---- — It’s the era of the passing game, so many will say.
Running the football has become a relic of the sport, which is now based upon fast-paced, no-huddle offenses and chucking the football. The ground game has become as outdated as leather helmets.
Don’t tell that to football teams around The Eagle-Tribune region.
This fall, a whopping three area running backs rushed for over 2,000 yards. That number is especially jarring because heading into this season, only three area rushers TOTAL had done it since The Eagle-Tribune began keeping complete records in 1993.
The elite mark was hit by:
A returning Eagle-Tribune All-Star — Haverhill’s Chance Brady (2,063).
A burly back in a smash-mouth offense — Greater Lawrence’s Cristian Rivera (2,008).
An upstart speedster in his first season as a featured back — Pentucket’s Cody Rothwell (2,019).
Add to that tremendous seasons from the likes of North Reading’s Carl Lipani and Pinkerton’s Manny Latimore and Ground and Pound is alive and well in the Merrimack Valley.
But don’t tell Andover’s C.J. Scarpa and Brady’s backfield mate, Haverhill QB Tommy Morgan, that there aren’t any superstar signal-callers around.
And Central Catholic’s Santino Brancato and the Astros’ Matt Madden would likely tell you that defense can also dominate.
After a year of amazing stats and heart-stopping moments, here is a look back at the 2012 high school football season.
Top five moments
1. Play of the Year, offense — With a defender holding tight to his left arm, and the ball overthrown, Andover’s Andrew Deloury reached out and grabbed the rocket pass out of the air with just his right hand for a spectacular touchdown against Tewksbury. He later clinched the win by recovering an on-sides kick.
2. Play of the Year, defense — In a scene out of every rag-tag football movie ever made, Chelmsford called on a hook-and-ladder play as time expired.
This one seemed destined to go for a stunning last-second score.
Receiver Eric Van Gelder advanced to the Central Catholic 18, before Santino Brancato and a sea of Raiders defenders dragged him to the ground to clinch a 28-21 win.
3. Kick of the Year — Having never attempted a field goal in his career, North Andover’s Ryan Quinn calmly booted a 41-yarder with room to spare in a win over Lawrence. It could have been a lot tougher. Coach John Rafferty initially sent him out to attempt a 51-yarder (the coach admits he thought it was closer) before a Lawrence penalty moved the ball up 10 yards.
4. Hit of the Year — Timberlane’s Billy Joyce sprinted to the sidelines and stopped Salem running back Jason Martinez in his tracks with a massive hit on fourth-and-1 to cause a turnover on downs and all but clinch a win. Salem took the ball back for one last Hail Mary, and Joyce iced the win with a huge sack, running over a lineman in the process.
5. Stat of the Year — 460 — combined receiving yards for Methuen’s Colin Langford (9 catches, 268 yards, 3 TD catches) and Lawrence’s George Urena (5 catches, 192 yards, 2 TD catches) in the Lancers’ wild 38-36 late-season win over the Rangers.
The winning margin? Fittingly, a Urena 2-point grab with five seconds to play.
Andreas Christopoulos, Andover — “The Spell-Check Award” for the player whose name often may have been misspelled, but his value on the field was never overlooked as an anchor on the offensive and defensive lines.
Chas Heseltine, Andover — “Troy Polamalu Award” for his outstanding head of long hair, and aggressive style as a defensive back. He finished second on the Golden Warriors with 84 tackles.
Mark Zavrl, Andover — “What Could Have Been Award” for senior linebacker/kicker who accumulated 40 tackles in 3 1/2 games before losing the rest of his season to a torn ACL. He also booted six kickoffs for touchbacks.
Ryan and Michael Barry, Central Catholic — “Double Trouble Award” for twins who made big plays in very different ways. Ryan was a dominant 245-pound All-MVC Division 1 lineman while Michael starred at receiver, catching a touchdown on Thanksgiving and earning second-team MVC honors.
Tom Zargaj, Georgetown — “Count on Me Award” for being willing to convert to running back for the first time in his career midseason due to injuries. He carried the load for the Royals down the stretch.
Niko Edwards. Georgetown — “Pick Six Award” for his six total touchdowns (3 TD passes, 3 TD runs) against Whittier. His 411 yards in offense, though, wasn’t enough in a 52-48 shootout loss.
Jake Barchard, Greater Lawrence — “Desert Bound Award” for tough-guy receiver/defensive end who caught 11 touchdowns for the Reggies this season, and is planning to attend Arizona Western Junior College.
Marcos Ortiz, Greater Lawrence — “Joe Theismann Award” to the CAC Large co-MVP for overcoming a horrific leg injury as a junior to star at both quarterback and linebacker this season.
Dan Burrows, Haverhill — “Gillette Award” for two-time All-MVC Division 1 offensive lineman with the impressive beard to match. He easily could be mistaken for a coach.
Jaddiel Polanco, Lawrence — “LifeLock Award” for cornerback who locked down on each team’s top receiver. Also, he blocked two extra points, one he ran back the length of the field for the two points.
Louis Rosa, Lawrence — “Turkey Day Terrific Award” for QB who lost his starting job, but earned a shot on Thanksgiving and threw for 134 yards and two touchdowns in 28-0 blanking of Salem.
Troy Ward, Londonderry — “Iron Head Award” for embodying the fullback position, always leading the way in the Lancers’ single-wing attack while also anchoring the defense at end.
Nate Hitchcock, North Andover — “Thinking Man Award” for tough-guy Scarlet Knights captain. He is also a star in the classroom, enrolled in AP classes and scoring over 2,000 on his SATs.
John Fortes, North Reading — “Fort Knox Award” for 6-foot-2, 270-pound two-way tackle who was Carl Lipani’s bodyguard during his record-setting career.
Mike McCarron, Pentucket — “Big Little Man Award” for the 5-foot-11, 170-pounder who was the anchor of the Pentucket offensive line, playing guard and center when needed.
Franco Pizzarella, Pentucket — “Name Game Award.” Does it need an explanation? That is just a fantastic name.
Jake Bernaiche, Pinkerton — “Megaphone Award” for two-way starting lineman who took after his vocal father, Dave Bernaiche, Pinkerton’s offensive line coach.
Chris and Matt St. Onge, Pinkerton — “Twin Terrors Award” for duo which struck fear into opposing offenses, Chris as a safety and Matt as a linebacker.
Josh David, Timberlane — “Daredevil Award” for bouncing back from a broken ankle — suffered on a rope swing of all things — to rush for 821 yards.
Danny Cannone, Windham — “Give me the Rock Award” for making the unusual move from All-Division 5 tight end to running back as a senior. He finished with 877 rushing yards on the year.
Who’d have thought it?
1. Andover’s Cole Organisciak, who had never caught a varsity pass, would snag the touchdown that gave the Golden Warriors their first lead on Thanksgiving, an outstanding 9-yard scoring grab.
2. Central’s D’andre Drummond-Mayire would lock down on Andover 1,000-yard receiver Will Heikkinen and limit him to just 48 yards and no scores on Thanksgiving.
3. North Andover’s Nick Oswald, who saw limited varsity time as a junior, would explode for 402 yards and four touchdowns in a win over Dracut.
4. A week later, Haverhill would limit Oswald to just 45 yards.
5. Lawrence’s Nelson Valerio would scored two touchdowns in the final 31 seconds of the game, with the help of an on-sides kick, to turn a 12-point deficit into a 38-36 win over Methuen.
Out of nowhere
Following a 42-23 loss to Central Catholic, longtime Indians coach Peter Flynn rushed over to Raider coach Chuck Adamopoulos.
“He said, ‘Coach, that No. 67 is the best defensive lineman in the league by far,’” said Adamopoulos.
That No. 67 goes by the name of Matt Halaby, one of the biggest surprises in the MVC this season.
After starting just one game last year, the 240-pounder broke out with 77 tackles, nine for a loss, with three sacks three passes knocked down.
“He is as quick off the ball as any defensive lineman I have had,” said Adamopoulos, who has been head coach for 16 years after a long stint as a Raider assistant. “He took training much more seriously, and came into the season in great shape. From the start we could see this year would be different.”
Everyone knew Pentucket’s Cody Rothwell could hit. He saw time on St. John’s Prep’s 2010 EMass. Super Bowl team as a sophomore, and emerged as a standout defensive back last year for the Sachems.
But, as a junior, he hardly lit up the stat sheet as a running back, gaining just 263 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
This season, those numbers were more like a single-game average.
Rothwell recorded five 200-plus yard rushing games, including three over 250 yards. Six times he scored at least three touchdowns.
He also did the job on defense, picking off eight passes.
Going to the air
It make have been the year of the back, but it was a record-setting year for Andover’s C.J. Scarpa, who threw for an area-record 32 touchdowns to go with 2,622 yards. He made the most damage going to Will Heikkinen (1,126 yards 9 TDs) and Cam Farnham (548 yards, 11 TDs).
All three of those were on the sidelines in 2010 when Haverhill’s Tommy Morgan made his varsity debut, going 2 for 10 with two interceptions in a storm against the Golden Warriors.
Morgan’s game certainly has grown since those days. This season, he finished second in the area with 1,838 yards and 20 touchdowns through the air.
The All-Hair team
Previously mentioned Chas Heseltine isn’t the only player who hid outstanding hair under his football helmet.
While in a pre-Thanksgiving interview, Central Catholic’s Santino Brancato couldn’t help but note the difference between his finely-combed, immaculate coif and the hair of fellow interviewee Andover’s Scarpa, who was sporting an iffy Mohawk which had just been shaved by a teammate.
The difference was fairly substantial.
Speaking of Andover’s Mohawks, it took plenty for Andrew Deloury to part with the golden locks that flowed out of his helmet throughout the season.
Greater Lawrence’s Cristian Rivera admits that his hair, which has grown well past his shoulders, is more than a little uncomfortable under his helmet, frequently causing him to fix it during games. But he made no excuses for why he kept it.
“It looks good,” he joked.
This wasn’t simply a Mass. trend. Salem’s Dominic Gigante was also in on the fad.