“Weather the storm” was the motto for Haverhill on Saturday afternoon — literally.
With dark clouds moving over the stadium and heavy rain pouring down, the Hillies did something that they haven’t done since September of 2006 – beat Chelmsford.
The loss, Chelmsford’s first this season, drops the Lions from No. 16 to out of the Top 20 and keeps them from having a seat on the Globe’s Undefeated Bus, which first appeared on these pages in 1934 and makes its 2012 debut here. And for newly-minted No. 18 Haverhill (4-1) it means a spot in the Top 20, something that was unthinkable just a short time ago.
“I told them to enjoy the win, it’s a program-changer” said coach Tim O’Connor of the 30-23 win. “It’s a great feeling but it changes fast, those are the highs and lows of high school football.”
Haverhill, which had a 6-49 record over the past five years, is no stranger to changes.
Taking over the team three years ago wasn’t an easy task for O’Connor, who walked into a meeting with only 18 kids interested in playing football out of a school of about 2,000 students. Things were tough for the Hillies, who were in midst of a 32-game losing streak, getting blown out regularly.
“The goal for the first year was all about teaching,” said the coach. “Last year’s goal was to end the streak and win a couple of games, which we did.”
This year’s goal? Play like champions.
Coming off a 4-7 season, O’Connor was confident that his experienced team could keep progressing thanks to the support the school and city have shown the program.
“From top to bottom it’s awesome,” said O’Connor. “Teachers are involved, everyone wants us to succeed and that’s why it’s working. We understand what we have, we’re changing community.”
Superintendent James F. Scully has played his role in helping by decreasing student athletic fees from $275 to $125, making it easier for more students to participate.
Haverhill currently has 61 varsity players, 25 on junior varsity, and 30 on the freshman team.
“The other day the superintendent was walking to every single classroom reminding people there was a game on Saturday,” said Hillies quarterback Tommy Morgan, who threw the game-winning pass in the fourth quarter. “Two or three years ago you would’ve never got that here.”
O’Connor makes sure more than just the team’s win-loss record improves.
Win or lose, every Saturday morning at 9 a.m., the team reports to the field and plays childhood games to maintain team chemistry.
“Saturday morning is usually like a team-building day,” said Morgan. “It helps us bring the team together. We’re still 17 or 18 years old, just trying to be kids.”
Morgan, one of three senior captains, knows its important to lead by example. Running back Chance Brady (13 touchdowns) is the vocal leader that sparks the team, while offensive lineman Dan Burrows has been on varsity since his freshman year.
With the three captains graduating this year, O’Connor is still hopeful about his young team.
But for now, it’s all about the week-to-week.
“What [O’Connor] has done for the team and program is miraculous,” said Morgan. “We used to be the team that would get laughed at because everyone knew they could beat us. Now they fear us in the Merrimack Valley Conference.”
O’Connor, who gave up a teaching job offer to become coach, declared that the best decision of his life was going to Haverhill.
On Friday they’ll be up against another MVC opponent when they travel to Billerica. Yet, despite what happens, the players will be running after each other Saturday morning as if they were in elementary school recess.
That’s just how things are done in Haverhill.
. . .
Pat Kane kicked a 37-yard field goal with time expiring to give Sandwich (4-1) a 24-22 win over Marshfield (0-5) in Duxbury on Sunday.
Go to Boston.com/schools for Players of the Week.