BEVERLY — Kenny Pierce winces as he thinks about last year’s 13-12 loss to Marblehead in the second-to-last game of the season.
Beverly High teammate Brendan Flaherty had returned a fumble for a touchdown with 5:39 left in the game, but he was stuffed on the 2-point conversion attempt as the Panthers went for the lead instead of the tie.
Beverly had another possession, but Marblehead forced the Panthers to turn the ball over on downs.
Their playoff hopes dashed, the Panthers closed out the season with a 46-21 win over Salem on Thanksgiving Day, finishing 7-4 overall (3-2 in Cape Ann/Northeastern Division 2).
A few towns over, Marblehead was marching into the postseason.
“That game just leaves a sour taste in my mouth,” Pierce, a 5-foot-10, 167-pound senior back, said of the loss to Marblehead. “The two-point conversion at the end of the game really killed us.”
A week prior, Beverly had suffered a 21-13 loss to Swampscott.
Those two late-season losses are the fuel for a hungry Beverly squad that is determined to make the program’s first playoff appearance since winning the Eastern Mass. Division 3 Super Bowl in 2010.
“After every workout, we just go right back to that disappointing loss against Marblehead,” said Pierce. “It’s motivated us a great amount. I think it was key for us coming into this year.”
The Panthers, who moved up to Division 2A last season, have outscored foes 121-20 in their 3-0 start this fall.
The offense runs through team captains Pierce and Flaherty, who have combined for 12 touchdowns. One was a 57-yard scoring toss from Flaherty to Pierce in a 34-7 victory over defending Division 2 Super Bowl champ Concord-Carlisle in Beverly’s opening game.
“Certainly we have high expectations from them,” Beverly coach Dan Bauer said. “They should perform well, they’ve been working hard and have been in the system.”
Last year, the two produced 27 touchdowns, with the 6-1, 185-pound Flaherty scoring 14, while Pierce had 13.
“The system is good, but we couldn’t do it without our line,” Flaherty said. “They open all the holes.”
Operating out of a wing T alignment behind quarterback Dave Rollins, Flaherty and Pierce deliver a palpable impact on Beverly’s offense.
Likewise, their impact in the secondary conspicuously anchors the defense, which hasn’t allowed more than 7 points in a game this season.
In last weekend’s 45-6 win over Lynn English, Flaherty returned an interception 55 yards for a touchdown.
Flaherty plays safety, alongside senior Dom Abate , while Pierce and senior Ryan Shipp play cornerback.
“From an athletic standpoint, they do great things,” Bauer said. “It’s their second year running the system and it’s great having that continuity back there. The four seniors in the secondary have a grasp on the coverage and adjustments we need to make.”
The crossover CAL/NEC game against Lynn English on Saturday was another step forward.
There’s a short but storied history between Lynn English and Beverly.
Last year, the Panthers plucked a 36-35 victory on a 1-yard touchdown run by Rollins with less than a minute to go. In 2009, Beverly stole a 24-20 victory in the last 15 seconds when Justin Marrs hauled in a scoring pass from Mark Hannable .
The Panthers still have three more games before they start conference play, including Friday’s matchup at Winthrop, and the focus now is to fine-tune the team as best as possible, according to Bauer.
The win against Lynn English “was really big because they’re a big, physical team,” Bauer said. “We’re still in the development phases and trying to improve, and to get better against a better team is what we’re trying to strive for.
“We had penalties we have to correct, and we’re working on consistency on both sides of the ball.”
The expectations are high for the Panthers, especially after the 2010 championship season.
But for Bauer, he wouldn’t want it any other way.
“We realized we can’t take anyone for granted. . . two tough losses resulted in missing the playoffs’’ last fall, Bauer said. “The expectations have risen every year, which is good — you want that as a coach. We’re trying to live up to a challenge, and our players realize it.”
Ipswich connection pays healthy dividend
Legendary Ipswich High coach Jack Welch always put his trust in Hugh O’Flynn .
An offensive guard for Welch and team captain in 1985, O’Flynn was tasked with opening holes and protecting the ball carriers.
O’Flynn “made himself into a really good player,” recalled Welch. “He was the lead guard on sweep plays, and he was a very good blocker.”
Last week, the 80-year-old Welch trusted his former captain in replacing his left hip — the second surgery O’Flynn has performed on his coach.
“I grew up in Ipswich, and you operate on people you’ve known from high school — friends, coaches and teachers,” said O’Flynn, now an orthopedic surgeon at Beverly Hospital and the team doctor for the high school athletic program. “Being a hometown doctor is an incredible responsibility, but it’s a great blessing.”
O’Flynn, 45, has been in practice for 14 years.
In 2003, he replaced Welch’s knee, which was designed by former Ipswich center Bruce Robie (class of 1978); he has also performed hip-replacement procedures for Welch’s wife and son.
“I knew I had the best physician in the North Shore,” Welch said. “I figured I could put my trust in him.”
“He’s kept our tennis group together,” Welch quipped. “All five of them have had surgery from Hugh.”
Welch coached football for 36 years at Ipswich High before retiring in 2000. His teams won three Super Bowls (Division 3 in 1977, and Division 4B titles in 1991 and 1992).
He still coaches track and field, and in 2010 he coached O’Flynn’s daughter, Hannah , to a 400-meter victory at the MIAA All-State championship and a second-place finish in the discus.
“It was fun coaching Hannah, and I knew I was getting the cream of the crop with an O’Flynn,” Welch said. “I wasn’t surprised at all.”
“It’s tremendous — that kind of relationship doesn’t happen anymore,” O’Flynn added. “He’s had a lifelong impact.”
Joining cancer fight
A number of high school football teams across the state will dedicate games to cancer awareness this month as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer program organized by the American Cancer Society.
Amesbury, Beverly, North Shore Tech, Peabody, and Swampscott will participate locally. Roughly $100,000 was raised a year ago in the state.
Anthony Gulizia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.