisco: The challenge is having to know the entire playbook: not just what you’re doing, but what everyone else is doing.
Morency: Exactly. Having to know when someone else messes up, how to put them back in position or fix the formation — there’s so much to learn.
Lombardi: The mental side of the game is what makes football so great. Ever since I was young I’ve been drawn to the football IQ thing; that’s what makes it fun.
Crowley: I thought the hardest part of learning QB was making those reads: learning how to read coverages pre-snap, post-snap learning soft spots in zones, which man matchups you want. It’s a lot, but it’s great; it’s part of the fun.
SN: How much of it is telling yourself don’t panic, trust that you know it and don’t overthink?
Coffey: A big part is trusting your team. It doesn’t matter if it’s linemen giving you time, receivers getting open ... once you get that trust down, it’s just relaxing and throwing the ball. My job’s not that hard if everyone else is doing theirs.
McDemottt: QB is a tough position. You watch in the NFL and they make it look easy. It’s not at all, but that’s what we signed up for.
SN: Can you remember a time you saw something from the defense and called an audible for a big play?
Crowley: Not even about a pass play, but I remember noticing they were moving 5-6 guys out into coverage, emptying the box, so I audibled to QB sneak and picked up 10-12 yards.
Lombardi: They don’t trust me to do that (laughs all around). The only decisions I get to make are, “If no one’s open, run.”
SN: What about the respect factor at your position? How do you get your teammates to believe in you?
Inzana: You definitely have to gain it each year. Coming into last year I thought it would be there right away, but you gotta earn it each year. You might have done it once, but you need to come back and do it again.
Coffey: It doesn’t come easy; you’re kind of born with it, but you also have to earn it. Getting everyone to buy in helps a ton with trust both ways.
SN: How much do you think about body language, presenting the positive attitude and not letting yourself sulk after a tough play?
Denisco: There’s times when you’re so frustrated, but coach always tells me “You’re the leader; make sure you stay cool. You be you and the rest of the team will follow that.” As a QB you have to be able to handle that.
Morency: For sure, with a receiver open down the sideline if you make a bad throw, it’s frustrating. But you have to keep your head up and remember you’re leading the team; they’re all looking to you.
Crowley: Everyone here knows that no one takes it harder if you miss a pass that the QB. It’s so important to take ownership of it, keep a level head and move on to that next play. That shows you’re accountable.
Inzana: That goes along with respect. If you hold yourself accountable like you do them, your teammates will respect that.
Coffey: I don’t love when people make mistakes, but when they do, if they say “my bad” and don’t blame everyone else, that’s what makes a team good. Personally if there’s a mistake, I like do go right back at them next play to show them I still have faith.
SN: What’s some of the best advice you’ve gotten about the position?
Lombardi: Our coaches are so great gameplan-wise, so each week is different. We’re in a meeting and we’re learning our jobs that week; that makes a world of difference for us. We’ll never have the biggest team, but if we have a good gameplan we can play with anyone.
Crowley: Coach Saint (Brian St. Pierre) played the game for a while, so he’s always providing that insight you might not get from someone else: Picking up on keys, how to read Cover 3, how to look at seams. It’s fine things you might only see once or twice over the course of a whole game — but when you do see it, it makes a big difference
Inzana: The best advice for me is just get the ball to the athletes and let them do the work. A good throw is just a long handoff.
SN: Can you describe the responsibility that comes with being one of the most recognized people at your school as the team’s quarterback?
Morency: We always say how you conduct yourself always relays back to coach and back to our community. You want to be a man and not a punk. That reflects on the classroom and on the field.
Inzana: All eyes are on you. You’re representing the football team everywhere you go and can’t shine a bad light on the team. At all.
Denisco: You’re the leader. Everyone’s looking up to you, in school looking up like “There’s the QB.” You’ve got to hold yourself to that standard — and that’s pretty cool.
SN: What are some of the best parts of playing the position?
Lombardi: I like touching the ball on every play. I like having that control over what happens.
Inzana: QB is most praised position but also most the blamed. It goes both ways but when it’s going good, it looks good on your part.
Holloway: I like being in control of the huddle, controlling what’s going on. The position’s new for me, but being a leader and getting the respect of teammates means a lot.
SN: What are some of the best road stadiums you’ve played in, some of the loudest or most fun atmospheres?
Coffey: Any Thanksgiving game, just with Ipswich and Hamilton-Wenham alumni coming back. You see all the fans surrounding the field.
Lombardi: Playing at Hurd (in Beverly). Everything is so tight, the sideline is so close to the stands and you can hear the fans.
Morency: Loudest for me so far was last year against Danvers on the road. That game was crazy, very loud.
Holloway: Personally I like playing at Bertram (in Salem). It’s a nice turf field and it feels like home.
Crowley: Gillette Stadium was pretty loud (where St. John’s played in last year’s Division 1 Super Bowl). Even if it wasn’t full, it was still really loud. You walk out of the tunnel and you could hear everybody. Even during the game I had trouble hearing cadence, both sides had so much energy in the big atmosphere. That was as close to the feeling of playing in college or int he NFL as you can get.
SN: Who would be your team’s biggest rival, the one team where if you went 1-10 but beat them it would still be a great season?
Inzana: We have Lynn English opening day, but Marblehead on Thanksgiving too. I’d have to say Week 1 — you have to win that first one.
Crowley: Xaverian for us. It’s been five years (since SJP beat them); that’s too long.
Lombardi: Still Gloucester for us. Marblehead’s a big one too, but if we had to pick one it’s Gloucester.
Coffey: Definitely Thanksgiving against Ipswich.
Denisco: Probably Beverly; that’s always a very hyped up game. Marblehead’s such a good team, too. That’s a big one.
Holloway: Always Beverly, but also any Lynn team. And Peabody; we haven’t faced them for quite a few years, so we’re really excited about that one this season.
Morency: Still Salem. That’s always the biggest one.
SN: There’s been a lot of criticism of the MIAA’s non-playoff games. How do you as players look at those November bouts?
Coffey: It’s about getting ready for Thankgiving. There may not be anything on the line, but you have to play hard and play well to be getting ready to take it to your rival on Thanksgiving.
Denisco: You’re really not playing for anything; it’s just playing to have fun, really.
McDermott: I’d have to imagine as a senior, though, you’d want to go out and leave it all out there because you don’t have too many games left. But the one we played last year didn’t feel like a varsity game. There was nobody in the stands.
Crowley: One of those games we played two years ago was in a very cold wind chill. It felt like no one wanted to be there. We won, but even going out there you felt defeated from the loss the week before and from the atmosphere
SN: Is there any part of your game or your physical skills you’d want to improve?
Lombardi: I need to be a more polished QB. My athleticism carries me a little, but I’ve never been QB for a full season. I can definitively be a lot better in the pocket.
McDermott: I’m the opposite. Ezra has so much athletic talent; that’s what I need. I’ve been a decent passer but I need to have better running, better footwork.
Inzana: I have to work on my scrambling. Just getting out — I’m mostly a pocket passer, so if I can start running too that gives the defense more to think about.
Morency: I need to work on taking what’s given. It’s always so tempting to just throw the deep ball, but as QB you have to know better. Lead the team down the field however you can.
Crowley: Blitz recognition. Being able to work back, change pass protections to see what’s coming.
Coffey: Staying in the pocket; not being to tempted to tuck and run.
Denisco: I’m the opposite; I love to stay in the pocket sometimes too long to try to throw. I have to work on scrambling, how to be shifty out there.
Holloway: My pocket presence. I’m working on the passing.
SN: Do you remember any big losses or big hits that stick with you?
Denisco: Against Marblehead (last fall). We were tied at halftime, they killed us in the third quarter and we were so close. That one stuck with us. Our senior QB, Matty J, got destroyed by a linebacker, so I went in without too much experience. I definitely took some big hits, but you just have to get back up. Your teammates are looking at you; you can’t let them down.
Crowley: Thanksgiving my sophomore year, Xaverian sent the house. Their middle linebacker got me right in the back and when I went down, my chin strap cut my chin open. That’s a hit I’ll always remember.
McDermott: I got railed on a touchdown pass against Masconomet. I got crunched, but seeing that TD made it feel a lot better. My helmet came off, but I remember hearing cheers and walking to the sidelines.
SN: Could any of you guys play the line if you had to?
Inzana: I’d love to be a nose tackle. I feel like if I was quick enough I’d get in there and cause some havoc.
Lombardi: I always tell (DHS lineman) Tom Walfield he’s crazy. I probably wouldn’t play football if I had to play line. Watching what they do in practice and what they do in games, I’m not cut out for that.
SN: Swampscott was one of the first spread teams in the state. What’s it like growing up there knowing you’ll have a chance to throw it a lot?
Inzana: That’s what I wanted; I couldn’t see it any other way.
SN: What about Beverly and Peabody, teams that had different offenses a few years ago that are more pass heavy now?
Denisco: I love it. I never really liked the run-run-run. As QB you never felt like you had a chance. Now they’re relying on you to move the chains and I love it.
Morency: It adds another brick to the offensive scheme. Linebackers have to worry about everything, have to worry about both me and our running backs.
Holloway: I used to like running more. I was a more of a running QB, but now that I’ve gotten used to throwing it more I like it. I want to do more of that this year, too.
SN: Danny (Morency) is following in some family footsteps as a QB; does anyone else have legacies or parents that played?
Inzana: My dad was QB at Arlington Catholic in the 80’s. I don’t think they were that good, but he played.
Denisco: My dad played, but he’s a lot bigger than me. He gives me advice and it’s like, “But dad, you were 200 pounds.” Coach Betts (Mark Bettencourt) was huge when he played QB too, so when I get frustrated he kind of leaves it alone. The game’s changed so much.
Morency: But there’s no pressure (from the legacies). They always told me do whats the best for you. They don’t measure themselves with me.
SN: Have you ever thought about injury risk or any of the modern safety issues with football?
Inzana: ‘Concussion’ was a swear word in youth football; they’d take you right out. I try not to think about it at all.
Denisco: Now there’s hitting until a certain age, but when you get up to high school you lack so much that we learned when we were little. There’s some great athletes where their parents won’t let them play.
SN: Is that hard to swallow, knowing some other guys can’t get out there on the field with you?
Inzana: There are guys that could be weapons but they’re not allowed to play.
Crowley: It’s part of the game. I have a friend who can’t play anymore because of his concussions. But he knew the risks coming in; his dad played college football. He doesn’t regret it. In practice we’re doing less and less hitting ... we don’t have the unnecessary risks.
SN: Do you get hit during the week?
Coffey: We have thud, just upper body stuff.
Crowley: It’s never full steam. If the hit is open, they’ll just tap off. No one’s trying to take anyone’s head off. It’s like “tap, I got you”, now finish the rep.
SN: How would you sell football to people that think it’s dying off or it’s too dangerous?
Lombardi: You have to have it inside you. People think we’re crazy to play football, but it’s that rewarding. The things you get from football you can’t describe. You have to know it for yourself, experience it.
Coffey: I always tell people when you get old, you’re gonna wish you played.
Lombardi: Right. Football is a brotherhood. All my teammates are my friends. I don’t expect anyone to hold me any higher than them. We’re all just football players, all here for same reason.
Inzana: Exactly, brotherhood. Everyone on your team is your friend for life — and you can’t ever take that away.