ANDOVER, Mass. -- There's a renewed buzz in the hallways at Andover High this week.
"It's really crazy," said senior linebacker/tight end Ned Deane. "They're already selling tickets at school. All the kids plan on going. Usually, we kinda make fun of a lot of the kids in our school, because they don't really come out to the football games, and this week they're asking when they can buy tickets."
He adds, laughing, "We've (jokingly) been calling them fair-weather fans...but we're really excited about this, everywhere I go around town people are wishing me good luck. It's really awesome to see this hype in Andover, everyone in the town is excited for this. It's a whole different level this year."
Don't blame Deane for asking how many of his peers skinned themselves jumping onto the Golden Warriors' bandwagon. Heck, with all of the relative unknown (new coach, new faces) outside of its one sure thing (Boston College-bound wide receiver Brian Miller), and all of the hype in other places in the Merrimack Valley Large (see: LaSpada, Nick; Joy, Tim), not many knew how much weight to put into Andover's chances. Yet here they are, two days before a winner-take-all showdown with Thanksgiving rival Central Catholic, sitting at 7-3 and potentially grabbing their first MVC title of any kind since 1975.
They'll be doing it without Miller, the team's most versatile athlete, who went down with a broken tibia in the Warriors' jaw-dropping 88-82 eight-overtime win over Lowell two weeks ago. But this season hasn't been about guys like Miller and wildcat junior quarterback Andrew Coke (1,600-plus rushing yards, 28 touchdowns), as much as it's been about the gritty, undersized guys who play with their heads -- in some cases literally.
Deane, at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, has pedigree -- his father, Ned, starred at linebacker at Minnechaug Regional and UMass -- but not the most imposing of size. But with the experience from getting thrown into the fire so young as a sophomore, along with above-average speed and ball instincts, Deane prides himself not only on the ability to read the play and find a clear lane to the point of attack, but also on the amount of abandon in his pursuit.
"I think if you're a linebacker, it doesn't matter how big you are," Deane said. "If you're tough, and you're fast, and you can read, then you can get anywhere. You can make a play. It's all about toughness, really. If someone runs an Iso right at you, I know people that would worry 'You need a big guy in the middle'. That helps, but it's not entirely true. You need a tough kid in there, a kid who's going to stick his nose in there and blow up the play."
A torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee cost Deane all but four games of his junior season, but the heady play has been evident since his first varsity start as a sophomore in 2008, when the Warriors faced physically-imposing Gatorade Player of the Year Matt Grimard and Dracut High. Deane, then a 5-foot-11, 160-pounder, remembers his sack of the 230-pound Grimard, chasing him as he flushed out of the pocket to his side and taking him out at the legs for a stop on fourth down. "We were jacked up at that point," Dean smiled (Andover eventually lost to the Middies, who won the Division 1A Super Bowl that season).
Teammate and captain Connor Clancy remembers the play vididly: "Tackling a big kid like that, it was awesome," said the 6-foot, 230-pound center/nose guard. And as for Deane's production, who leads the Warriors with over 100 tackles, there is little shock.
"To me, it's been absolutely no surprise, to be quite honest," Clancy said. "He's been one of my best friends since sixth grade, and sophomore year he came in when he had a few injuries and played awesome. Last year, he was playing awesome and then we got hit with the injury bug. That happens in football. But he's done an unbelievable job, he's going big places."
Clancy, like Deane and Miller, was another youngster thrown onto the varsity as a sophomore. And like Deane, he takes similar pride in his toughness.
Not to mention the beaten-up, falling-apart look of his navy blue helmet. Long, white scrape marks litter the crown of it; the golden "A" logo is partially chipped off; the bars on his facemask are a mixture of navy blue and rust-brown. Clancy says it's not from leading with his head, but from his legs, then his arms, and inevitably the facemask.
But it's the exact aesthetic this team feeds off of, and following Tuesday's practice the team was served another reminder. First-year head coach E.J. Perry screamed at his players, reminding them of where they were five weeks ago and where they are now. Nobody believed in us, he repeated.
And for Clancy, that's OK.
"I think from day one, since last year, all the way up day one this year, everyone's been telling us we can't win," he smiled. "We don't have enough stars. We lost too many people. We don't have a playmaker. But we just kinda told them you're wrong, and we're going to shove it up yours."