, Newburyport, MA

November 20, 2012

A class worth waiting for

Amesbury seniors have eyed this Thanksgiving game for years

By Dan Guttenplan
Sports Editor

---- — AMESBURY — Thom Connors devised a grand exit plan early in his tenure as the Amesbury football coach.

Eight years ago, he watched his son, Tommy, host his fourth-grade friends at the Connors home. The kids played in the pool, threw the ball around,and invented all kinds of different games, so long as they were competing against each other. Coach Connors marked 2012 on his calendar as his final year of coaching football.

“Eight or nine years ago, my thoughts were that I’d see it through until these guys graduate, and then I’d retire,” Connors said. “I never expected it to go this fast.”

Connors has yet to make a concrete decision regarding his retirement plans, but if he is to walk away at the conclusion of this season, he could have as few as one game remaining in his coaching tenure. Amesbury (8-2 overall, 4-0 CAL) and Newburyport (6-4 overall, 3-1) will meet Thursday morning in 90th meeting between the schools. Although the Indians have already clinched a share of the Cape Ann League Division 3 title, this year’s Thanksgiving matchup will determine which of the two teams will advance to the postseason. The losing team’s season will end Thursday.

It is the first time since 2008 in which the stakes will be this high for a Newburyport-Amesbury Thanksgiving game. Amesbury won in 2008 before going on to win the Division 3A Super Bowl.

Connors sees many similarities between this year’s senior class and the group that played in 2008.

“In 2008, my first real recognition came when they were freshmen because they were undefeated,” Connors said. “I knew from that point, they’d have a special team when they all played as seniors. This year’s seniors, I’ve known most of their lives. Many have slept over at my house, swam in my pool and played in the back yard. These guys have gotten better and better every year.”

Many of this year’s seniors, including quarterback Matt Talbot and two-way starters Tommy Connors, Curran O’Connor, Devlin Gobeil, Perry Mroz and Shawn Bannon, started playing football together in middle school as members of the Amesbury Jets. As sixth-graders, they posted an 8-2 record, showing promise for future success.

“We started to get really good in sixth grade,” Gobeil said. “It clicked, and we knew we had something special. We never lost hope in what we had as a group. Even when we had two losses this year, we knew we had something special.”

Still, success didn’t come immediately at the high school level. The Indians had a combined record of 8-14 in 2010 and 2011, when this group of seniors was just beginning to make an impact at the varsity level.

At the start of last season, Talbot won an open competition with a few other members of the Class of 2013 for the starting quarterback position, serving as the key piece to fall into place as Connors attempted to build a championship team. The junior took his lumps during a 4-7 season, but he left no doubt that he could lead an offense as a dual threat as a runner and passer.

This season, Talbot has arguably been the top player in CAL Division 3. He has completed 71 of 120 pases for 1,148 yards and 15 touchdowns, and also picked up 688 yards on 99 carries with eight rushing touchdowns.

“It’s been fun seeing everyone develop and bond together from middle school through high school,” said O’Connor, an offensive and defensive tackle. “I’ve stayed at the exact same position, but Perry (Mroz) has moved positions. Matt (Talbot) moved from running back a few years ago. We’ve become a family. It’s about fighting for the guy next to you.”

Coach Connors has even occasionally interrupted practices this year because he’s felt the closeness between this year’s seniors has taken the aggression out of contact drills. His son, Tommy, explains.

“If one of our teammates gets hit hard, we all help him up,” Tommy Connors said. “In other years, when someone on our team has a big hit, other guys might not even get excited. This year, we’re jumping all over each other. But no one wants to hit each other hard in practice because we’re so close. You’ll hear the coaches yelling at us to hit harder, but we can’t do it to our friends.”

The key to maintaining team chemistry has been adding valuable players along the way without making them feel like outsiders. Senior Adam Ivancic didn’t join the team until high school, but he said he was welcomed with open arms.

“I started later than the rest of these guys, but I was always friends with them,” Ivancic said. “They persuaded me to play. I was definitely out of place for a little while, but they didn’t judge me. They taught me how to play.”

Perhaps the team’s chemistry was paramount in its ability to overcome a 1-2 start to the season. In Week 3, Amesbury fell to North Reading 21-7, showing very few signs of a team capable of making a push for a CAL title. Since then, the Indians have won seven games in a row. In their most recent victory — a 21-20 defeat of Pentucket Nov. 10 — the Indians overcame two fourth-quarter deficits.

“We have good chemistry, but there’s no leadership really,” Mroz said. “It’s not like we don’t have a leader; it’s just that everyone likes each other and considers themselves as equals. No one’s better than anyone else. We’re all one unit.”

Connors detected that this unit might be a special group as many as eight years ago. Others were a little later to the party. Senior Grant Bellino opted to quit the team before this football season in order to focus all of his time on tennis. He changed his mind at midseason after sensing the energy surrounding the team.

“Two or three games in, I couldn’t resist it anymore,” Bellino said. “I came back. I just saw the teamwork and excitement. I said to myself, ‘I need to get my butt back into the game.’ I started training to get back on the field. I feel the same energy now as everyone else playing. It’s so exciting and so intense.”