Boston High School: Phil Panici

D2 North: Haverhill 14, Reading 13

November, 7, 2014
READING, Mass. -- Haverhill overcame early mistakes, and received some unlikely contributions to rally for a 14-13 victory over host Reading in Friday's Division 2 North semifinal.

After trailing for the entire first half, Haverhill linebacker Phil Panici flew into the Rockets’ backfield and blocked a punt. The loose ball was recovered by senior Albert Maldonado and run back for a touchdown. After the extra point, the Hillies had their first lead of the game, and an interception by sophomore Aaron Brooks would ice things moments later.

It didn't start pretty for the Hillies though, who saw their ground-and-pound double wing attack held in check by Reading and speedy linebacker Luis Sosa. Haverhill was twice forced to punt and once turned the ball over on downs in the first half, never truly threatening to score before intermission.

It seemed as though both teams would go to the break scoreless, but a defensive gaffe from Haverhill allowed Rocket receiver Will Connery to take a routine draw play 60 yards as time expired in the second quarter.

On the play, Pacini was caught out of position, allowing Connery to cut back to the outside and win a foot race to the end zone.

Reading would carry its offensive success into the second half, turning sophomore quarterback Corey DiLoreto loose, and the tall, athletic signal-caller rewarded the Reading coaching staff with an 11-play, 82-yard drive, capped by a 4-yard scoring throw to Connery. DiLoreto was 4 of 4 for 42 yards on the drive, and finished the day with 199 yards passing.

Unfortunately for Reading, the extra point would miss, a mistake that would loom large later on.

Haverhill finally found some offensive life to start the fourth. First, bull-dozing fullback Samie Al-Ziab burst through the middle for a 20 yard gain, then an Ian Kessel run was aided by a facemask penalty, putting the ball in Rocket territory.

Moments later, sophomore quarterback Broghean McGovern sold a play-action fake and found a wide-open Trevor Ferguson in the end zone for a 13-yard score. It was only Haverhill's second pass attempt of the game, and it cut Reading’s lead to 13-7.

"Absolutely not,” Ferguson exclaimed when asked if he thought the ball was coming to him on the play. “I thought we would check down to one of our fast guys, but they bit and I was wide open, it was a great pass by Broghean...It was one of those where I saw the ball in the air and my heart stopped, time froze and I knew I needed to catch it.”

The Hillies then struggled to keep their offensive momentum, however. McGovern was picked off by Connery on Haverhill's next drive, and a promising possession evaporated when penalties turned a first and goal into a missed 35-yard field goal the next time out.

Making matters worse was an injury to Al-Ziab, a standout for Haverhill as both a fullback and defensive lineman.

Still, the Hillie defense was putting the clamps down on Reading, holding the Rockets to just 30 yards rushing in the second half and not allowing them to put the game away.

The Hillies would force another three-and-out on Reading's next possession, and then Panici would go to work atoning for his previous mistake.

"Samie (Al-Ziab) and Phil (Panici) are the best of friends, and when Samie went down (with an injury), he demanded to see Phil," Haverhill coach Tim O’Connor said. “Samie heard (Reading) was about to punt the ball and said ‘Phil, you’ve got to go block this punt.’ Then Phil looked at me and said ‘I’m gonna block this punt to make up for (the run at the end of) the first half. That (run) was on my senior captain, he was supposed to cover that draw and he knew it, so he buried his head and decided he was going to make up for it.”

Reading would get one final chance when DiLoreto found Connery on a crossing route that the speedy receiver would run for 45 yards, moving the ball to the Haverhill 22. But three plays later, Brooks would jump in front of another ball intended for Connery and run it back 55 yards to end the game.

"I saw him run a hitch, and we’ve been preparing for that all week," Brooks said. “If he does that, the linebacker has under it, so I came over the top and just made a play. It was crazy.”

"This was a program growing up and taking the next step," O’Connor said. “We knew it was going to be a dog fight, and I’m just so happy for the kids. We took the next step. It’s been a long process and, no matter what happens, I told the kids even before the punt that I was proud of them.”

After finding a way to gut out the win in Reading, Haverhill will again hit the road for the Division 2 North final against North Andover. Game time and date still to be determined.

Recap: Haverhill 17, Methuen 0

October, 5, 2013
METHUEN, Mass. – It was all about team defense on Friday night as the Haverhill Hillies received a balanced and poised effort from their defense to shut out the previously unbeaten Methuen Rangers, 17-0.

Haverhill (3-1) used a ground-and-pound approach offensively to complement their staunch defensive effort as running back Tommy Maguire exploded for 160 yards rushing on 17 carries to go with two fourth-quarter touchdowns to lead the Hillie offensive attack.

Proving to be one of the state’s most dynamic one-two punches, Maguire and Ian Kessel (20 rushes, 91 yards) ran around and though the Methuen (4-1) defense, doing the majority of their work in the second half of play.

“We knew we were going to have to win close games this season,” Maguire said after the game. “We pride ourselves in our defense and we came out and played hard to earn the win.”

Despite a scoreless first half Haverhill defensive back Josh Dion made a big interception at the Haverhill goal line to thwart a promising Methuen drive deep in Hillie territory.

With the teams scoreless, Haverhill mounted their strongest drive of the game late in the third quarter, highlighted by a spectacular 35-yard reception by John Ramsdell (5 receptions, 52 yards) on a deep toss from quarterback Shane Finn.

Still scoreless, deep in to the third quarter of play, Patrick Yale calmly stepped in and nailed a 36-yard field goal to give Haverhill the game’s first points and a 3-0 lead with 53 seconds remaining in the third.

It would be all Haverhill and Maguire in the fourth quarter as the senior ripped off touchdown runs of 26 and 61 yards to help solidify the team win.

“I think it really just came down to preparation this week,” Haverhill head coach Tim O’Connor said after the game. “The game was supposed to be Saturday and got moved to Friday and we ended up practicing a little longer than usual ad we put it on the kids and they came though.”

Running back Will Weinhold (85 yards from scrimmage) and linebacker Luis Sanchez played well for Methuen in the loss.

Game Balls and Team-D: O’Connor handed his game balls in the post-game talk to linebacker Phil Panici and defensive lineman Matt Burns. Both players helped lead the shutout effort and played strong games up front. The did a good job stuffing the Methuen run, forcing long third downs and providing pressure in the Ranger backfield all night long.

“If you want to be the best you need to beat the best,” O’Connor said. “They were the best at 4-0 and that is what we did tonight.”

It was a true team effort on defense as a number of Hillies stepped up and made big plays. Whether it was linebacker Michael Kwegyir-Attah setting the edge, linebacker Stephane Bristol making big hits over the middle, or defensive lineman Sammy Al-Ziab firing in to the Methuen backfield for a sack, the Hillie defense was up to the challenge.

“We knew that we were going to be strong defensively this year,” O’Connor said. “We returned nine kids on the defensive side of the ball and I told people, that if we start clicking, watch out.”

The Hillie defensive backfield also played a disciplined game as they stayed at home and read their keys with Dion and Chiedozie Onwuka (big late-game INT) also stepping up to secure two of the three Methuen turnovers on the night.

“We did a lot of film study,” O’Connor said. “It is a credit to the staff, and a credit to the kids. These kids work real-hard in the film room, staying late and just preparing.”

Despite a 40-0 loss to Central Catholic two weeks back, Haverhill has defeated two strong offenses in Beverly and Lawrence and held both teams below 20 points at 19 and 12 points, respectively.

MVC D2 Race: Both teams were coming off big Merrimack Valley Conference Division 2 wins last weekend, as Haverhill defeated Lawrence, 26-12, and Methuen shut down Dracut, 35-20.

The victory on Friday night was an important one for Haverhill as they look to keep pace with No. 17-ranked Tewksbury (4-0), at the top of the MVC Division 2 standings.

The Hillies will get their crack at the Redmen on Oct. 18, as The Redmen host the Hillies in a Friday night game at Doucette Stadium in Tewksbury. The Hillies must first tangle with Dracut next Friday as they play host to the dangerous and upset-minded Middies in a 7 p.m. kickoff.

Methuen will travel to Tewksbury next Saturday at 1:30 p.m. and will play their final MVC D2 contest at home against North Andover on Oct. 18 at 7 p.m.