NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

August 21, 2013

Same goal, different players

Amesbury looks to repeat as league champion

By Dan Guttenplan
Sports Editor

---- — AMESBURY — Thom Connors has been here before.

It’s the season after a senior-laden Amesbury team won a Cape Ann League championship, and the Indians coach is looking for familiar faces at preseason workouts. There aren’t many to be found.

The last time Connors found himself in this spot was 2009, nine months removed from the program’s only Super Bowl title in history. That next season started with a thud for Amesbury with a crop of first-year varsity players taking snaps. The Indians were outscored 61-0 in their first two losses.

“I don’t feel like this year will be another year like that,” Connors said. “I don’t think we have to go back to the drawing board and have a rebuilding year. The kids who will step in can continue what we had going last year. They may not have been varsity starters last year, but they practiced with the varsity, and they were right behind the starters.”

Although the 2009 team started 0-3, it finished strong, posting wins in three of its last four games to go 4-7 for the season. Looking back, Connors remembers that team struggling early in preseason workouts as the coaching staff attempted to install the base offense, defense and special teams.

Connors said this year’s team has encountered fewer growing pains in the opening days of practice, due in part to the experience many players had of practicing with last year’s team down the stretch run to the CAL title.

“I’m feeling like we have some players that have similar capabilities to the guys we had last year,” Connors said. “Last year’s seniors played all of the skill positions for the most part. This year, we have some pretty talented seniors, juniors ­­— and even a sophomore — at those spots.”

Amesbury graduated its top skill players in quarterback Matt Talbot, fullback Perry Mroz, halfback Tommy Connors and split end Devlin Gobeil. Unlike in 2008, when the Indians graduated a class that included Jared Flanigan, Steve Serwon and Kevin Johnston, Connors believes the gap in talent between the next class of players is relatively small.

Connors expects Ben Cullen to provide plenty of speed out of the backfield as a running threat, while first-year starting quarterback Mac Short attempts to pick up where Talbot left off behind center.

“Ben Cullen was a great player for us last year, and we’ll use him in a bunch of ways,” Connors said. “Mac Short took an enormous amount of reps at quarterback last year in practice, and he even got a little game experience. I don’t think we’ll miss to much of a beat at quarterback.”

Amesbury’s strength will likely be its offensive line, as each of the five projected starters earned playing time last season. From left to right, tackle Sam Springus, guard Matt Napoli, center Zack Fitzgerald, guard Matt Bell and tackle Dan Norton figure to carve out holes for Cullen and Short. Mroz’s backup last season, Alex Mercier, has moved to tight end to get more involved in the passing game. Pat Scanlon, who has grown to 6-foot-3, will play the role Gobeil filled last fall.

“We have good size on the line, and we have some young kids who will challenge as the season goes,” Connors said. “We have a group of really talented sophomore linemen who will mature over the year and step in a year from now.”

Coming off a playoff season, Amesbury drew 25 freshmen on the first day of practice Monday — about 10 more than the norm for a typical Day 1 in the Connors era.

The promising turnout gave Connors confidence that he made the right decision in returning for his 12th season. Last fall, he mentioned that he’d always envisioned retiring after coaching his son’s final high school game. The plan was for coach Connors to potentially retire from teaching and coaching in order to follow his son’s college football career.

As it turns out, Tommy is starting his freshman season at Endicott College, just a 35-minute drive from Amesbury, and Coach Connors isn’t ready to retire.

“When I first said it, I was kind of referring to a thought I had when I was younger,” Connors said. “We’d all go out together. I used to think that. Well, I’m really not old enough to retire, and second, I didn’t realize it would get here so fast. I’m still a few years away from retiring, and it worked out pretty well with Tommy going to Endicott. As a freshman, he’s probably a year or two away from being a contributor anyway. So that made the decision about coming back pretty easy.

“On top of that, I’m excited about the prospects we have,” Connors said. “We have a pretty good team, and our future is pretty bright as well.”

Amesbury Football Schedule

Date Time Opponent

Friday, Sept. 13 7 p.m. TRITON

Friday, Sept. 20 7 p.m. PENTUCKET

Saturday, Sept. 28 1 p.m. Lynnfield

Friday, Oct. 4 7 p.m. HAMILTON-WENHAM

Friday. Oct. 11 7 p.m. IPSWICH

Saturday, Oct. 19 1 p.m. Georgetown

Friday, Oct. 25 7 p.m. Manchester Essex

Thursday, Nov. 28 10 a.m. Newburyport

* Home games in bold

** MIAA playoffs will run Nov. 1 to 15

Football Preview Schedule

Yesterday: Newburyport

Today: Amesbury

Tomorrow: Triton

Friday: Pentucket