SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- John Wallace was right there that night, seated just below the press box on the 50-yard line at newly-christened Dilboy Stadium, when things finally changed for the better in this city some four years ago.
The night of Sept. 9, 2006, his hometown Somerville Highlanders snapped a state-worst 33-game losing streak with a 28-13 defeat of North Quincy, and the packed stadium -- mostly there just to see a grand re-opening of the previously run-down field -- went nuts. Head coach Harry Marchetti got a Gatorade bath. Assistant coach (and city mayor) Joe Curatone pointed to the crowd and ordered his players to greet their fans and share the celebration (the players proceeded to rush the stands). A light drizzle broke out to cap it all off.
"It was a big deal," said Wallace, a lifelong resident of Somerville's Lincoln Park neighborhood, and now a senior captain for the Highlanders. "I saw how excited the team was, the coach was, the student body and all, how crazy they went after the victory...it was definitely a turning point for the program."
Football is relevant again in this working-class, densely-settled city, all the way from Davis Square to City Hall -- "People are asking me how the team looks, how they can't wait to see them," says the mayor. "There's alot of community pride, civic pride."
But there's the feeling that something special's brewing this season, something that could propel them way above the .500 ball they've been averaging since finishing 6-4 four seasons ago. Not since their 9-2 campaign of 2000, when current Detroit Lions tackle Gosder Cherilus was anchoring the line, have the Highlanders been this talented.
Led by Wallace -- a fleet-footed 6-foot-4, 260-pounder with interest from Boston College and a slew of FBS schools -- there is plenty to like about this team, whether it's the speedy yet forceful running style of Chris Taylor or the zip with which Bobby Pratt delivers his passes.
Of course, the program had to take its lumps along the way, and we're talking serious lumps -- condemned visiting bleachers, three straight winless seasons (a streak even John Hannah's coaching couldn't stop), locker rooms in a pool house, at one point even taking home games to Medford's Hormel Stadium. So in a way, this group feels like the culmination of that memorable night back in 2006.
"Last year, going into the season, we were really high on the season," Wallace said. "I know I was, I know the seniors were, everyone else, but we didn't come together as a team. This year, we're working for each other. I'm not striving to get out there and bust my ass for a Division 1 scholarship -- I'm doing it to win, just like everyone else is. We have that goal of a GBL title, and we're all coming together."
So what has Marchetti done with this culmination of sorts? Nothing but assemble arguably one of the toughest schedules in the state. The Highlanders open up against Greater Lawrence Tech (where Marchetti is a vice principal) before non-league clashes with St. John's Prep, Falmouth and Xaverian, ranked 19th, 16th and second in our Top 25 poll respectively. Couple that with an improved Greater Boston League featuring up-and-comer Medford, physically imposing Malden and perennial power Everett (winner of the last 15 GBL titles) and you have your work cut out for you.
But in Marchetti's mind, the schedule, much like that fateful September night, is for the better.
"When you face adversity, do you shy away from it, or do you look at it as an opportunity to do better things?" Marchetti said. "This is the first group of kids, honestly, that will take that challenge and rise to the occasion. It's such an ambitious schedule -- we might lose games -- but we're not going to be outplayed. Leave everything on the field, whatever happens at the end of the game takes care of itself."
SOMERVILLE AT A GLANCE
2009: 4-6 (1-3 Greater Boston)
Coach: Harry Marchetti (Sixth year, 21-31 overall)
Players to watch: John Wallace, Sr., OT/DT, 6-4, 260 lbs; Kevin Wint, Sr., OL/DL, 5-11, 240 lbs; Bobby Pratt, Sr., QB, 6-0, 180 lbs; Chris Taylor, Jr., RB/LB, 6-0, 205 lbs; Devon Hairston, Jr., WR/DB, 5-8, 150 lbs; Zach Sciutto, Jr., WR/DB, 5-8, 150 lbs; Josh Scarry, Sr., RB/OLB, 5-8, 175 lbs; John DiFraia, Sr., C/DL, 5-10, 225 lbs; Brian Simeon, Sr., OL/DL, 6-2, 260 lbs; Danny Dell'Isola, Sr., TE/LB, 6-0, 190 lbs; Jalen West, Jr., TE/DL, 5-10, 215 lbs; Ryan Conte, Soph., OL/DL, 6-2, 240 lbs; Michael Gomes, Sr., OL/DL, 5-10, 205 lbs; Stanley George, Jr., DT, 5-10, 260 lbs; Herbie LaFortune, Sr., WR/DB, 5-11, 175 lbs.
Strengths: Speed, experience, quality depth.
Weaknesses: Learning a new system.
Outlook: The Highlanders might be one of the few squads in the area with more depth despite lower overall numbers. And with the amount of speed at the skill positions, they'll be spreading things out on offense, a bit of a departure from the traditional Double Wing-T Marchetti deployed his first five years at the helm. "We have the weapons to throw the ball, so we're going to throw the ball," Marchetti said. "We're going to get our kids in space." Wallace, a Division 1 prospect on the offensive line, will anchor the trenches and provide running lanes for physical speedsters like Taylor. Defensively, the 4-4 base scheme doesn't change much, and neither does the attitude. "We don't blitz alot. It's an attacking 4-4," Marchetti said, to which Curtatone chimed in, "Nobody's going to out-hit us."