HAVERHILL — It’s the ultimate compliment a coach can use to fuel a high school football player’s ego.
“If you don’t keep your eyes up, he’ll make you pay,” said Haverhill High’s Tim O’Connor of his middle linebacker, Phil Panici. “And he’ll do it from tackle to tackle.”
In other words, cross his path, and prepare to be lit up.
Panici, the 5-10, 240-pound junior, is the backbone of a Haverhill defense that has tightened up the noose on the competition lately, to the tune of six points a game against MVC small competition. Tomorrow night, the Hillies face the ultimate test with undefeated Tewksbury in a battle that will most likely decide the league title.
“The atmosphere should be surreal,” said Panici, one of four two-way starters on the Hillies along with Matt Burns (TE/DE), Stephane Bristol (LB/RB) and Tommy Maguire (DB/RB).
“Our crowd will be there, their crowd will be there, and then it’s just us against them, let the better team win.”
Panici is the kind of football player that you don’t have to see. Take this past Saturday afternoon for example.
Dracut quarterback Tyler Bassett scrambled and took the corner toward the Haverhill bench. Suddenly, a Brown-and-Gold missile sped toward him and delivered a resounding hit.
One Hillie asked, “Who was that?”
His buddy on the sideline, also shielded by the crowd, said, “I don’t know, but it sounded like Phil.”
Of course, it was. The thump is distinctive.
Panici may wear the bald look of ex-Bears assassin Brian Urlacher, but his favorite player of all-time, former Raven Ray Lewis.
“I listen to his speeches, and I get jacked up,” said Panici.
He and Lewis share a similar trait. Both command contact.
“I love making the big stick,” said Panici, who takes all honors and AP classes. “This game is all about hitting, and that’s why I love it so much. I love the games. I love the practices. I just love being around it.”
O’Connor calls Panici a “True Mike” or middle linebacker in the Hillies’ 4-3 set, complete with impeccable instincts that only the best have, even as a junior. That’s tough to believe when you realize he never played the position, stuck on the line in junior football, until he came to the high school.
“My dad played at Lakeland College in Wisconsin and he taught me a lot about the game,” said Panici, whose younger brother Ryan plays on the freshmen team now. “Of all the things he taught me, the most important was to learn to love it.”
About the only thing missing in the Panici package is height, a fact he knows might hinder him at the college level but he can more than account for now. He is one of the toughest as attested last year when he hyper-extended his knee on the second week of November and came back to play on Thanksgiving against Lowell.
“I may not be the biggest or the fastest, but nobody is working harder at this game,” said Panici, whose max squat is 475 and puts up 275 on the bench.