The Town Crier Sports Department is starting a new series of re-printing stories or updating old archive stories that appeared in old issues. We thought that there was no better way of debuting this series than to honor Ed Harrison, the longtime football coach and athletic director, who is officially retiring once again on June 30th after coming back this past school year on an interim basis.
Back in 1989, Harrison was named the Lowell Sun Coach of the Year after he guided the WHS Football team to an incredible 5-5 record, despite playing almost the entire season with 17 to 25 guys.
WILMINGTON — Nearly thirty-one years ago, in the fall of 1989, what the Wilmington High School Football team accomplished was something you would see in a movie. How a team that started out with 33 players at the start of camp before dwindling down to 17 for most of the season, was able to finish with a 5-5 record in the Merrimack Valley Conference, facing teams that had over 100 players to choose from is really beyond comprehension.
Certainly before and after that 1989 season, the Wildcats had many, many outstanding seasons in terms of perfect records, class championships and Super Bowl appearances, but none of those teams had just six players on the bench during games.
That '89 season in the eyes of many, because of all of the obstacles the team went through, and not having a player like Mike Esposito, Jack Bowen or Joe Herra, is among one of the all-time best in program history.
Think about this for a minute. That season the Wildcats had 17 players and faced teams like Central Catholic, Lowell and Chelmsford which had close to or more than 100 players. Before the year started, their was talk about forfeiting against those teams.
Not in Wilmington.
How do you run a practice with 17 guys? You can't even have 11 guys on offense go up against 11 guys on defense? The lack of healthy players on the sidelines every week barely scratches the surface of this incredible team and story.
Of the 12 players who barely came off the field, three of them weighed 201, 200 and 200, and the rest of them were under that mark, including three under 170 pounds.
On top of that, the Wildcats scored just 66 points that entire season – yet won five games. How is that possible?
On the flip side of that, Wilmington gave up 124 points, giving up an average of 12 points per game, yet still lost five games.
That season, Wilmington defeated Lawrence, Haverhill, Methuen, Lowell and Billerica. The five losses came against ArchBishop Williams in a non-league game and then Central Catholic, Chelmsford, Dracut and Tewksbury. Central won the Eastern Mass D2 Super Bowl that year and were ranked No. 2 in the state. Dracut went to the Bowl the year before, Chelmsford the year before that in 1987 and Tewksbury went the year after in 1990.
The league was loaded! And Wilmington didn't face the 9-1 Andover squad that year, which lost to Central Catholic on a controversial field goal with a minute to play sending the Red Raiders to the Super Bowl.
The year before, Wilmington was 1-9 with 27 healthy players and somehow won five games with ten less players.
"The (players on the 1989 team) are just a great group of guys," said Harrison. "Obviously they were extremely hard workers because they had to be. Basically we had between 25 to 30 kids at the beginning of the season. Then halfway through the season, I know we dressed 17 guys. I know that for a fact because we used to count the six players on the sideline when we were getting our punt return team ready.
"We had 25 people for most of the year but we also had some tough injuries. We had a good group of guys who just never came off the field much at all. We had a lot of seniors but even the juniors that year, you had some real good ones in (Bill) Kerrigan, (Bob) Voner and (Dennis) Walsh, who were all excellent, but it was mainly a senior laden team."
Coming off a one-win season, the thought was the Wildcats would be improved because they were bringing back about seven guys who had two years of varsity experience, but again the numbers and health would dictate the team's success.
Former Town Crier Sports Editor Rick Cooke stated this before the season began: "Eddie Harrison's Wildcats will not finish 1-9 again this season providing they can keep all 33 players reasonably healthy. The Wildcats have experience everywhere this season, and this group should be hungry for victory following two tough MVC campaigns."
The Wildcats led by Harrison and his assistants Tommy Woods, Russ Cabral, Bob DuCharme and Ken Lorry, had 33 players to work with before the September 16th opener. Due to kids leaving the team or injuries, that number of 22 dropped to 22 when the 'Cats faced Lawrence.
"Our conditioning was instrumental in the success we had," said Voner, a WHS Hall of Famer and an all-league wide receiver that year, who the following year would have over 50 receptions and break the program's record. "We knew that in camp that it was going to be the only way to compete. We were all in the best shape of our lives and we relished in the fact that it was our normal."
Of the 22 players who broke camp, 12 of them were seniors, mostly with experience. That group included tri-captains Greg Catanzano (6-0, 201), Steve Killilea (5-10, 194) and the late Frank Cenca (5-10, 167), as well as Scott Tuxbury (6-2, 184), Gregg Smith (6-0, 194), Chris D'Amelio (5-7, 170), Eric Palmer, Mike O'Brien, Eric Gronemeyer and John Ings – whose twin boys just finished up playing at WHS this past fall.
The other two seniors were Dickie Hersom (5-11, 175), who wasn't on the original roster and joined a bit late, and newcomer Brett Hicks (5-11, 200), who didn't play varsity beforehand.
The junior class included Voner, Walsh, Kerrigan, Frank Murray, Kevin Murray and several others, while several sophomores also got sprung into action including Bob Fleming, but he missed most of the season with an arm injury, while Bill Lawson and Bob Conchiglia were also injured.
"Overall, that team was filled with really tough seniors - Killilea, Catanzano, Tuxbury, Gregg Smith, D'Amelio, Hicks, Hersom and Cenca," said Voner. "Cenca was the quarterback and was also at middle linebacker, which is odd in itself. Tuxbury was an all-conference linebacker. Catanzano was all-conference (at tight end) and was our (version of Rob Gronkowski). Anytime we needed a few yards it was a 'Tight End Pop Pass'. Smitty was solid as a rock on the line and D'Amelio would often take on guys twice his size and do well.
"With not having many guys able to get on the field, it was really opened a lot of opportunity for younger guys to step up like the underclassmen Bill Kerrigan, Brian Murray, Frank Murray, Bill Lawson, (the late) Shawn Lee saw a lot of action. Dennis Walsh stepped out of the role of quarterback to be an all-conference receiver and I came from the line the year before as a center to be an all-conference receiver as well."
Harrison and his staff really had to do things much differently than years before because of the lack of numbers. Practices were much different and the staff also couldn't burn out the players or do excessive contact drills because they basically had six reserve players.
On top of all of that, Harrison had to find formations and schemes that would work with so many players who were vastly undersized and who were playing 40 minutes – never coming off the field on offense, defense and special teams.
"Offensively, we had multiple formations," said Harrison. "We tried to open it up a bit more and tried to get the running game going. We ran a little Wing-T at times and we still ran a lot of the stuff that we had done in the past like the Wing-T and Pro (Set). We tried to take advantage of Voner and then Voner and Walsh together because they could catch and run. Voner was such an awesome athlete and he was the type who you never realized just how awesome he was until maybe his junior year, but certainly his senior year. He was something special, I'm telling you. Everything he did, all three sports."
While the offense improved in the second half of the season, the bread-and-butter of the team's success was on the defensive side of the ball.
"We were doing what they called a split-four or a split-six (formation)," explained Harrison. "It's a gap controlled defense. We couldn't play straight-up. We had 180-pound guys, so they couldn't all play up against 240-pound guys. You can't play him head-up or on the outside shoulder. We tried to give them like a split defense, so they could go in the gaps. A lot of times what would happen is you take someone like Dickie Hersom (at defensive tackle), who was just so quick, he would line up at one spot and then jump over to another. So what would happen is you would have a center and a guard, and then you have Dickie. He would be in that 'A' gap sitting there and he would slide over one way, or slide over the other way. It would screw up the other team's blocking and then they would forget him and say 'well he wasn't my responsibility'.
"Dickie was just so quick off the ball, that he was in the backfield before you knew it. Defensively we came up with a lot of great plays throughout the season, a lot of them based on Dickie, who was just so disruptive on the line and I think he weighed 165 or 175 pounds. He was very good at what he did."
STARTING OUT STRONG
If you know Dennis Walsh, you know he may be the funniest guy in town, or among them. He was an outstanding athlete, and is currently the head softball coach at Bedford High School. On the football field, he had tremendous speed, agility and such great hands. He was a catcher on the baseball team, so he also had a strong arm. When camp broke, he was named the starting QB, although Cenca had experience there, but the team wanted to use him primarily at linebacker, where he really excelled.
In the team's opener, Walsh led the 'Cats to a 13-9 win over Lawrence at Alumni Stadium. Walsh completed a 5-yard TD strike to his best pal Voner, and then scored the game winner on a 9-yard bootleg run, before kicking the extra point.
The following week, Wilmington's offense sputtered, losing to ArchBishop Williams, 14-0, in a non-league game. After that was back to league play and the 'Cats hosted Haverhill, who was off to a 2-0 start, in week three. The Hillies had an outstanding running back in Greg Turner, but in this contest he was not a factor as Cenca, Tuxbury, Catanzano and Hicks all had outstanding defensive games, all keying on him.
Wilmington scored its lone touchdown late in the first half on a 1-yard keeper by Walsh, and only seconds later, Haverhill scored but missed the extra point. Wilmington led 7-6 and hung on the rest of the way for the win.
Going into week four, the Wildcats would have their toughest challenge to this point of the season, a road game at Chelmsford, who at the time were 3-0 and had outscored opponents 74-14, whereas the 'Cats were 2-1, but had been outscored 29-20.
Harrison said he never forgets the times his teams faced Chelmsford and legendary coach Tom Caito.
"Before each game, they used to do this thing where they would encompass the whole field when they would take a jog around the field," he said with a laugh. "They could go the entire 100 yards of the field. They used to dress over 100 kids for a game and they would practice this, being four or five yards apart to take up the whole field so it looked good and it was intimidating. And here I am and I have 17 guys. I had 17 guys dressed for that game. We had seven or eight other kids who were on the sideline hurt that obviously never played, so I had 17 compared to their 100-plus."
While Chelmsford had the advantages of playing at home, having five or six-time advantage in roster numbers, the Lions also dominated the physical aspect.
"I think our biggest lineman may have been Greg Smith who was 190-something pound. Well actually (our biggest guy) may have been Brett Hicks, who (at 200 pounds) came out of nowhere and was just fantastic for us all season," said Harrison. "We went over to Chelmsford and their defensive and offensive line averaged 6-foot-3, 240 pounds. We gave Dickie Hersom some hand-offs in the backfield. He was immense and was just everywhere. It was 6-0 at halftime and they should have crushed us. I remember going in for the halftime break and the Chelmsford fans actually booing their own team."
Trailing 6-0, the 'Cats were ecstatic to be in this game, while, Chelmsford was not, and they made some adjustments at halftime.
"We were down 6-0 at halftime and in the second half, a team that had 6-foot-3, 6-foot-4 kids, they went with no splits — from center to guard to tackle, they put one foot up against the other, so Dickie couldn't get in (on offense or defense). We tried putting him on the outside and he couldn't get in there either."
The following week, Wilmington remained on the road and came back with a terrific 13-12 victory over Methuen. Fleming, who had an arm injury all season, scored both touchdowns, as the 'Cats managed 338 yards of offense. Catanzano had a big game with six catches for 70 yards. Walsh's conversion kick after Fleming's second TD secured the win.
A week later back at home, Walsh had his toughest game of his career, throwing four interceptions as the eventual D2 Eastern Mass Super Bowl Champions of Central Catholic came away with a 12-0 victory. Losing by two touchdowns to the eventual champs is certainly nothing to hang your head at.
"We were pretty good defensively," said Harrison. "If you look at the Lowell Sun All-Star team that year, Catanzano was a first team selection, so wasn't Tuxbury, but we had a lot of second team kids, like Cenca at linebacker, Smith as a defensive end, Hicks as a defensive tackle, so we had kids that just played really hard. We didn't score a lot, but we also didn't give up a lot of points as we were in every game until the end."
After getting blanked in that game, the scoreless stretch reached eight quarters as Wilmington was defeated by Dracut, 20-0. The Middies were a strong program, finishing with a 5-4 record overall.
With a 3-4 record and three games to go, Harrison decided it was time to make a change.
"We moved Cenca back to quarterback and then moved Walsh to wide receiver so we had him and Voner, and that Lowell game really got the two of them going," said Harrison. "That's what we tried to do offensively, get them the ball, open those guys up and some alley-ways because we struggled to run the ball."
With a school size of about 700 kids, Wilmington traveled to take on Lowell, a school that had more than five times their size. Trailing 13-12 with 2:57 to go in the game, Wilmington's offense was on the field and that's when Cenca went to work. He completed four straight passes, moving the ball to the Lowell 16 yard line. With 61 seconds left in the game, Harrison elected to go for the win, sending Hersom in for a 31-yard field goal attempt. He nailed it through the uprights and the 'Cats held on for the 15-13 win, celebrating at Cawley Stadium. It was the biggest victory of the season, in many years, and the first one over Lowell since 1980.
"The Lowell game where we won on the (field goal) was the memory that comes to mind where we truly believed in ourselves," said Voner, who had 8 catches for 96 yards in the win.
Wilmington's winning streak continued with a 7-0 home win over a winless Billerica squad, which put the 'Cats at 5-4 with one game left against Tewksbury, which had big concern for the 'Cats.
"(Harrison's) got six or seven three-year starters over there," said Redmen head coach Bob Aylward to Cooke at the time. "They are a very tough team and have played their best games against some of the better competition. They played both Central Catholic and Chelmsford very tough. This is the biggest game they've played in the 1980s. It's a chance for them to have a great year."
Going into the Thanksgiving Game, the Wildcats were underdogs in terms of suiting up 23 players, while not having a win against the Redmen since 1984. Cooke had predicted the 'Cats to win 14-13 in his Turkey Game Football Section which came out the night before the scheduled game was supposed to take place before the home crowd. However, a big snow storm pushed all high school games back two days to Saturday. Before a crowd of almost ten-thousand people, who saw an intense battle but filled with mistakes, Tewksbury behind its two Hall of Famer stars Sean Mackey and Tim Lightfoot, came way with a 21-11 victory.
The Redmen improved to 6-4 and that marked the end for Aylward, who left to take the same position at Nashua, New Hampshire (only to come back to take the team to two Super Bowls in '95 and '96) and also marked the end for one magical 5-5 season for the 'Cats.
"How the heck we were ever 5-5 is beyond me? I don't even remember some of the scores, but I do remember that we were 5-4 going into the Tewksbury game and we lost 21-11," said Harrison. "And we had opportunities in that game (to score) and that was just a great game. We were on the goal line a few times.
"Looking back, it was just a great, great season. People say well you were 5-5, but if you look to see what we had to do and then being in that league. It's amazing to think about that season. It certainly was a fun group to coach and a lot of great kids."
THE MEN AT THE TOP
The following year, without all of those seniors, the Wildcats finished 2-6-1, but had a dynamic offense led by sophomore QB John O'Reilly as well as the 1-2 punch in Walsh and Voner. O'Reilly threw for over 1,300 yards in just eight games that season. Even with such a strong arm like O'Reilly, who went on to have a great career at Central Connecticut, trying to compete against the likes of Central Catholic, Chelmsford and Lowell was just too daunting. Harrison resigned after the 1993 season and two years later, the 'Cats switched to the Cape Ann League. Numbers remained down for the first few years before a decade-plus of winning seasons followed.
"Our numbers were down for a while," said Harrison. "It really started to go down around 1987 and carried through '88 and '89 and even in the school itself the class sizes got much smaller. That 1989 group of a graduating class of like 175 kids and Wilmington always had over 200 kids forever. In 1992, we were down to about 650 kids in the entire school, but in 1982, I think we had 1,300."
It was the school of 700 or so kids and a football program of what started out as 33 players, before going down to 17, that played with the state's best, while undersized, week in and week out and somehow that group came away with five victories in the best public league in the state.
"Our coaches were tremendous motivators, teachers, and strategists,” said Voner. “Ed Harrison was a great mentor for this team, and one of the best defensive minds in the MVC. Tom Woods and Bob DuCharme were the line coaches and overall inspiration leaders with great energy. Russ Cabral had a good mind for offense, coming into the system his first year from Tewksbury.”
Voner then stopped to tell a quick story about Cabral.
“We had trick plays that never worked but were well orchestrated. The 'Hey Walshy' play was a trick play where Dennis runs off the field while our sideline would be screaming to cause confusion to the defense, yet that just left us one man short on the field – Thanks Coach Cabral. To this day, anytime we see one another, that play comes up in discussion,” he said with a big laugh.
Voner then expressed his full gratitude to the entire coaching staff.
“From these guys, we learned what 'mental toughness' was. They installed a mindset to each member on that team that they likely carry with them today. We had another assistant coach Ken Lorry who was a good motivator as well. He brought some lighthearted personality with him that we all enjoyed.
"Today even when we hear coaches say ‘leave it all on the field’, it has a special meaning for everyone on that '89 team. We were all great friends and hung out off the field. The seniors that year really inspirational in the sense that they were so inclusive to the underclassmen - not that they had a choice. We as underclassmen were really appreciative of that and we made some great friends along the way.
"I'm glad to hear this team recognized not so much for the 500 record on paper, but for what it 'endured' to continue the tradition of tough competitive Wildcat Football.”