ANDOVER — When the call was made for the fake extra point late in the third quarter on Thanksgiving Day, Andover’s Jake Flaherty was sure the pass would be going to star receiver Will Heikkinen.
And why not? Heikkinen entered the play with 60 catches for over 1,000 yards receiving on the season while Flaherty — a linebacker — had exactly zero catches on one target in his entire high school career.
“I just thought I was going to be the decoy in the back,” said Flaherty. “Then I saw C.J. (Scarpa) throw the ball and realized that it was going in my direction. I just thought, ‘Oh God, don’t drop this in front of 8,000 people.’ It felt like the ball was in the air forever, and my hands were a little shaky, so I let it go into my body. I was pretty fired up.”
That conversion on a fake field goal proved to be the key score in clinching the Golden Warriors’ 22-19 victory over Central Catholic.
It was also no real surprise that Flaherty made the big play, since the senior has done all that has been asked of him and more this season.
A role player a season ago, Flaherty has emerged as the Golden Warriors’ top tackler this season with a team-high 97 stops, and tomorrow the weak-side linebacker will lead Andover into action against St. John’s Prep in the Division 1 semifinal at 7:45 p.m. at Lowell’s Cawley Stadium.
“Flaherty has been unbelievable this season, especially in the big games” said Andover coach E.J. Perry. “He flies around, he is always first or second on the team in tackles and plays with so much intensity. He has really stepped into the role of the leader of our defense.”
Flaherty first cracked the rotation a season ago, starting five games at defensive end. But the real breakthrough came before this season when he was moved to linebacker.
“I was all right at defensive end, but I sure wasn’t making plays like I have this season,” he said. “I was always a little small at end. I always felt like linebacker was my more natural position. A few guys graduated last year, so they made the move.
“I play weak-side backer so I am always on the wide side of the field. I get to use my speed and I am a pretty sure tackler.”
The 6-foot, 196-pounder wasted no time making his mark at the new position. He made 10 tackles in a season-opening win over North Andover, added seven in a win over Gloucester and 15 in a victory over Methuen.
A week later, however, Flaherty faced a new challenge, when the Golden Warriors’ top tackler from a season ago, fellow linebacker Mark Zavrl, was lost for the season with a torn ACL suffered during a win over Xaverian.
Suddenly, Flaherty was asked to step into the role as the quarterback of the defense.
“Jake took on a ton when Zavrl went out,” said Perry. “Not only was Zavrl our leading tackler, he was the guy that called all of our defenses and was the glue that kept everything together.
“When he got hurt, Flaherty stepped up and said, ‘I will call the defenses and I’ll make sure everyone is in the right place.’ There was a leading curve, but he has done a great job.”
In the new role, Flaherty made nine tackles against Xaverian, then 17 to help the Warriors down Tewksbury. But, late in that game, Flaherty suffered a shoulder injury that forced him to miss the rest of that game and sit out Andover’s matchup with Lawrence.
“That’s why I have to wear this,” he said, referring to his Cowboy Collar neck brace. “I’m not a fan of how it looks, but it keeps me from getting stingers in my shoulders. And I guess it is a pretty decent linebacker look.”
Flaherty was back in action a week later against Somerville, and has been at the center of the improving squad ever since.
“Jake is really a spectacular player,” said linebacker Adam Ladd. “He’s like a running back at linebacker he is such a good athlete. He’s fast and he likes to hit. He reads plays quickly and comes hard down field.”
Flaherty was never better than on Thanksgiving, when he made 10 tackles, seven solo and four for a loss, along with the two-point conversion in the playoff-clinching win.
“All we heard going into the game was that it was Andover’s offense against Central Catholic’s defense,” he said. “A lot of people were saying we didn’t have a good defense, which really fired us up. We wanted to quiet the doubters.”
Through the end of the regular season, Flaherty leads the Golden Warriors in total tackles, solo tackles (35), fumble recoveries (3) and quarterback hurries (5) while also blocking a punt.
He now hopes to carry that success, and the momentum from the victory over Central Catholic, into the playoffs against St. John’s Prep.
“I think we have to show them how athletic and tough we are,” he said. “They have an excellent offense, but we feel like we can match up with anyone. We have to go out and play the games of our lives, because we feel like we can win.”