PEABODY, Mass. -- You don't need to retrace the calendar to know that only a few short years ago, the Haverhill football program was in dire straits. Between 2008-2010, the Hillies were undoubtedly one of the worst programs in the state winning just once during the span as they embarked on a 32-game losing streak.
Murmurs began to sprout as to whether or not it was time to do away with the program. School administration was willing to give it one more try after hiring Tim O'Connor as the new head coach prior to the start of the 2010 season. O'Connor endured his fair share of growing pains that year as Haverhill finished 0-10. But O'Connor never steered away from his belief that someday he could turn this rag-tag bunch into a winning team.
Since that 2010 season, the Hillies have gone 19-14. The process has been slow but continues to be rewarding.
Wednesday night, Haverhill took another step towards gridiron prominence after capturing the Under Armour 7-on-7 New England Championship held at Bishop Fenwick High School. For a program seeking any way possible of boosting their confidence level, winning this event is truly a major step in that direction.
On an evening in which the Merrimack Valley Conference was well-represented, having three schools reach the semifinal round, the Hillies knocked off conference rival Chelmsford, 14-6, in the title game. Overall, Haverhill finished 5-1 in the 10-team tournament, including victories over East Bridgewater, York (Maine), Natick, Tewksbury and Chelmsford twice. The only setback came early, falling to Natick in the first meeting.
"This whole 7-on-7 tournament is a great way to get our offense molded," said senior WR/DB Pat Yale. "It helps our receivers and with our quarterback (Broughan McGovern) with his timing. Obviously, it is not our ultimate goal to win this but it feels good to win this championship."
Haverhill earned a spot in the championship round as a wild card entry, having played well-enough in the 7-on-7 North Regional played two weeks ago. The Hillies came into the championship round not expected to do much but went out and proved the naysayers wrong.
"This is a big thing for us," said McGovern, who served as Haverhill's punter last season. "We are starting to build a family here right now."
McGovern will be looked upon to lead the Hillies offense to new heights this season. If last evening was any indication, having held his own quite well against a plethora of top-level competition, the sophomore appears suited for the task.
"Broughan has exceeded all expectations," Yale said. "He has really developed as a quarterback. He has great arm and sees the field well. He doesn't force passes and is doing a very good job leading this team."
Adds McGovern, "It's been great," he said. "The captains have taken me into this team nicely. Winning this is a huge confidence booster for me."
It still remains a question as to how well Haverhill will perform in the highly-competitive MVC this upcoming season. Certainly, the Hillies have made positive strides the past couple of years but they are now prepared to make the leap into the postseason and go from there. It certainly will not be an easy path and Haverhill will need to continue the same sort of up-tempo style it put on display in this tournament to have any sort of chance to qualify for the playoffs. But what the Hillies accomplished in a July 7-on-7 will certainly need to expand once they don helmet and pads for the regular season come September.
"This event allowed us to compete and I'm happy for our guys because they have worked very hard," said O'Connor, whose preparing for his fifth season at the helm. "But our kids know this event is nothing. It all starts on August 18th when we begin practice. This is just some fine-tuning and trying to identify some key people. I think it also allows our kids as a program to know that we can play with some of the bigger schools. We've come along way and they deserve this. Is how we played tonight our identify? I'm not sure yet. I'm a defensive guy first so its defense and run the ball as much as we can and see how it goes.
“We only had one senior playing tonight so the future certainly looks bright for us. Every year we've gotten better. For me the little things matter and I try to teach the right things with these kids."
York looks to remain a contender: Of the final 10 schools partaking in the championship round, all but one came from Massachusetts. York (Maine) punched its ticket after a strong showing in the North Regional in Exeter, N.H.
The Wildcats, under the guidance of longtime head coach Randy Small, went 0-4 in Tuiesday's championship but still walked away having gathered many positives as they prepare for their upcoming season.
Last year, York reached the second round of the playoffs before falling to Marshwood. With a new quarterback in place this season, the feeling around this seacoast town is it can make a return to the postseason and perhaps go a bit further this time around. Small says his team's participation throughout the 7-on-7 tournament has been nothing short of plus for him and his squad.
"This certainly helps with the timing between our new quarterback and our receivers," said Small, now in his 18th season. "Obviously, in real games, you aren't going to have this much open space but defensively, it really helps on our man defense. We have a couple of new defensive backs this year so this helps in terms of their reps. We are playing tremendous competition here. Being a small school in Maine we aren't going to see these type of caliber athletes all the time so this certainly helps us.
“I told our kids all of this comes down to fundamentals and that is what we are striving to do in this event. Any reps we can get against someone other than ourselves is a bonus. That's what these tournaments are for."
Small also said by playing in the North Regional and New England Championship has developed a solid bond within his team among new faces and old. Another strong aspect is the depth the Wildcats will have. Small expects to have no less than 70 players ready to go once the season begins.
"In that regard we have been fortunate," he said. "We have a coaching staff that loves kids. We're tough on them and there are no politics involved. We don't care who their mom or dad is. A lot of the teams we play will play 15 or 16 kids a night. We play close to 32 or 33. I believe depth pays off over the course of a season. You always like to go with your guns but you're not always going to have them. Kids get beat up during the season especially when you hit November. So if you have 2 or 3 guys at each position that you can go with you are fortunate."
York will be spearheaded by receivers Mark McGlashing, Jordan Pigeon, Kylen Hynes, tight end Dan Bock, middle linebacker Jack Neiing and quarterback Cole Merritt.
Tewksbury looking to repeat: There is little doubt Tewksbury has the fortitude and ability to make a return trip to Gillette Stadium next December to defend its Division 3 Super Bowl crown. Behind James Sullivan, considered one of the state's better running backs, the Redmen have closed the book on last season and are ready to begin a new chapter.
Tewksbury represented itself well in last night's championship, reaching the semifinal round before bowing to Haverhill.
"We are replacing so many guys that this event has been good to get some of our new guys a little familiarity with some of their routes," Redmen head coach Brian Aylward said. "Formation-wise we don't really do here what we normally do in the regular season. But at least the kids can get familiar with what we might do in a two-minute situation. I think this has benefited us in those type of situations in terms of finding the right personnel would be for that kind of situation."
Aylward understands and accepts the notion that his team has a large target on their collective backs following last year's success but feels the Redmen are ready for it.
"The work-ethic has been very good with these kids," he said. "It doesn't happen by accident. You have to pay a price to make it happen. I know we have enough guys who want to work hard and are willing to pay the price in order to do that but I still don't know if we have enough of it right now. I don't think any coach feels going into the season that he has enough."
Tewksbury picked up a game versus Everett this season to already further a strenuous MVC schedule. But according to Aylward, that's the correct way to go.
"If we want to continue to prove ourselves then we need to go out and find the best opponents possible," he said. "I think most teams go the route where they want to be battle-tested before getting into the playoff scenario. I feel a tough non-league schedule that is only going to help us when we go into our league schedule."
Billerica looking on the bright side: After finishing last season 2-9 (0-4 in the MVC), there is no place to go but up for Billerica. With the hiring of new head coach Duane Sigsbury, formerly at Boston’s Cathedral High, the Indians are coming into the upcoming year with a whole new attitude and a pure belief that they can make some noise in the conference.
"We like Coach Sigsbury a lot," said Billerica senior safety Jake Marion. "He knows a lot about offense and is a good coordinator. Right away we noticed how committed he is to the team. We're looking to win the MVC which is always tough but feel we can. We have a very good receiving corps in place and I feel our defense will really step it up this year and surprise a few teams."