Although the Sharon High football team finished the 2013 campaign with a 2-9 mark after a 25-8 Thanksgiving defeat to archrival Oliver Ames, players and coaches expressed satisfaction in the tremendous strides that the young squad made this fall.
“I thought we played well,” Sharon senior captain Erik Kushner said of the Eagles’ showing on Nov. 28. “Things didn’t go our way. Quarterback got hurt in the first half – that kind of killed our momentum. But we kept fighting, didn’t give up, and I’m proud of every one of the guys.”
Head Coach Dave Morse said, “Our effort was good. We had a hard time executing at the beginning, missed some tackles. But our intensity was pretty good throughout the game – it was a good job.”
On a frigid Thursday morning at Eagle Stadium, Sharon’s seniors were introduced with their parents in a pre-game ceremony, as the anticipation built for the annual Turkey Day battle between the Eagles and Tigers.
Sharon entered 2-8, while Oliver Ames came in 10-1. The Tigers downed the Eagles, 28-0, in the teams’ prior meeting this season, in Easton on Oct. 12.
The teams were scoreless on Thursday during the first quarter and into the second. Sharon senior captain Sean O’Neill was pleased with how the Eagles opened the contest.
“We came out pretty good. We were moving kids off the line, punching them in the mouth in the first half,” said O’Neill, a quarterback.
Morse says that Sharon’s captains, Kushner; O’Neill; senior Frank Sullivan; and junior Adrian Lingo readied the team well for the uniqueness of a Thanksgiving contest.
“The captains did a good job keeping us focused. We had a lot of guys without experience in a Thanksgiving Day game, and our leadership was good,” Morse said.
“We were talking about this game for the past two weeks,” Lingo said. “Everybody talked about this game – this game is the biggest for us. So we came out really hard.”
Sharon held Oliver Ames on a fourth-down run inside the Eagles’ 17, with Kushner and Co. stopping a Tiger rush, returning the ball to the Sharon offense.
Kushner, a two-way starter who racked up 8.5 sacks last season and will play football for Division 1 Colgate University next fall, donned full pads for the first game since missing eight with a shoulder injury.
The captain was buoyed for the opportunity to close his high school career between the white lines. “It was something else. It’s tough when you can’t show it [lead by example] on the field. It was just great to be back out there with my teammates - playing hard, fighting to the death,” Kushner said.
“His intensity was there,” Morse said. “He didn’t miss a beat – took on blocks, made tackles, was all over the field. He did a great job.”
Two plays later, senior running back Evantz Elisma, Jr. received a handoff from junior quarterback Kevin Byrne up the middle, saw an opening to his right, turned the corner, and raced past several Oliver Ames defenders hot on his pursuit along the Eagle sideline, high-stepping across the goal line with a 79-yard touchdown.
“I think it was Kush who had the block to spring me out there,” said Elisma, Jr. “Once I saw the open field, it was a wrap from there.”
Morse added, “It was a great job up front. We blocked really well. There was a nice, little hole there. The guard got through – [junior] Jackson [Hall] did a good job pulling, had a good down block. Evantz hit the hole, and he went.”
Lingo’s extra-point through the Lake Massapoag-side uprights provided Sharon a 7-0 advantage, their first lead over an Oliver Ames squad since 2010.
Physical ailments were a recurring theme for the Eagles. O’Neill entered Thursday’s contest having suffered a shoulder injury that Morse called “horrible” in Sharon’s prior game, Nov. 16.
Although the injury inhibited him from executing a throwing motion, O’Neill played most of the snaps and handed off. “He fought through that,” the coach said.
“The game meant a lot to me,” O’Neill said. “It’s the last game I’ll ever play – I’m not playing in college. I tried to gut it out.”
Later in the second quarter, Byrne was forced out of the game with an injury, another blow to Sharon’s quarterbacking situation.
Oliver Ames responded to Sharon’s initial score with two touchdowns prior to halftime and two more in the third quarter, providing a 25-7 winning margin for the visitors. The outcome provided for an enjoyable ride for orange-and-black-clad fans back to their Easton residences for a tenth consecutive Thanksgiving.
“We dealt with some adversity, and it was a little too much to overcome,” O’Neill said. “We didn’t get the bounces today, but we played our hearts out.”
Kushner said, “It was special. It was something else. It was a great environment in the first half – a lot of people there. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t win this, but we played our butts off – left it all out there.”
Morse says that the Tigers were as good as their playoff run, which landed them in the Division III Southwest Final, indicated. “We hung with them for a while, just as we thought we would. OA was excellent,” he said.
“Every Thanksgiving, no matter how good Sharon is, it’s always a good game,” said Eagles senior linebacker London Chandler. “At the end, they finished out strong, and we didn’t finish out as strong as we should have.”
As for individual Eagle players that impressed him during the game, Morse noted several seniors who suited up for their final football games at Sharon High.
In addition to O’Neill’s efforts, the coach said, “London did a good job on defense. [Junior linebacker] Daylon [Williams-Thomas] had one of his better games - played with intensity. It was a good job by our guys. Good careers by a lot of those guys, and that’s it.”
Regarding the sudden realization that his high school football career had concluded at the final whistle, Williams-Thomas said, “It’s an awful feeling to end it like this, but this is how it is. It’s time to leave. It’s time to take off this jersey, but it’s ‘aight [all right].”
Reflecting on the season as a whole (prior to the season finale), team members were most enthused about the continual progression of a largely young, previously inexperienced squad.
Much of the 2013 team, as underclassmen last year, watched stars like All-Hockomock League then-senior captains Brad Schiff, Sean Asnes, and Adam Block lift Sharon to the program’s first-ever Div. III Super Bowl Championship.
This season, many of these players, now upperclassmen, stepped into those starting roles vacated by the departed graduates and became more seasoned football players this fall.
“We have so many kids who are new to varsity football, so it’s been fun to coach them, teach them everything they need to know,” Morse said. “Every day, we come out, we’re excited as coaches. They’re enjoyable to coach, and it’s also good to see the improvements they’ve made from Week 1 until now.”
Sullivan said, “A lot of maturation had to occur, and it’s occurred really toward the end of the season. All the younger kids that we needed to grow up, grew up, and really took the role of the Sharon football player.
“This is no more Pop Warner stuff. There’s a point where you have to look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘I’m a Sharon football player. It’s time to grow up. I need to be the best football player I can be.’ And they did it,” Sullivan added.
Kushner says that the players came together over the course of the season and subscribed completely to the message that Morse and the captains attempted to instill into them. “I think we’ve really made strides since Day 1,” he said.
Morse says that the offensive line’s fundamentals significantly improved and members of the defense executed their assignments with greater regularity. “There’s no real highlights – just seeing the individual improvement by many, many kids,” he said.
“We have a lot of pure athleticism on this team,” said O’Neill. “Defensively, we have, I think, one of the best defensive backfields in the league.”
Sullivan said, “Every aspect has improved exponentially. The only aspect that’s stayed the same is special teams, in that they’ve been pretty dominant all year. Our offensive line has grown a lot. They still need to take some strides before they’re at the level they need to be [in future years].”
Sharon’s first win of the season came in Week 3 against Davenport Division rival Canton, a 32-12 home conquest, which was Sullivan’s favorite game of the season.
“Beating Canton was beautiful. Whether they are the best team, the worst team, I always love beating the Small Hock teams - the team that we’ve always had rivalries with. Taking a 65-yard touchdown to the house felt really good,” Sullivan said.
A 27-0 victory over Davenport foe Milford on Oct. 26 qualified the Eagles for a berth in the revamped (and expanded) state playoffs. #1-seed Plymouth North downed Sharon in the postseason’s opening game, 35-7, a contest in which Morse said the Eagles “played pretty well in a hostile environment.”
Sullivan says that the Eagles’ record (with, at the time, one game remaining) did not indicate the team’s caliber of play, particularly in the later stages of the season.
“Not even close. We’ve grown not only as football players, but as people and as brothers. We’ve really molded, gelled as a team. I think that if you give us 10 more games, we go 8-2, 10-0,” Sullivan said.
Two Eagle juniors were named to the 2013 All-Hockomock League team: Lingo, for his middle linebacker play, and lineman Travis Somers. Kushner was an Honorable Mention.
“They’re two kids [Lingo and Somers] who worked very hard in the offseason,” Morse said. “They committed to practice, doing their job. And they continued to get better – holding their ground, reading their keys, and doing their jobs. Still have big things to come [next season].”
Lingo says that he did not expect to be All-Hock when he approached the fall, his first full season on varsity. “When Coach called me a week ago, I almost dropped the phone. My reaction was unbelievable. I was so happy,” he said.
Lingo, who first played organized from football after immigrating from Poland freshman year, launched a crucial punt under heavy duress from oncoming rushers during the 2012 Super Bowl.
The junior started this season in the middle linebacker spot occupied last season by Schiff, who was named to numerous All-Scholastic teams and sealed the state title victory with a late interception.
Sullivan said, “We expected a lot of Adrian, because you could see the pure skill, how quickly he learned. Adrian did everything for us. He was a beast. Every time we asked him to do something, he threw himself on the line for us. That’s the kind of kid you want to go to war with.”
Lingo was named the team’s fourth captain partway through the season, and says that he cherished his role. On his leadership style, he emphasized the importance of positive verbal communication with fellow players.
“If they [teammate] make some mistake, don’t be like, ‘You did this wrong.’ Be like, ‘Don’t worry about that. Next play, go get ‘em. This is a team.’ Got to be 11 helmets to the football – that’s what makes us. That’s the Sharon football team,’” Lingo said.
Somers reacted similarly to the news of his selection to the All-Hock team. “It came to me as a nice surprise. I was really happy and excited about it. It felt great to know that hard work and dedication really does pay off. I couldn't have done it without the great coaching and the help of my teammates.”
Sullivan says that the team didn’t know what to expect of Somers entering the season. “He was very, very, very raw up until this year - hearing everything we’ve been telling him but not actually doing all of it.
“This year, he really grew into himself, grew into his body, and utilized his size throughout the year. He just dominated kids with the size. He used his body and pushed people,” Sullivan added.
Sullivan also lauded Somers’ toughness to play effectively despite assorted injuries incurred throughout the season that would have sidelined most other players. “There just isn’t a ‘hurt’ for Travis,” Sullivan said.
“Missing a game is something you never want to do, and I knew that it was important for me to show up and play my hardest,” Somers said. “Football is a tough sport - you'll get banged up, you'll be hurting at times, but you have to pull through and put the team first.”
As for other players who posted impressive seasons, O’Neill says that Chandler made many big plays defensively and assisted his younger mates on that side of the ball.
Sophomore twins Bryce and Tyler Smith started both offensively and defensively. O’Neill called the duo “a two-headed monster” in the defensive backfield, with Bryce playing cornerback and Tyler at safety.
“Against Silver Lake, they both had two mammoth hits,” O’Neill said. “I foresee many more hits like that in the future. Bryce playing receiver has made great strides, especially going up and making plays on the ball. [Sophomore Joey] Dowler got injured [ankle], but Dowler was really stepping up his game as starting tight end.”
Kushner noted juniors Akiv Carries and Andrius Bernotas among the players who thrived in greater responsibilities on the field, amplified given an injury-riddled squad. “Guys like that really stepped up this year and took on big roles,” Kushner said.
Numerous players mentioned outstanding team chemistry as among the positive attributes of this year’s team. O’Neill, who quarterbacked the 2012 worst-to-first Sharon team, says that this year was the most fun football season of his life.
“I’m really thankful for this team that I had. This is a special team – the record didn’t dictate how special of a team this was. No matter what happened, we never faulted each other. We always stuck together. I just love all the guys on the team,” O’Neill said.
The conclusion of the season marks the final time that several of the team members, including, Kushner, O’Neill, Sullivan, and Elisma, Jr., were members of the same team.
“It really hasn’t hit me, but this is the last game I’m ever going to go on the field with them,” Kushner said prior to the Thanksgiving game. “It’s been great playing with those guys my whole life and growing up with them, too.”
O’Neill said, “It was truly an honor to play with those guys for the 10 years I’ve played football. I wouldn’t trade this team; I’d rather lose with these guys than win with anyone else. I mean it.”
As for advice for his fellow graduating seniors, as well as underclassmen coming back to comprise the 2014 Sharon squad, Kushner said, “Keep working. Can’t stop. Never be satisfied where you are – get better, get stronger, get faster. Do the little things.”
Next year’s edition of the Eagles will return nearly the entire offensive and defensive line, who gained experienced this season that should prove valuable as Sharon aims to return to the top of the Davenport.
Morse, who confirmed that he will return to coach the Eagles in 2014, said, “We have a larger group of returning starters and letter-winners, who, from everything I’ve seen, will commit themselves to prepare themselves to be better for next year.”
Most of the skill-position players who made an impact on varsity this season will also be returning. Kushner said, “They’ve got a lot of talent, even the freshmen coming up – we had two freshmen start games for us this year. If they work hard and buy into the system, they can accomplish great things.”
Lingo says that he will emphasize the weight room to players for the offseason, saying that players need to be there to increase their physical capabilities every day.
“We have so many good athletes – it’s crazy. But the team
needs to get stronger and faster. That’s what we all need,” Lingo said. “I
think it’s going to be a great year compared to this year.”