BILLERICA, Mass. -- "Right on the money, attababy Nicky!" repeats Billerica's long-time head coach to his Golden Boy, with each practice throw from his gifted right arm into outstretched hands.
On Peter Flynn's watch, the Indians have built a storied history of quarterbacks, from Gil Ynostroza to Craig Flynn, Tim Darcey to Justin Connors, all the way back to Mike Mastrullo, the 1993 Gatorade Player of the Year national runner-up (the winner that year? Peyton Manning).
Yet these days, Flynn can't sing enough praises about his current signal-caller, going so far as calling him the best athlete -- period -- to walk through the halls since Tom Glavine.
And with good reason. If one is not sold on the hype surrounding Nick LaSpada, the reigning state Gatorade Player of the Year -- and first sophomore to win it in state history -- one only needs to look at the suitors. Starting this past Sept. 1, the first day juniors are allowed to receive mail from colleges, the letters poured in from all over -- Notre Dame, Alabama, Illinois, Minnesota, Penn State, Oregon, Wisconsin, Boston College, you name it.
"It'd be easier to tell you who hasn't," chuckled Flynn, who had another 20 letters sitting in his office to give him after practice. Heck, Flynn says Oregon head coach Chip Kelly emailed him recently to tell him he thinks LaSpada will be one of the most sought-after recruits nationwide in the Class of 2012.
Nearly every throw from the arm of LaSpada is placed perfectly into the hands of his targeted receiver, no matter the route -- fade, comeback, slant, post -- and Flynn loves what he sees. In this particular drill, LaSpada tossed a 35-yard fade perfectly in stride to senior co-captain Ryan Donohoe, in his first action in a week thanks to a right achilles heel injury, only to watch it slip off the hands of his top returning receiver.
Donohoe shook his fist and cursed to himself softly.
"Was that Ryan?" Flynn turned to LaSpada. "Lie to me and say it wasn't."
He then yelled across to Donohoe, "Ryan! They lied to me, said it wasn't you!"
LaSpada's teammates speak highly of the energy their hot-wired general brings to the huddle, and the perfectly-placed balls he delivers. So what about when there's a drop?
"You feel bad when you do it, because there's not too many times where it's not a perfect pass already," Donohoe says. "So when you drop that pass, you come back to the huddle, and Nicky doesn't say anything to you -- I mean, he might give you a look every once in a while, and you're like, 'Hey, I'll catch it next time for you'."
It'd been a trying offseason in 2010 for LaSpada. When we last saw him, he was grimacing in pain on the sideline in the first quarter of a Division 1 playoff loss to Everett, with a torn ACL and meniscus and partially torn MCL in his right knee. He underwent a grueling, six-month rehabilitation following surgery on January 29; he dons the brace out there, but shows no gait with his stride. Without the knee brace, he looks almost brand new.
"His work ethic is second to none," Flynn said. "The agony he went through those first few weeks in his rehabilitation, and you wouldn't have even known it. He's so tough, he's so hard-working, he's blue-collar all the way. Definite blue-collar kid, all the way."
The most exciting thing to watch last year was his playmaking ability once the play broke down. LaSpada could dart and weave with the best of them, and somehow found the open man downfield to keep drives alive. But as Donohoe notes, this is how it's been since the days of young.
"Pop Warner? Oh man, it was like a man playing with boys," Donohoe recalls, laughing. "You'd come watch a game, and you would think 'Who's the kid that they've kept back three years in a row?' But that was Nick, playing with kids his age, even older than him.
"He played anything. He'd play center, he'd play linebacker, receiver, long snapper..."
Interrupted senior defensive end Justin Hood, "Mr. Everything."
The talent was always evident, but the progress he's made from year one to year three in his head has the Indians thinking highly again.
"Freshman year, they'd be throwing out Cover-3, Cover-4, and in Pop Warner you don't really learn that kind of stuff," LaSpada said. "From freshman year to junior year, you get all your reads, pre-snap and post-snap, everything's just alot faster and alot quicker. You make the reads alot quicker."
Last night, LaSpada celebrated his 17th birthday with a trip to The 99 in town with Flynn and assistant Dan Mackay. The conversation barely strayed from football -- "Once I'm out there, I can't wait to roll," LaSpada smiles. "I've been held up the last six or seven months."
And out in the practice field yesterday afternoon, behind the high school, that jacked-up fervor continued with the Indians' daily ritual at the end of warmups. One by one, the captains went down the line, pointed to a player in line, called them by name and bellowed "Whaddaya say?" The customary response is the player's best war cry.
All the while, Flynn walked through the lines, showering his boys with encouragement, complete with his own quirky twists.
"Visualize those swarming defensive tackles, visualize those great Billerica hits," he repeated.
"Attitude, that green and white attitude...you're here 'cause you love the game of football, 'cause you wanna be here...nobody outworks a Billerica kid! Nobody out-hustles a Billerica kid!"
"You're not part-time achievers, you're full-time achievers...whaddaya gonna do to get better today, boys! This is not the Riviera!"
And on and on the prose went, all afternoon.
Hey, when you've got a gifted arm in your arsenal, it's tough holding back.
BILLERICA AT A GLANCE
2009: 10-2 (8-1 MVC), lost to Everett in Division 1 playoff
Coach: Peter Flynn (21st season, 140-80)
Players to watch: Nick LaSpada, Jr., QB, 6-2, 180 lbs (98 of 156, 1,483 yards, 21 touchdowns, five interceptions; 131 carries, 1,059 yards, eight touchdowns); Justin Hood, Sr., DE/OT, 6-4, 230 lbs; Ryan Donohoe, Sr., WR/FS, 6-2, 180 lbs; P.J. Metzler, Sr., OT/DT, 6-3, 325 lbs; Brandon Coello, Sr., FS/WR, 6-2, 190 lbs; Justin Fritz, Jr., LB/SB, 5-11, 175 lbs; Brian Thompson, Jr., LB, 5-11, 195 lbs; Matt Robinson, Jr., LB, 6-1, 210 lbs.
Strengths: Speed, athleticism.
Weaknesses: Kicking game.
Outlook: In a word: LaSpada. The reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and the Indians' all-everything quarterback is entering his junior season with a boatload of hype, but a heightened sense of humility. This year, the Indians are hoping to give him more support, especially given Donohoe's 4.5 speed and soft hands. Super-back Fritz, who will usually trail LaSpada in the backfield in Flynn's spread look, is one player expected to step up and make an impact. Defensively, the Indians will stick with 50 and 4-3 fronts, while Hood is expected to be an impact player once again. The senior is considered one of the MVC's quickest pass rushers off the edge.