HAVERHILL, Mass. -- It's been 12 seasons since Haverhill High last appeared in the postseason, so excuse Hillies coach Tim O'Connor if he got a little animated following what was mostly a stagnant MIAA Division 2 North first round contest. It wasn't too long ago the Hillies were 0-11, mired in continued futility, and here the head coach was raving on and on about how he'd run through a wall for his players.
"We didn't have kids bench pressing 300 pounds," he recalled. "Now, we've got kids benching 300, squatting 500, and we're still growing."
If the top-seeded Hillies are to emerge from this wide-open North field, they will have to improve significantly on offense, if tonight's 10-7 win over Lynn English tonight is any indication. The Hillies' lone touchdown came on a 10-yard pick-six from defensive end Matt Burns. With some key two-way starters playing through injury, the Hillies found themselves going mostly horizontal on offense, their few deep shots downfield mostly going to waste.
But defensively, this was an impressive outing. They set the tone early, holding the Bulldogs to 58 yards in the first half, with all but three of those yards coming on the final drive of the second quarter. No statement was bigger than Burns' TD late in the first quarter. On the second play of English's drive, Chris Lessard attempted to throw pass to the left flat. But the lanky Burns, who had been keeping his arms active going up against English star tackle Chris Tinkham, was able to disengage and leap up for the interception.
"Coach had been telling us all week that when they come out with no backs in the backfield, one quarterback, then it's usually a screen or a short type of pass," Burns said. "I looked for it, went out and got the ball."
After Pat Yale booted a 25-yard field goal for a 10-0 Hillies advantage late in the third, the Bulldogs' offense found some life, cutting the lead to 10-7 after a nice 46-yard punt return from running back Zach Lozzi. His return gave them starting field position at the Haverhill 37, and two plays later they capitalized, Lozzi again, this time coming around the right on a sweep for a 25-yard score.
That's when the Hillies' defense showed its backbone once again. Yale came up with two interceptions in the final 2:28 to preserve the win -- the second one a route he jumped at the right sideline, seemingly standing in place all night waiting for the ball to drop with nobody near him.
Javier goes down: The homecoming for English quarterback Jordan Javier, a star last season at Haverhill, was short-lived. He went down on the second play from scrimmage, getting pulled down to the turf after throwing an incomplete pass, and began screaming out in pain, clutching his left knee. After several moments laying on his back, he was carted off the field, then taken away in an ambulance during the second quarter.
"They think it might be an ACL, but he's at the hospital right now, so we're not sure," Bulldogs coach P.J. Holey said. "He was guarding [his knee], but we couldn't give an assessment then.
"I feel bad for Jordan, because he wanted to come back here and put on a show. He had a great week of practice all week, but we hope he's alright."
Setting the edge: In Tinkham, the Bulldogs have one of Massachusetts' top two-way linemen, a 6-foot-3, 275-pound road grader with supreme upper body strength, surprising mobility and a somewhat violent bull-rush technique. Defensively he tends to draw double or triple-teams; other times, teams keep play outside of the box, or let him fly upfield and counter with a draw.
And in Burns, Tinkham found a perfect foil. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Burns is long and lean, with great hand-to-hand combat skills to free his arms up and attempt to bat a ball -- an important trait for this matchup, considering how many times English threw to the flats.
For most of the night Burns held his own, hitting Tinkham with club and rip moves as well as a "wax on" technique, swinging his arms up in an uppercut motion when Tinkham got his hands inside on Burns' chest plate. Late in the game, with fatigue wearing in, Burns was replaced at end by outside linebacker Michael Kwegyir-Attah, who also showed some of his own arsenal of moves.
"He's definitely one of the top, if not the best, lineman I've faced," Burns said of Tinkham. "He's very physical, gets me inside underneath my pads. Never played against a guy like that."
Tinkham has drawn an assortment of Division 1 interest, from UMass down to FCS upstarts such as Bryant and UNC-Charlotte, and generally projects as a two-gap defensive tackle at the next level. Grades have been a focal point of improvement for Tinkham, and Holey says he is "decimal points away" at this moment.
"He's got a motor that doesn't stop," Holey said. "He's a very physical kid, he's got to control his emotion. The only thing they want to see out of him is admissions. But they love his motor."
HAVERHILL 10, LYNN ENGLISH 7
LYN 0 0 0 7 --- 7
HAV 7 0 3 0 --- 10
H - Matt Burns 10 interception return (Pat Yale kick) :19
H - Yale 25 field goal 2:54
L - Zach Lozzi 25 run (Chris Lessard kick) 6:57