For years, Haverhill High School has seemed like a dead end for football players. Hillies rarely went on to play beyond Trinity Stadium, and colleges rarely looked to Haverhill when recruiting.
That has changed.
Under second-year head coach Tim O'Connor, the Hillies will have five seniors from this year's squad go on to play college football at the Division 3 level.
"I'm proud of all of our football players," said O'Connor. "But especially these five players who have decided to continue playing at the next level. It is a testament to the program that people are thinking about Haverhill beyond the high school level."
Taylor Sullivan and Aaron Moisan have committed to Plymouth State.
Will Haskell has committed to Trinity College in Hartford, Conn.
Connor Tufts will be playing at Framingham State.
Ryan Filliger is headed to Worcester State.
Sullivan was one of the captains at Haverhill and played wide receiver and linebacker for the Hillies. Sullivan had 17 catches for 206 yards at receiver and was arguably the leader of the defense, with at least two interceptions, including one for a touchdown. He broke his leg in the penultimate game of the season against Dracut.
"Taylor is a very intense, hardworking player," said O'Connor. "He's been working hard to get back on the field since his devastating injury."
"Taylor runs very well and is active all over the field," said Paul Castonia, head coach at Plymouth State. "He seems like a guy who has a lot of energy on the field. He's always active and pursuing the ball."
"Plymouth State has a nice system of balancing school and football evenly," said Sullivan. "That aspect is very important to me."
Moisan, who played linebacker and fullback for the Hillies, will play linebacker for the Panthers. At 6-1, 245 pounds, Moisan was one of the most physical members of the Hillie defense.
"Aaron is a physical specimen that any football program would be proud to have," said O'Connor. "He has the potential to be a phenomenal player at the next level."
"For a guy of that size, he moves very well," said Castonia. "He did a number of good things on the field. He's a guy because of his body type he could end up in a number of different spots on either side of the ball."
"The coaches sold me on Plymouth State," said Moisan. "They seemed to know what they were talking about and they made it seem like a comfortable place for me to be."
Tufts paved the way for junior Chance Brady to have a historic season for the Hillies. In addition to blocking for Brady's 1,641 yards and 22 touchdowns, Tufts added two touchdowns of his own and ran for 83 yards on 16 carries.
"Framingham was very welcoming to me," said Tufts. "I could feel the family-like atmosphere there, like they had in Haverhill."
"He's a pure football player and an awesome individual," said O'Connor. "He's willing to do anything for the team. I know he will succeed at the next level."
"Connor might not have the height to be a Division 1 player, but we thought he will be a fantastic Division 3 athlete," said Aynsley Rosenbaum, offensive coordinator and associate head coach at Framingham State.
"He's a kid, who plays the same if you're up 20 or down 20. He plays the full 60 minutes. We haven't had an impact player from Haverhill in a long time, and we were overdue for one."
Haskell, who played both offensive and defensive tackle for Haverhill, will play offensive tackle for the Bantams. Haskell, 6-5, 245 pounds, was lauded by his coach for his prowess in the classroom and, at Trinity, will be attending a school with high academic standards that belongs to the New England Small College Athletic Conference, sometimes called the "Little Ivies."
"He's a gentle giant," said O'Connor. "He is a hard worker in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom."
"He's a big kid with a lot of potential," said Trinity head coach Jeff Devanney. "I think he has the desire to want to be good, he's a very hard-working man who cares about his academics and wants to be a good football player. We are very excited about him coming to Trinity."
"It's an awesome school with a great campus," said Haskell. "I always envisioned myself playing football at the next level, but I didn't think it could become a reality until this season."
Filliger is looking to play center for the first time in his career at Worcester State after an excellent senior year at guard as a Hillie.
"He's a true team player," said O'Connor. "He worked 100 percent whether it's a practice or a game. He will be sorely missed next year."
"We liked his drive," said Worcester State head coach Brien Cullen. "He's a little bit undersized but has good knowledge of the game. He seemed like a dedicated person and someone who will be able to help us out down the road."
Coming into high school, Filliger did not think he would have a shot at ever playing beyond Haverhill High.
"I didn't think that I could play at the next level," said Filliger. "But I credit (O'Connor) for giving me confidence to know that I could."
Nick DeFusco, a senior co-captain is attempting to walk on at Division 1 UMass-Amherst as a linebacker this fall. Blaine Joia, the team's MVP in 2011, is hoping to play a post grad year next season at the Hyde School in Woodstock, Conn.
Hillies' foray into college football isn't likely to end this year. Offensive lineman Dan Burrows is getting looks from Division 1 schools. Quarterback Tommy Morgan is being recruited by NESCAC schools, and Division 2 and 3 schools are looking at running back Chance Brady.
"I'm so proud of the way our program is progressing," said O'Connor. "When I got here no one wanted to play college football. Now big schools are trying to recruit them."