By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — The threat of being bitten by mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus has put a temporary end to Friday night football under the lights at Trinity Stadium - even when the game is a big one between the Hillies of Haverhill and the Central Catholic Raiders.
Due to a ban on outdoor activities on public property because of the threat, the eagerly-awaited home game of the season against Central Catholic was moved from Friday to 3 p.m. yesterday.
Athletic Director Tom O’Brien said on Friday that he was hoping for a crowd of 2,000 people to attend the game as both teams are ranked in the top 25 (ESPN state rankings) in the state, and both teams won their season openers. The Hillies, led by head coach Tim O’Connor, is ranked 23rd while Central is ranked 15th.
On Aug. 30, Mayor James Fiorentini ordered a ban on outdoor activities from dusk to dawn on public property after West Nile Virus was detected in mosquitoes in two places in the city. The ban includes the stadium, schoolyards and parks and playgrounds and will remain in effect until the first hard frost, city officials said. The mayor ordered targeted spraying by Northeast Massachusetts Mosquito Control.
The ban forced O’Brien to shift outdoor night games and scrimmages from the stadium to the high school’s athletic fields in the afternoon. The city’s Recreation Department altered its junior football schedule as well.
”The impact hasn’t been too bad so far,” O’Brien said. “We don’t have many Saturday football games planned as we play on Friday nights.”
Other communities in the Merrimack Valley and Southern New Hampshire have found mosquitoes carrying West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, but have not revamped their sports schedules.
Last Thursday a horse from Derry tested positive for Eastern Equine Encephalitis, a disease that can cause a serious and sometimes-fatal brain infection. That announcement followed news last Wednesday that a mosquito batch collected in Sandown had tested positive for EEE and a batch collected in Hampstead tested positive for West Nile Virus.
Officials in Methuen recently announced that Mosquitoes carrying the West Nile Virus had been collected along the Interstate-93 corridor in Methuen. Mosquitoes infected with West Nile Virus were also detected in nearby Groveland.
O’Brien said that because of the ban in Haverhill, Hillie boys and girls soccer and field hockey games that are typically held at Trinity Stadium in the evening were moved to the high school field in the afternoon. A boys soccer game against Lawrence that was scheduled for last Thursday night at Trinity Stadium was held that afternoon at the high school.
”We’re doing this a week at a time and other schools have been very cooperative,” O’Brien said about scheduling changes. “Other games at night are later in the season so we hope to have a frost by then.”
Vincent Ouellette, director of recreation for the city, said he had to reschedule one of two junior football league B-Division games that are held on Thursday evenings.
”Instead of two games on Thursday, we have one on Thursday and the other on Friday as the first games ends before dusk,” Ouellete said. ‘If we did both games on the same night, we would not be out until after dusk.”
Last year, the city implemented a similar ban on outdoor activities effective that Sept. 21 after state health officials notified the city’s Board of Health that Haverhill was raised to a critical risk level for EEE.
”The first hard frost was Oct. 17,” Ouellette said, adding that this year’s ban has the potential of lasting six weeks.
O’Brien said that having to move games to afternoons resulted in the loss of gate receipts at the stadium. Admission is free to games played on the high school field, while admission at Trinity Stadium is $5 for adults and $3 for students.
”Many parents can’t get out in the afternoon and like to take advantage of evening games at the stadium,” O’Brien said.
”Also we can’t allow any rentals of the stadium, which has cost us about $1,500 in lost revenue so far,” he said.
Several events that were to be held at the stadium at night included a semi-pro football game.
”I got a call from a church group that wanted to hold some sort of event, but I had to tell them it wasn’t available in the evening,” O’Brien said.
The biggest event to be rescheduled so far was yesterday’s home game against Central Catholic.
“We got lucky as this is our only home game scheduled until Oct. 11,” O’Brien said. “Come the last week in September we’ll be having two or three games a week at the stadium, unless we don’t get a frost.”
The Hillies took their first win of the season on Sept. 7 when then edged out Beverly — last year’s Super Bowl champions, 21-19 at Beverly.
Haverhill High’s football program has come a long way since four years ago, when the varsity team ended its season with a 32-game losing streak and overall participation in the program was down, according to O’Brien.
Over 130 student athletes are participating in the program this year, which O’Brien termed “unbelievable.”
”It’s up from last year when we had 97 kids participating in the program,” he said. “Four years ago, at the end of the season, we had about 60 kids in the entire program, which had suffered a 32-game losing streak.”
He said the program has made a “remarkable” turnaround since that time.
”Some of it is a reduction in user fees, and some of it can be attributed to head coach Tim O’Connor, who has built this program up,” O’Brien said. “To go from a 32-game losing streak to one of the top teams in the state is pretty amazing.”