Things looked different on Thursday afternoon when the Northeast football team showed up for its designated 4:30-to-6:15 p.m. practice time on Wakefield High’s field.
Northeast’s coaching staff was shorthanded with only head coach Don Heres, volunteer Mike Tango, and freshman coach Sean Duggan available to run the team. The small vocational schoolin Wakefield faced even more challenges, with starting running back Steve Donnelly and starting tackle Justin Engle injured and ruled out of its upcoming Commonwealth battle against Shawsheen Tech.
So, junior fullback Nick Coughlin and sophomore fullback Michael Sousa received some unexpected news that they would be shifting positions, with Coughlin starting at running back and Sousa moving to tackle.
“I was surprised, because that’s not my normal position, and I’m not really built like a lineman,” said Sousa, a 5-foot-10, 210-pounder from Melrose.
“I was pretty confident I could play tackle, it was just a matter of learning it before the game. Honestly, I was pretty nervous, but I tried my best to turn the nerves into anger so I could play to the best of my ability.”
Sousa and the rest of the offensive line played with plenty of vigor Friday night, paving the way for Coughlin and his teammates to rush for 230 yards in a 22-20 win at Wakefield High.
Senior Trevor Tango posted 69 rushing yards and scored on a deciding 2-point conversion, fullback Izzy Lainez stepped into a starting role and piled up 54 rushing yards with a 3-yard touchdown, and C.J. Moriconi moved from backup to a featured role as yet another option in Northeast’s Wing-T offense.
“We’ve done a lot of moving people around, I’ll tell you that,” said Heres, who has been coaching at Northeast for 25 years and is in his 15th year as head coach.
“Every day comes by and we’re dealing with the cards that are dealt to us. It takes a lot to play right now, but the kids who are out there find a way, and they make the most out of it. They love the sport, they love the school, and they represent us very well.”
As a vocational school, Northeast faces challenges securing practice time and getting students from multiple towns to the field during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. At least 15 players opted out of the season due to those difficulties, and three assistant coaches missed practice time this past week for various reasons.
But Heres and his group made no excuses, and after coming back from a 22-14 deficit in the final minutes to top Essex Tech, 30-22, last Friday, they took down the defending Commonwealth champs with three sophomores starting on the offensive line.
“One of the only good things that’s come out of COVID is resiliency,” said Heres. “People have found ways to get things done. These kids have proved that and every time we’re down and out they end up coming back.”
“We’re a vocational school and we have that lunch-pail mentality. We just work hard. And since day one I’ve told the kids, ‘I don’t care if you’re a senior or freshman, the kid that plays the hardest gets to play.’”
Northeast lives by the motto “MAD” which stands for “Motivated, Aggressive, and Determined.”
Sousa’s older brother, Anthony, lived by that creed when he played fullback at the vocational school before graduating in 2017, and now the sophomore is trying to live up to that legacy by working his tail off, regardless of what position his team needs.
“I haven’t looked [at the film] yet, but I know I have a lot to work on,” said Sousa. “I could’ve played better, but I gave it all that I had. I’m definitely going to strive to be a starter the rest of the year. Nothing is definite, and there a lot of people with potential, so it’s going to take a lot of hard work to keep my position.”
▪ The phrase “new normal” carries some extra weight in Stoughton.
The Black Knights opened their season with two games in brand-new Veteran’s Memorial Stadium, which is built where the old Stoughton High School used to be. Seniors broke in the field for the first true home contests of their careers, and coach Greg Burke could see the exuberance.
“I could tell how excited they were,” he said. “It was like a birthday party, or a first baby [being] born. They were just so happy to be on the new turf.”
Stoughton has been without a home-field advantage since 2016 while the school and field underwent a revamping. Burke’s squad has used their new base and some ferocious defense to stamp home victories against Oliver Ames (29-7 on March 12) and Foxboro (21-7 on Friday).
“I’m very, very happy [about] where we are defensively, but the kids are ticked off that we even gave up two touchdowns,” Burke said.
Burke adds that part of a strong defense is a pace-setting offense. The running back duo of twins Christopher and Christian Ais has led a controlling Stoughton attack and combined for four of the team’s seven total touchdowns. Both senior captains will be continuing their football careers at the University of New Haven. Burke is thrilled to have one final season with the brothers.
“They want the ball at the end of the game,” he said. “Like in basketball — like Larry Bird. And that’s an unbelievable sign. We’re lucky.”
▪ Jack Ford reeled in a pair of long TD passes in Lynnfield’s 13-7 Cape Ann comeback win at Newburyport Saturday. But the Pioneer defense was immense with a pair of game-saving plays. Twice, Lynnfield denied Newburyport at the goal line, stopping quarterback John Sullivan as time expired in the first half. And then, with 25 seconds remaining, when Sullivan pitched a lateral to Jake Buontempo, but linebacker John Berquis made the initial hit before Riley Spencer joined in.
“It was a big grind,” said Lynnfield coach Pat Lamusta. “The defense was impressive and we ended up with enough points to pull it off. The goal line stand — gosh! It was just nice to see the work from the week pay off. I’m very pleased with the defense, very pleased”
Bakari Mitchell also had a highlight reel interception, jumping a route to wrestle the ball away from Trevor Ward. “Bakari’s interception was just impressive athleticism,” said the coach. “Any time the ball is in his vicinity, it could be a problem for the other team.” Defensive lineman Sam Gazit also forced a fumble.
▪ Rockland snapped Abington’s 12-game win streak with a 17-14 win Saturday morning at Hingham High. It’s the Bulldogs 18th win in their last 19 games dating back to the consolation rounds of the 2018 season.
▪ Duxbury kicker Dennen Sullivan made four extra points and a 37-yard field goal in a 37-0 Patriot win over Silver Lake.
Correspondents Ethan Fuller and Cam Kerry also contributed.