ARLINGTON — Senior linebacker Zach Thomas notices it while he’s working his shift at the Chilly Cow, a local ice cream shop on Massachusetts avenue. He notices it when he spots his neighbors at away games. He notices it when the stands at Arlington High School have been filled for the first time in his three seasons on the varsity.
The town is excited about its football team, and with good reason.
The Spy Ponders (6-1) are in the playoffs for the first time since 1995, when they lost to Xaverian in the Super Bowl. They host Wayland (4-3) tomorrow night in the first round of the Division 3 Northwest bracket.
“Before we were like a joke at the school,” said Thomas, a captain and three-year starter. “People would always make fun of the football team and our record and stuff. Now we have the school behind us. At home we get unreal fan support. We’re going to be home against Wayland so we’ll get a ton of fan support, and it’s going to be a great atmosphere.”
Thanks to the new MIAA high school football playoff format designed to qualify more programs for postseason play, Arlington is one of a whopping 29 teams west of Boston who have a shot at a state championship in six divisions.
“It’s awesome because I know it’s been a while,” said coach John Dubzinski , in his third season at Arlington. “This was a really good sports town and it kind of fell on some hard times. When we came here, we knew the ingredients were there, and we just had to be patient. For two years we played a lot of sophomores, a lot of juniors. They stuck with it and got better with each game and each practice and we’re seeing the fruits of their labor this year as seniors.”
Dubzinski had 19 starters return from last year’s squad, which went 3-8 for the second consecutive season.
When do-it-all junior Frank Roche (cq) (14 touchdowns on the season) accounted for four scores in a 40-6 win at home over Woburn to clinch the Middlesex Liberty title and a playoff berth, the excitement level surrounding the team reached a level not seen since before most members of the school’s senior class were born.
“It’s a football town now,” said senior quarterback Seth Coiley . “Everybody’s hopping on the bandwagon. It’s pretty awesome.”
Senior captain Lucas Hanley is looking to help solidify the program’s renewed reputation with success in the playoffs. His grandfather, Arlington’Hall of Fame coach John Hanley coached his father, Matt, and uncle, Nate, to Greater Boston League titles in 1984 and 1989, respectively. Banners still hang in the school gymnasium commemorating those seasons.
“I want to feel like my dad and uncle have,” Hanley said. “It’s something I’ve been looking forward to since I was little, and I have a chance to do that now. It’s a great feeling. I’d do anything I could to win.”
For senior captain Sam Jacey , the playoffs are an opportunity to finish his own personal comeback story with a flourish. Last season during a game in Wakefield, the offensive lineman had his spleen completely lacerated. He spent four days in intensive care at Children’s Hospital and wasn’t sure he would ever play again. At one point, he lost 60 percent of his blood flow, and over the course of his hospital stay he shed close to 30 pounds.
He’s now starting on the offensive line, enjoying every moment of his last high school season.
“I think the experience really helps us,” said Jacey, who remembered being thrown around the field by bigger, stronger players two seasons ago. “And we’ve worked hard, so much harder than ever before this past offseason. We were ready for this year, we knew something special was going to happen.”
A 20-7 loss to Lexington last week served as a “wakeup call,” according to Dubzinski. But just hours removed from their first loss of the season, Spy Ponders seniors -- who admitted to looking ahead to their first playoff game a week too early -- were smiling and ready to compete in front of their newly-returned legions of supporters.
“I feel like there will be a lot more nerves compared to any other games,” Hanley said, “but our school spirit is back, and it will be one of our best games of the year by far.”
UPSET WIN, LEXINGTON IN
As soon as time ran out on Lexington’s 20-7 upset win over Arlington, the Minutemen knew they were in the Division 1 North playoffs. But like many playoff qualifiers, they weren’t sure who they would be playing.
It wasn’t until late on Friday night, after all the results were in, and the power rankings came into focus, that Lexington coach George Peterson realized his team would be the No. 7 seed and taking on No. 2 Central Catholic.
Without any game tape to devour, Peterson stayed awake into the early morning hours of Saturday watching whatever video he could find on YouTube of his team’s next opponent.
“We were so excited about the win anyway,” Peterson said of his temporary insomnia, “it was one of those situations where you can’t sit still.”
For the Minutemen (3-4), making the playoffs is an entirely new experience, and not only because of the new playoff format. It is the first playoff berth in Peterson’s three years at the helm, and the program’s first since 2004.
Despite having only three players with prior varsity experience on the defensive side of the ball, the Minutemen have won two in a row thanks in large part to their ability to make stops and get turnovers.
Against both Arlington, and in a 47-21 win over Winchester, they intercepted three passes and forced one fumble.
Senior captain Rhett Adley has helped lead the charge defensively, returning two picks 100 yards for touchdowns over the course of the season. He also has 13 receiving touchdowns after snagging three last week.
Junior inside linebacker Christian Pusatere (Cq) and sophomore ‘backer Dennis Bromley have also boosted the Minutemen defense in recent weeks, according to Peterson.
Though Lexington is one of the few teams in the playoffs without a winning record, Peterson believes his relatively young group is playing its best football, and his players are excited to be in a
position for which the program has yearned for the better part of a decade.
“The kids are fired up, the coaches are really fired up,” said Peterson, who spoke to his team Monday about seizing the opportunity it has been presented. “We haven’t been since 2004. You have kids who went through the program and never had the chance. I said to them that they should know they’re lucky to have the opportunity to play against a very good Central Catholic team, compete, and do the best they can do.”Craig Larson can be reached at email@example.com.