When Taylor Sullivan and Nick DeFusco entered the Hillies locker room their freshman year, they vowed to change the atmosphere of Haverhill High football by the time they were seniors.
Consider it done.
This season, the team and its seniors — led by captains DeFusco and Sullivan — have already doubled their win total from the previous three years, with two wins in their first four games of 2011.
"It's been a great experience for all of us," DeFusco said. "We all have grown up and been through the high school in that drought. It was just beautiful (to get a win) and it's been awesome."
The change in culture started after former coach Tim Briggs was not retained following the 2009 season. Tim O'Connor was brought in to coach the Hillies last season and has focused on keeping spirits high in a locker room that has not had much to cheer about over recent years.
"The biggest thing (O'Connor) brought was positive energy that we did not have," DeFusco said. "He pounded into us that we have to fight as a team and as a unit. He brought us together as a family and reignited the flame of our football love."
"The seniors' growth and maturity for the year and half that I've been here has been outstanding," O'Connor said. "They're learning how to be part of a program and not just be individuals."
O'Connor said both captains bring a contrasting style of leadership to the field, helping the team in their own ways. DeFusco nurtures the younger players and takes them under his wing, while Sullivan provides tough love and makes sure all players are working their hardest.
"It's a good cop, bad cop mentality," O'Connor said.
Sullivan, a linebacker, leads a defense that has been stellar in the Hillies' two victories this season. The defense pitched a shutout against Medford and did not allow a point during the final three quarters in the season-opening win over Malden.
All the change finally paid dividends on Sept. 9, with Haverhill's 39-12 thrashing of Malden. For Sullivan, the win made true a saying he would often tell himself during the losing streak.
"The definition of insanity is repeating the same act and expecting a different outcome," Sullivan said. "We broke it all and got a different outcome."
The team also received a big lift earlier in the season with the return of another senior, wide receiver Blaine Joia. Joia, who had played on the team since freshman year, missed all of last season because he was academically ineligible.
"Blaine is making great strides on the football field," O'Connor said. "Most importantly, he's making great strides in the classroom. We're proud of him ... that he is actually making the commitment."
Senior Connor Tufts also is making a big contribution to the team. He is the fullback who blocks for junior running back Chance Brady. Brady has rushed for 801 yards and 11 touchdowns in this season's four games. Tufts, a former quarterback, is relishing the opportunity to play what might be an equally important role in an offense which leans primarily on the running game.
"The one thing I love in this sport is running straight into somebody and hitting them as hard as I can," Tufts said. "To have a back like Chance behind me who already knows how I block makes a running game that just is going to get better and better."
O'Connor also lauded Tufts for the versatility that he brings to the team. Tufts often lines up in the slot receiver position and also is a stalwart on defense, playing defensive line and middle linebacker.
The team also receives help from defensive lineman Aaron Moisan. Moisan has received letters from Division 1 schools in the Big East and Big Ten that are interested in him.
Despite the early season success, the team knows that it still has the majority of the season ahead of them. Their early season wins thus far have both been non-conference games and the meat of the schedule started last Friday at Andover.
No matter how the rest of the season goes, one thing is for certain. This year's group of seniors has turned around the direction of the program in a very short time.
"This is the new Haverhill football," Sullivan said. "New year, new generation."
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Chance Brady rushed for 134 yards, but a 24-point fourth quarter deficit was too much to overcome for the Hillies as they fell 24-14 to Andover on Friday night.
Haverhill fought tooth and nail with the Golden Warriors in the first quarter, but doomed themselves with too many mental errors to keep pace with the defending Merrimack Valley Conference Large champions.
"There were too many mental mistakes in the first half — penalties, not lining up right and broken coverage," said Hillies head coach Tim O'Connor. O'Connor said he hopes that the experience of playing one of the tougher teams in the conference will help Haverhill in the long run.
"Everything's a building block," he said. "It's a lot better than last year, but we still have room to improve."
Haverhill will close out its non-conference schedule on Saturday, hosting Pentucket at 1 p.m.