It didn’t take long for Nolan Houlihan and Colby Cyrus to turn heads once they teamed up on the football field.
With Houlihan at quarterback and Cyrus at receiver, the duo led their Billerica Pop Warner team to a 7-1 season and an Eastern Mass. Division 2 championship as sixth graders. During a short exhibition game against Grafton at halftime of a Patriots game at Gillette Stadium, Houlihan quickly tossed four touchdowns in a 30-0 rout, delighting the crowd by finding Cyrus for two scores of over 30 yards.
Since that experience, they’ve been inseparable, competing together on the basketball court, lacrosse field, and perfecting their timing on the gridiron. “We instantly gelled together in sports,” said Houlihan, who is committed to play lacrosse at Hofstra.
“Every single year in every sport, Colby’s been on my team. Being best friends off the field, and knowing each other athletically, that’s helped us bond on the field. We both know how we can hurt teams.”
They led Billerica’s freshman football team to a 13-0 season, went 11-0 on JV as sophomores, and lit up the scoreboard on varsity as juniors, with Houlihan passing for 1,802 yards and 16 touchdowns, including nine to Cyrus.
“I saw [Houlihan and Cyrus] coming up through the ranks and knew we might have something,” said Billerica coach Duane Sigsbury.
“Nolan has a great arm and Colby has great hands. They just know what each other is doing and where the ball is going to be. They’ve certainly proven to be a dynamic duo.”
This season, Houlihan is tied for third in Division 3 with six touchdown passes, connecting with Cyrus for five scores.
With an improving offensive line and help from fellow senior wide receivers Nick Gualtieri, Shawn Colby, and Nate Young, the Indians scored a huge 32-8 conference win over Dracut last Friday.
On Friday night, Billerica (2-2, 1-0) can move into first place in the Merrimack Valley Conference’ Small Division with a win over Tewksbury (3-1, 1-0). The Redmen have won four straight in this rivalry and knocked the Indians out of the D3 North tournament last year.
Intense wind and rain figures to pose a tremendous obstacle for the passing game, but even with strong gustsin Dracut last week, Houlihan and Cyrus connected for a 40-yard completion and a 65-yard touchdown pass that was negated by penalty.
“I know how my defender plays before the game starts,” Cyrus said. “If I get those two steps on him, I know Nolan is going to put it in my hands.”
Familiarity has helped Billerica’s duo find success at every level, and it’s been a critical factor for Bedford’s quarterback-wide receiver tandem as well.
Gregory Cormier leads D5 with 10 touchdown passes and Brendan Jones, Cormier’s favorite target, is tied for the division lead with nine touchdown receptions.
The longtime friends have Bedford off to its first 4-0 start since 2008.Cormier has completed 53 of 80 passes for 737 yards, while the 6-foot-1 Jones has caught 28 balls for 420 yards during Bedford’s hot start.
In overtime of Bedford’s home opener against Saugus, the Bucs trailed 30-27 and faced fourth-and-goal. With the game literally on the line, Jones ran a slant route and Cormier threaded a touchdown pass between defenders to secure a 33-30 victory.
“We called our last timeout and figured let’s at least throw it to our best guy here,” said Bedford third-year coach Tom Tone. “[Jones] might have been triple-covered, but Greg threw a perfect ball and Brendan came down with it. That was the game right there.”
While they’ve been playing together since seventh grade, Cormier and Jones said they were constantly working on routes this summer, including their timing on goal-line slants. That work continues to pay dividends;
“The chemistry we built over the years, playing since seventh grade, has been really helpful,” said Jones, who hopes to play football at Curry College.
“[Cormier] knows if he’s in trouble, I’m there, and he trusts I’ll make the play. That trust is really key for a quarterback and wide receiver.”
Jones admits that when Bedford rotated quarterbacks last year and Cormier wasn’t under center, it felt different.
The same can be said for Franklin’s Thomas Gasbarro and Jake Davis, who began playing Pop Warner together in fifth grade.
As a junior, Davis caught five passes and two touchdowns from all-scholastic Nick Gordon, but this year, he’s leading D1 with seven touchdowns and has 387 yards on 23 receptions through four games.
While that spike in production can be attributed to increased opportunity, the fact that Davis is catching passes from old friend Thomas Gasbarro can’t be overlooked.
The best friends rode that momentum into a successful freshman campaign, then teamed up in the defensive secondary the past two years for the Panthers varsity squad.
Gasbarro is 70 for 101 with 974 passing yards and 11 touchdown passes, ranking as the No. 2 passer in D1. Gasbarro and Davis worked together throughout the summer in 7-on-7 passing leagues.
“If you have a group with a bond that’s willing to do all that work it certainly builds chemistry,” said Franklin fourth-year coach Eian Bain.
“[Gasbarro and Davis] have been communicating for years on defense, but it’s been impressive to watch them pick it back up [on offense].”
The seniors hope their hard work pays off in Friday’s huge tilt against Hockomock power Mansfield (3-1, 2-0), which has handed Franklin (3-1, 1-1) nine straight losses dating back to 2009.
“We always had a pretty good connection all through Pop Warner,” said Davis. “Now it’s flown by, and all these years later, it’s pretty cool to have that still going on.”