ANDOVER — Mike DeLaus vividly remembers the three devastating losses to his hated rival.
The now-Phillips Academy senior was on the sidelines for the Big Blue’s 56-33 loss to iconic rival Phillips Exeter three seasons ago. He was then on the field for the 39-6 setback in 2011 and the 35-9 disappointment at the hands of the Big Red the last season, the latter battling a dislocated shoulder that needed surgery soon after.
So DeLaus is overjoyed at the opportunity he and his team has when they take the field in Exeter tomorrow.
“We feel like this is our chance,” said DeLaus, a life-long Andover resident. “After being pushed around by Exeter the last three seasons, we are going in there and we feel like we can win. It will be a great game.”
After Phillips Academy won just four games over the last three years, the Big Blue are now 7-0 and will go for a perfect regular season when they take on archrival Phillips Exeter — which stands at 6-1 — in the 132nd meeting of their iconic rivalry tomorrow at 2 p.m.
At the center of that success has been DeLaus, a running back-turned-outside linebacker who has tortured QBs to the tune of eight sacks and 54 tackles this season.
“He really typifies our turnaround and school motto of ‘Not for self,’” said Phillips coach Leon Modeste. “A lot of our success this year is because of Mike and guys like Mike who have sacrificed for the better of the team. He is very smart and very talented and he loves to go after the quarterback.”
Through most of his youth, DeLaus assumed he would be an Andover Golden Warrior when high school arrived, growing up playing in the Andover Junior Football League and Andover travel team.
But as he reached middle school, he began to consider the school he passed by every day.
“I grew up going to the Pike School so Phillips was always on my drive and I was always going past it,” he said. “Then when I was in the eighth grade my parents and teachers mentioned to me that the school down the street was one of the best in the world. I knew it would be different, but I was really interested.”
DeLaus enrolled at Phillips, and as a freshman played running back for the JV team. He earned a spot in the varsity team as a sophomore, seeing spot duty as a running back and scoring his first touchdown against Choate.
Last season, he won a starting job at outside linebacker. But he soon found himself on the sidelines after suffering a dislocated right shoulder.
“I was going to make a tackle and the guys yanked my arm back,” said DeLaus. “I went to the doctor and found out that it was a recurring problem and that I needed surgery.”
But he missed just a pair of games before returning with a shoulder brace to play in the Andover/Exeter clash despite pain. He then underwent surgery later in November.
While the Big Blue finished just 2-5 last year, his hometown high school, Andover High, won the MVC Division 1 title and advanced to the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. But he wasn’t about to look back.
“I thought it was great what they were doing,” said DeLaus. “But I have no regrets. I was focused on having a great senior season at Phillips.”
And once this summer arrived, he could feel something special around the Big Blue.
“Like every season we had to wait to see who was coming in for postgrads and new guys,” he said. “Once we started practicing and saw the group that had, we started to think, ‘This could be a really good season.’ Then we scrimmaged BB&N, a team we usually have a really tough time with, and we just ran over them.”
That momentum continued right through the regular season, as Phillips has surged to a 7-0 record. With DeLaus leading the way, the defense has surrendered just 66 points while the offense has posted 250 points.
“My job is really just to go after the quarterback,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about coverage. It’s awesome. I just have to make tackles. When you can break in and get a free shot at a running back or quarterback, it is so nice.”
But for Phillips football, the season is judged by the meeting with Phillips Exeter.
“I don’t want to say revenge,” said DeLaus, who has also scored two touchdowns in spot duty at running back. “But it has been nice to get back at the teams that have run over us the last three years. But the greatest accomplishment is to beat Exeter. The schools are pumped, everyone is going to be there. I can’t wait.”
Behind enemy lines
One player hoping to prevent Phillips Andover’s perfect season has a name very familiar to local high school football fans.
Former Andover High star Mark Zavrl is currently playing a postgrad year at Phillips Exeter, and will start at linebacker and fullback for the Big Red tomorrow.
“It’s going to be awesome,” said Zavrl. “The school is just so hyped up. This is the biggest game between these two teams in a long time. The alums are here and they are really excited. The atmosphere sounds awesome.”
It’s been a long road back to the gridiron for Zavrl, who tore his MCL in Game 3 of last season and missed the rest of the Golden Warriors’ playoff run.
“The first three games I was a little timid and unsure with my knee,” said Zavrl, who is hoping to play for an Ivy League school next season. “It was more mental than physical. “The last four games I have been able to cut loose and I think I have played really well. I feel like I am over the injury now. It’s great to be back”
Locals on both sides
Here’s a look at the local players on the Phillips Andover and Phillips Exeter squad:
Phillips Andover: Tom Lane, Jr., QB, Georgetown; John Belluche, Soph., WR/DB, Andover; Nicholas DiAdamo, Jr., WR/DB, North Andover; Mike DeLaus, Sr., RB/LB, Andover; Tyler Marshall, Sr., OG/LB, Andover; Robert Needham, Jr., OL/DL, North Reading; Josiah Legaspi, Sr., OL/DL, Andover; Dylan Norris, Soph., TE/DE, Andover
Phillips Exeter: Mark Zavrl, PG, FB/LB, Andover; Marcos Dymond, Jr., OL/DL, Andover; Shayne Holland, Jr., QB/DB, Londonderry; James Quinn, Jr., OL/DL, Windham