HAVERHILL, Mass. -– On offense, it was dash. On defense, it was brash.
In their second straight year hosting a first round playoff game at Trinity Stadium, the No. 4 seed Haverhill Hillies jumped on Newton South from the opening kickoff, and rolled to a 42-12 win and a date with Reading in the Division 2 North tournament.
The Hillies scored on their first offensive touch when Patrick Yale took a Newton South punt back 52 yards for a touchdown. After that it Haverhill punished the Lions on both sides of the ball, opened up a 21-0 lead 28 seconds into the second quarter, and cruised the rest of the way.
Haverhill's defense wreaked havoc all night for Newton South quarterback Austin Burton. The Hillies had wrinkles in every defensive package they showed, and the front seven was able to shoot the interior gaps of the line consistently from start to finish. Burton threw for 169 yards and a touchdown, but the Hillies were able to pick him off four times and sack him four times.
“[Our goal was] to be active, move around, and play several coverages and not have him pick us apart,” Haverhill coach Tim O'Connor said. “We played several coverages within coverages tonight. I relied on seniors across the board, and we were healthy this week which was good.”
The manic defensive attack was led by senior linebacker Phillip Panici. Panici along with Albert Maldonado and Abraham Kann kept rushers contained on the inside while also bringing pressure up the middle using a variety of looks.
“We were just more physical up front,” Panici said. “That's what it came down to. Yeah [Burton's] good, but a sophomore's going to have some nerves. We were able to fly around, be physical up front and get to him.”
Pick your poison: Haverhill's offense is bare bones, but its simplicity is complemented by depth where it's needed.
The rushing attack of Ian Kessel, Pedro Santiago, Samie Al-Siab, and Broughean McGovern combined to rush for 254 yards. Kessel led the charge with 119 yards and a touchdown. Santiago rushed for 67 yards and a score, and he caught a 13-yard touchdown pass from McGovern. McGovern and Al-Siab rushed for 36 and 32 yards, respectively, and each had a touchdown. Two of those touchdowns came off of a pair of Hillie interceptions.
Having such a breadth of capable runners allows O'Connor, and the Hillies, to use decoys to keep opposing defenses at bay while the ball carrier chugs along behind Haverhill's large offensive line.
“You want to take the edge we'll run inside; you want to take away inside we'll go outside,” O'Connor said. “They gave us several looks and we adjusted to every one of them.”
“It's great to have three good tailbacks in me, Pedro, and Ian,” Al-Siab said. “They never know what's going to come. Guys are started to key me as the fullback so we'll fake [to] me and run tosses or sweeps. It works great because they never know what's coming."
The rise of Haverhill: Between 2006 and 2010 Haverhill was an afterthought in the Merrimack Valley Conference. Winless seasons in 2007 and 2009, and six total wins over that period, seemed to be more harbinger of things to come then a passing phase. Yet, since this year's senior class stepped onto campus in 2011 the Hilles have won 25 games, and they've capped it off with the program's first MVC Small title since 2001 and their first trip to the sectional semifinals.
“When us seniors came in freshmen year we wanted to change the program; that was our goal,” Al-Siab said. “So to finally win an MVC title, we're going to make a playoff run now, it's really something special. I hope we can keep it going.”