Off Tackle David Willis
HAVERHILL — Superstar running back Chance Brady was first struck by the excitement that’s buzzing through Haverhill during a recent shopping trip to Butcher Boys.
“The bagger, who I had never met, stopped me and said, ‘Are you Chance?’” Brady remembered. “I said, ‘Yeah.” Then he said, ‘You are great! Good luck this week. I can’t wait.’”
For lineman Dan Burrows, it was a visit to the grocery store that neighbors Haverhill’s Trinity Stadium.
“I was wearing my Haverhill football T-shirt to Market Basket with my mom,” he said. “An older man stopped me and said, ‘You guys are really good this year.’ I said, ‘That’s the plan.’ That’s the first time I ever talked to someone in the community about football.”
For quarterback Tommy Morgan, the thrill set in while reading The Eagle Tribune’s own rallynorth.net blog.
“I read RallyNorth all the time and I saw Hector Longo’s blog about one of the New England Patriots’ equipment managers (Haverhill’s Dave Schoenfeld) talking about us,” he said. “That is pretty cool.”
Just two years removed from a 32-game losing streak, the Haverhill football team is off to a 4-1 start this season — matching its best five games since The Eagle-Tribune began keeping complete records in 1984 — and ranked No. 18 in Eastern Mass.
That including a huge victory over defending Merrimack Valley Conference Division 1 champ Chelmsford last week, and they are now set for a big matchup with MVC Division 2 power Dracut tonight.
The Hillies, who also started 4-1 in 2001 and 1991, have their eyes set on their first above-.500 season since 2001 (8-3).
It’s a whole new world for Haverhill, which was 6-49 over the past five years, and the community is taking notice.
“People are rallying around us in a big way,” said Brady, who leads the area with 926 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. “The support is endless. It’s surreal to go from walking through the halls at school and hear people mocking you to hearing people say, ‘Go get them!’ It’s been great.”
The tri-captains remember a time not long ago when it was very different.
“I remember going to games as a kid and me and my friends would be about the only ones here,” said Burrows. “Now you see people parked all the way out to the church (down the street from the stadium). A lot has changed.
“But the culture around the team has changed too. Ever since coach (Tim) O’Connor started out sophomore year, people are showing up, training and have a true vested interest in winning.”
Brady also noted the major change in the previous two years.
“The 0-32 streak was one of the most difficult times of my life,” he said. “People were at practice basically saying, ‘Why are we here?’ But things started to change then. I had never even heard of 7-on-7 (passing tournaments), but we became dedicated to them and the weight room was like practice. You didn’t miss it, and after that you hung out as a team.
“Last year we finished 4-7, which really isn’t so great. But for us it was a breakthrough year. We could feel that the program was changing.”
For Morgan, now in his third season as the Hillies’ starting quarterback, the difference was clear once he began working out with his teammates this summer.
“We had a 7-on-7 tournament at Haverhill and we just smoked the first team we played,” he said. “I was just like, ‘Ok, we are clicking a little bit now.
“Before, you always heard people talking about going to Central Catholic or Whittier. I considered going to Central. Now we are seeing people transfer back because they want to play for Haverhill. It is so different now. My sophomore year, we ended the season with about 33 kids. Now we have over 100 in the program. Coach O is doing a great job.”
After starting this season 3-1, the Hillies hit their peak last Saturday, when they rallied from a 13-point deficit to beat Chelmsford 30-23.
“I think the team really matured with that win,” said Morgan, No. 2 in the area with 799 passing yards. “Two years ago, we would have folded down 20-7. This year we battled and came back. Before, we went into every game thinking, ‘Lets just try to get through this.’ Now we really feel like we can win games.”
Despite the pouring rain and cold better suited for late November, it was nothing but enthusiasm as the Hillies ran through practice on Wednesday, occasionally dropping for dreaded up-downs (jogging, then diving on the ground).
“True warriors go to Haverhill,” said Brady. “We don’t care if it’s rain, snow, lighting — well, maybe not lighting — we are always excited to be out here. We still have a long way to go, but we love it.”
Now they are focused on taking on Dracut, and expect plenty of support.
“It is going to be an amazing battle,” said Morgan. “It’s such a great time to play football at Haverhill. We were doing community service at Whittier Rehab recently and a guy just stops, pulls down his window and said, ‘You you guys played a great game!’ That was just unbelievable.”
David Willis is a sportswriter/videographer for The Eagle-Tribune. You can see his video profiles at eagletribunetribune.com/sports
See the story For video interviews with the Haverhill tri-captains, along with a look inside the their practice, visit eagletribune.com/sports or rallynorth.net. Fab 5 1. Andover 5-0 2. Central Catholic 4-1 3. Pinkerton 5-1 4. Haverhill 4-1 5. Windham 5-1 Honorable mention: Greater Lawrence (4-1), Whittier (4-1), North Reading (4-1)