SALEM — Zack Liupakka heard the critics. He heard the trash talk from opponents and the negativity from neighboring communities and even his home town.
And he was sick of it.
“People were saying we stunk and that we were losers,” said the Salem High tri-captain. “It’s very hard to hear people saying, ‘You guys are horrible and aren’t going to win a game this year either.”
After suffering through a devastating 0-12 season a year ago, and dropping the first four games of this season, Liupakka and his Blue Devil teammates could have folded. Instead, they were more determined than ever.
Determined to prove the critics wrong, determined to silence the opponents and — most importantly — determined to end the losing.
And victories have followed.
“You start looking in the mirror and thinking about how you want to be remembered,” he said. “When bad things happen, are you going to just sit there and mope, or are you going to get back on your feet and keep fighting? There is only so much you can take of that (negative talk). We wanted to prove everyone wrong.”
With the gritty 5-foot-6, 170-pound Liupakka setting the tone at both inside linebacker and fullback, Salem has left those 16 straight losses in the past, winning two of its last three games with victories over Manchester West and Merrimack.
“There is no greater feeling than winning,” said Liupakka. “To finally triumph over everything and prove that we are good enough to win is amazing. It makes all that hard work from the last two seasons worth it.”
As a sophomore, Liupakka was a backup on the Salem squad that finished 7-4, advanced to the Division 1 tournament and actually led Pinkerton in the third period of the semifinals before falling short.
While he knew the Blue Devils would face challenges with the retirement of long-time coach Jack Gati, replaced by Adam Gagne, and the graduation of Eagle-Tribune MVP and all-time leading rusher Jerickson Fedrick, Liupakka felt the squad was in position for at least some success in 2012.
“The transition going from coach Gati to any other coach would have been hard,” said Liupakka. “But we thought we had a pretty decent team and were working hard.”
The season quickly turned disastrous for Liupakka, when he suffered a broken hand during the preseason that required surgery and kept him off the field for all of September and most of October.
Liupakka healed quickly and returned to the field late in the season, claiming his starting spot at linebacker and turning in 10 tackles against Concord. But by then, it was too late to salvage the season. The Blue Devils suffered their first winless year since The Eagle-Tribune began keeping records in 1982.
“It was very hard,” he said. “We went from making the playoffs to going winless. Always hearing people say, ‘You need to do this and that’ was very tough. You go through all those struggles and still have to keep going out to practice every day and try to get better. But you are still losing. Once the season ended we started working to get ready for 2013.”
The Blue Devils faced more change when Gagne resigned as head coach to return to coach Westford Academy, and defensive coordinator Rob Pike was hired as head coach. He immediately scrapped Gagne’s spread offense and returned to the wing-T attack that Gati relied on and his father Bob Pike ran as coach at Haverhill.
“The transition to coach Pike wasn’t hard at all because we knew him and how he coached,” said Liupakka. “We were all very comfortable with him. And the whole team was excited that we were going back to the wing-T. That was the offense we all ran as kids. We felt a new confidence and there was a positive atmosphere around the team.”
There was no player Pike looked to for help easing the transition than Liupakka, who was front and center for all offseason work.
“The biggest thing with Zack is his attitude,” said Pike. “He works very hard, he is so determined and he is an excellent leader. He knows how to teach the younger guys. He was definitely focused because last year was a rough one to go through. If they used that for fuel to get better, that is fine with me.”
The season may not have started in ideal fashion, as Salem dropped its first four games.
But that came to a memorable ending on Oct. 4, when the Blue Devils blasted Manchester West 50-6. After falling just short to Goffstown the following week (28-22), the Salem was back in the win column last week with a 38-14 whipping of Merrimack, a game in which Liupakka ran for a 52-yard touchdown.
“To finally have the chance to celebrate a win was just awesome,” he said. “We all went crazy celebrating in the locker room. It was the best feeling I have ever had. While we were losing we tried to use that as a learning experience. Now that is paying off.
“We know we need to keep working, but we feel like winning is becoming a habit. Maybe we can even make a run at the playoffs.”
Small man, big presence
Liupakka knows that his 5-foot-6 frame doesn’t exactly look the part of a tough-guy middle linebacker and fullback.
But the aggressive senior is the point man on a Blue Devils defense that allowed a combine 20 points in their two wins, while also opening holes for running back Jason Martinez, who has rushed for 654 yards and eight touchdowns.
“Since I am so short my center of gravity is very low,” said Liupakka, who is looking to play at schools including Endicott and Plymouth State. “People underestimate me and think I can’t hold my own. But half of the game is determination and just wanting it more. I want to be a leader.”
Eagle-Tribune high school football reporter David Willis will be live tweeting updates from today’s crucial MVC matchup between Central Catholic and Chelmsford, and tomorrow’s big meeting between Andover and Lowell.
Follow him at @DWillisET