By Alex Lippa
---- — There’s a change in atmosphere around the Haverhill High football team.
Going into last season, the Hillies were mired in a long losing streak. The team’s seniors had barely experienced what it was like to win a football game.
But after a 4-7 season last fall — a record which could have been better with a couple of fortunate bounces of the ball — the team’s expectations have risen significantly.
“We want to win the MVC Small (division),” said senior quarterback Tommy Morgan. “We learned how to win last year, and I think all eyes are on us to do some big things this year.”
The buzz has been considerable around the Hillies in the pre-season polls. After a 42-12 win over Malden in this year’s opening game Sept. 8, the Hillies were ranked 23rd in Eastern Massachusetts by the Boston Globe and received mention in ESPN Boston’s poll.
Despite the early praise, head coach Tim O’Connor maintained this group of players has a lot to do to get better.
“It’s still a work in progress,” O’Connor said. “We’ve closed the gap on some of the upper echelon teams, but we’ve still got a long way to go. We’re not even close to the caliber of the Central Catholics and the Dracuts yet, but we’re getting there.”
The Hillies had a chance on Friday to go 2-0 for the first time since 2006, but the team’s multitude of mental mistakes contributed to the loss of its home opener to Tewksbury, 30-22.
How far the team goes will likely depend on the legs of workhorse running back Chance Brady. He ran for 1,641 yards last year and is well on his way to surpassing that mark this year, with 255 yards in the season opener and 125 in the Tewksbury game.
Brady ran behind fullback Connor Tufts last year, but this year the Hillies are running more of a spread offense.
“(The spread) definitely makes me have to make people miss more,” Brady said. “But with the spread, people can’t put eight guys in the box anymore. If they dare put eight guys in the box, we’ll burn them deep because I know Tommy can make those passes.”
Part of the reason for the switch to the spread is that Morgan has some new weapons to throw to. Shaine Roche came out for the team after not playing football for two years and Jordan Javier transferred to Haverhill from Lynn English. Both receivers paid immediate dividends, with Javier scoring a touchdown and Roche hauling in a 53-yard reception in the opening game.
“It hasn’t been too big of a transition,” Morgan said. “Roche is one of my best friends, so we have an instant connection and Jordan Javier is just a ballhawk and I know if I throw it up for him, he’ll come down with it.”
The biggest question mark for the Hillies is likely on defense, where the team lost Tufts, senior linebackers Nick DeFusco and Taylor Sullivan and senior safety Blaine Joia.
O’Connor said “it’s been time-consuming” teaching defense. “But the kids are working hard with it and they’re getting it. It’s a young defense, but they’re a smart group that are doing the right things on a daily basis.”
O’Connor noted senior defensive lineman Dan Burrows as well as Phil Pacini and Josh Dion have emerged as leaders of the Hillies’ defense.
What might be most important for a program that had a lot of rocky moments prior to O’Connor’s arrival is the stability the program now has. The Hillies have 95 players in the program. The number is down from 102 last year, but the team graduated 27 seniors.
“We have a good freshman class and we have a good nucleus of kids,” O’Connor said. “Not too many kids are playing both ways, and we’re looking good this season.”