NORTH ANDOVER — Freddy Gabin knew this fall would be different.
A year ago, he was one of four Eagle-Tribune All-Stars on Division 2 state champion North Andover’s unstoppable offense. He was the surprise standout that went from third stringer to game-breaker in a matter of weeks.
Heading into 2019, howver, with the rest of those stars gone to graduation, Gabin was prepared for the target to be firmly on his No. 5 jersey.
“This fall I knew I had to be the man,” said Gabin. “I knew I had to step up on the field and as a leader. Last year I had big stars all around me. I knew the focus would be on me this year.
“But as soon as the summer started, I realized I would still have great players around me, people just didn’t know their names yet. Even when we were 1-3, I felt like this was a very special team and we could play for another title.”
Gabin’s confidence has proven prophetic.
Led by their dynamic running back, No. 4-seeded North Andover (6-3) has surged to its third straight Division 2 state championship game, taking on No. 2 Lincoln-Sudbury (7-2) for the third straight year with a trip to Gillette Stadium and the Division 2 title game on the line.
“The team is super pumped,” said Gabin. “We always believed we would be here. It was just a matter of showing people what we could do. We had to overcome some challenges, but that just made us more battle-tested.”
For the second straight season, Gabin has been a driving force for the Scarlet Knights.
The 5-foot-6, 160-pound speedster ranks fourth in the Eagle-Tribune area in rushing (team-high 824 yards) and is third in touchdowns scored (14). He ran for 182 yards and two long scores in the Knights’ Division 2 semifinal upset of No. 1 seed Reading.
“So much of our success is attributed to Freddy’s performance,” said North Andover head coach John Dubzinski. “He’s a very unique tailback with several skills. He has great speed and is shifty, but he can also be powerful. He has been a great player for us.”
BACKUP TO BREAKOUT
As the 2018 season kicked off, Gabin was unsure if he would see the varsity field at all.
“I didn’t really have a role,” said Gabin, who moved to North Andover from Lawrence in the first grade. “I was a third-string running back. Maybe I would get one or two carries at the end of games. I was more of a role player, just playing special teams and doing whatever the coaches asked me to do.”
North Andover, however, soon found itself in desperate need of running backs.
“I was just doing whatever I could, so when J.D. (Allen) went down with an injury they knew they could trust me,” he said. “Then, when Darren (Watson) went down, I knew it was my chance. There aren’t many opportunities, so I had to seize it.”
In his first career start, Gabin exploded for 136 yards and two touchdowns in a win over eventual Division 3 state finalist Tewksbury. He followed that up with 141 yards against Chelmsford and 273 yards and three scores against Dracut. He finished the season with 955 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
“Playing in the state title game at Gillete Stadium was one of the best moments of my life,” he said. “To experience it, all those moments, was beautiful. After all we had fought through, to win it at Gillette with my family was very special.”
NORTH TITLE RETURN
With the graduation of Eagle-Tribune All-Stars Jake McElroy, Gabe DeSouza, Watson and Mike Roche among others, Gabin was more than ready for the spotlight this fall.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “But I like it. I was waiting for it. I’m happy to be in this role. I want to lead my team to a championship. I knew this team could be special. We had amazing turnouts for offseason workouts, and everyone bought into the championship standards we have set.”
Since losing to Tewksbury to fall to 1-3, North Andover has won five straight. Gabin has run for 100 or more yards in three of those wins and scored two or more touchdowns in four of the victories.
Now, he and his teammates are dreaming of a return trip to Gillette Stadium.
“Everyone on the team is locked in and focused,” said Gabin. “I believe we can win this game. We all believe. We have to out-muscle them and be more physical. We are clicking at the most important time of the season.”
Tale of the Tape
What: Division 2 North Championship Game
When/Where: Friday, 7 p.m. at Lincoln-Sudbury High
Who: No. 4 North Andover (6-3) vs. No. 2 Lincoln-Sudbury (7-2)
Rivalry: This marks the third straight season the two teams have met in the North title game. The home team has won both meetings: North Andover in 2018 (42-0) and Lincoln-Sudbury in 2017 (27-7).
Lincoln-Sudbury at a glance: Backup QB Collin Murphy has thrown two touchdowns in each of the Warriors’ two tournament wins. He is playing in place of starter Riley O’Connell, who is out for the season with an arm injury. Griffin Brown has caught a TD pass each of the last two weeks. Nolan O’Brien has two postseason punt return touchdowns.
Contact David Willis at @DWillisET or DWillis@eagletribune.com.