There was no school because of Election Day, but there was no way the students on the Danvers High football team were staying home to enjoy a vacation day.
Ryan Nolan, their head football coach, was being honored by the New England Patriots. He’d been there for them so many times, there was just no way they weren’t going to return the favor, school in session or not.
Pro Football Hall of Famer Andre Tippett came to DHS Tuesday to present Nolan with the latest New England Patriots Coach of the Week honor. It’s a program the Pats and the NFL have been running for 24 years, highlighting one coach statewide each week.
It’s an honor that was well deserved. In his third season as head coach, Nolan’s resume stacks up with just about anyone in Massachuetts. He’s 22-8 overall and has the Falcons 8-0 for the first time since 2005 while also clinching a piece of their first Northeastern Conference (North) title since that same ‘05 season.
“I can say without a doubt that he’s the smartest football mind I’ve ever met. I’ve never really seen someone put so much time hard work and dedication into something before in my life,” said senior fullback and linebacker Jack Strangie.
Danvers hosts Winchester in the Division 3 North semi’s Friday night at Dr. Deering Stadium. A win would put the Falcons in the North final for the second straight season (and third time in five years) and would also represent the program’s first 9-0 start since 1932 (when Danvers finished 9-0-1).
In many ways, this Falcon team is a mirror image of its head coach. Nolan is a hard-working, humble guy who’s taken great care to make his football program in the image of a work-boots wearing, blue collar player. Danvers wins with its defense and plays a hard-nosed style that thrives on tough-sledding on both sides of the ball.
“Ryan’s a natural born coach,” said Danvers athletic director Andy St. Pierre. “He lives and breathes it. His preparation is outstanding and he’s made this program a grassroots, heart-and-soul type of team. He finds good kids and he coaches them up — plugs in tough kids to spots where they can get the job done.”
The recent ascent of the Danvers High program began under Sean Rogers (who won an NEC South title in 2013) and continued under Nolan’s good friend Shawn Theriault, for whom he served as defensive coordinator. It was during those years that Nolan developed a reputation around the North Shore for insanely detailed game-plans and an almost photographic memory.
“For as long as I’ve been here, he has demonstrated a crazy football IQ and a strange knack for knowing an opponents game plans and tendencies,” said senior QB Ezra Lombardi, who will play football at Hamilton College, where Nolan played after graduating from Stoneham High.
That dedication to helping his players advance to the next level is another of Nolan’s best traits as the leader of the Falcons football program.
“He’s always getting on people including myself to make us the best we can be. He’s also been helping a lot of us seniors who want to continue playing in college by getting in touch with different schools across the area,” Strangie said. “So he really shows that he cares and wants us to succeed, and I wouldn’t want to play for anyone else.”
It’s a sentiment many of Nolan’s players echoed. And in a sport like football that requires so much sacrifice of free time for film study, weight training and practice, a team that feels like a family is a team that’s set up to succeed.
“Coach Nolan has been a tremendous coach to me, but also another father figure,” said senior captain Tom Walfield. “He genuinely cares about his guys and is passionate about what he does. No one knows football better.”
“He’s been amazing to me since the first summer workout three years ago,” junior Andy Chronis said. “He has always been somebody you can approach with any problem, whether it’s football related or not, and he will do anything to help. He’s always pushing us and motivating us and keeping everyone on the right track to be the best player and young man they can be.”
Nolan appreciates the honor and thought it was incredible to meet Tippett, one of the NFL’s best linebackers when he was growing up. He feels fortunate to get to work with “so many great kids” and have a tremendous coaching staff that would have to be considering among the area’s best, top-to-bottom.
“It’s almost a collegiate approach. They watch a ton of film — way more than we ever did in high school — and they lift a lot of weights,” St. Pierre said. “The biggest thing is he cares about these kids as people. He’s all about making sure we’re building high character kids.”
Another one of Danvers’ strengths is finding a job for every kid on the roster and making sure that player knows his role is important. Never shy about delivering a well-timed barb either on the sideline or in practice, Nolan’s sense of humor also helps keep the club on task.
“He’s hilarious and those long practices are easier when he’s standing there cracking jokes,” Lombardi said. “But more than that, he’s been a special figure in so many kids lives. Coach has done so much for me and as much as he has taught me about football, he’s probably taught me more about being a man.”
Tippett’s presentation Tuesday was a hit with the players, too, many of whom came to school the next day blown away by some of the stats and highlights they looked up about one of the Patriots’ all-time best players.
“His message to the kids was awesome,” St. Pierre said. “He talked about living in the moment and enjoying this while it lasts, and that love for high school sports. It’s great for the kids to hear that from someone of that stature.”
Danvers, which is led by senior Rich Canova (927 yards, 13 TDs) on the ground, won’t have it easy Friday against Winchester (7-1). The Sachems are excellent defensively and have only allowed 20 points twice this year: In their loss to D2 North semifinalist Reading and in last week’s 28-22 win over Lynn Classical (a team Danvers blitzed, 44-22, for what it’s worth).
The Falcons may not play perfectly. But one thing is a certainty as long as Nolan patrols the sidelines: They’ll be prepared and they’ll be ready to put their work boots on.
Nolan was the second NEC coach honored by the Patriots this year. Revere’s Lou Cicatelli received the Coach of the Week honor last month, another well deserved distinction for a boss that has his Patriots (8-0) rolling in their best season in decades.
Other Patriots Coach of the Week honorees from the area: Beverly’s Andrew Morency in 2016, Doug Chernovetz at Marblehead in 2008 and Ed Nizwantowski in Peabody back in 1999.
Who else has earned the honor over the years that we’ve forgotten about? Let us know by email or on Twitter.
The last freshman to throw a touchdown pass in a varsity game for Peabody High before Shea Lynch’s first varsity strike? Tommy Ciulla, 14 years ago in 2005. Ironically, that TD pass came against this week’s Tanner opponent: Medford.
Lynch gave his team a big spark after halftime in last week’s home loss to Arlington, showing natural instincts in command of the spread offense and moving the chains with both his arm and legs. It remains to be seen how much the Tanners (2-6) will rotate their passers with junior Alex DeNisco returning to health and senior Kris Miraca being a solid runner, but Lynch has impressed in practice and earned the reps.
“Sometimes as a coach you worry about putting a freshman in. If he gets hurt, there’s a ton of scrutiny,” Peabody head coach Mark Bettencourt said. “Shea showed confidence and toughness in practice. Eric DeMayo was the last freshman we felt had that make up; Shea’s shown he can handle varsity football if he’s called upon.”
Looking to snap its longest losing streak of Bettencourt’s seven year tenure, the Tanners travel to Medford’s Hormel Stadium for the first time since 2006. The former Greater Boston League rivals haven’t played since Peabody absconded from the league; their last loss to Medford was back in 1990 and their last road loss to the Mustangs came in 1988.
Offering some numbers that could be predictions in this weekend’s playoff action:
If Masconomet’s Will Hunter and Jack Corcoran can combine for 200 rushing yards, the Chieftains can upset Lincoln-Sudbury.
If Marblehead’s Josh Robertson accounts for more than 220 total yards (rushing plus passing), the Magicians will be able to knock off unbeaten Melrose.
Those games are both rematches of previous playoff bouts which were won by the non-local side. Interestingly, Melrose throttled L-S, 41-7, earlier this year, which has to call into questions the idea that teams in higher divisions are always superior.
Melrose’s closest game, in fact, came against a team in a lower division: D6 North contender Stoneham, which seems to be on a collision course with Bishop Fenwick for the sectional title.
Quick fact for those who believe playing on turf at Haverhill Stadium is a big advantage for defending Division 5 North champion Swampscott: The Big Blue are 1-0 on grass this year (a 27-20 win at Beverly) and dropped 42 points in their only grass game in 2018 (at Saugus).
They became a spread team 17 years before Blocksidge Field got artificial grass. The Big Blue are much, much more than just a turf show.
Further, moving a state tournament game due to a lousy home venue is not uncommon. Just ask the boys and girls basketball teams at Bishop Fenwick.
Moving the Chains, a column on North Shore high school appears in The Salem News each Friday during the fall. Contact Matt Williams at 978-338-2669, MWilliams@salemnews.com and follow on Twitter @MattWilliams_SN.