For N. Andover, a Needed Distraction

September 16, 2018 GMT

LOWELL -- North Andover High School football coach John Dubzinski received multiple phone calls on Friday night from panicked players.

“They were saying ‘coach, I can’t get into my house. I have my jersey there, my equipment there, what do I do?’ It was a little bit of disarray, kind of a holding pattern,” said Dubzinski.

He estimated that a handful of his players remained displaced from their homes in the aftermath of Thursday’s widespread gas explosions that rocked and horrified the North Andover, Andover and Lawrence communities.

But Saturday afternoon’s game against Lowell at Cawley Stadium offered the distraction that the Scarlet Knights needed to return to normalcy and escape the scary reality that struck just two days prior.

North Andover’s focus was on the task at hand and it delivered a crisp, inspired and dominant performance in a 49-14 victory over the Red Raiders. The game was originally scheduled for Friday night in North Andover. Once it was postponed, a makeup date seemed uncertain, but Friday afternoon the decision was made to switch venues and play Saturday.

Thursday’s North Andover practice was cut short when Red Cross Disaster Relief told the team that they needed to get off the field and that there had been multiple explosions.

“A real curveball was thrown at us,” said Dubzinski, who lives in Andover. ”(North Andover) families, the Andover families, the Lawrence families. We couldn’t practice (Friday), so we were all off our routine. But these kids, they didn’t waver. I couldn’t be prouder of their resiliency, their focus -- they just wanted to play football.

“Obviously , the main focus was to win the game. But they knew that there were more intangibles involved. It was more than a football game. We were in our locker room before the game, and there were beds in the school gymnasium. They saw what’s at stake and wanted to give something positive to the town. We felt that we provided that.”

The Lowell athletic department solicited donations to help the North Andover kids. As an act of solidarity and support, the two teams met at mid-field before the game and shook hands. Soon after, North Andover marched 85 yards on 12 plays to score on the game’s opening drive. Junior Mike Difo (two TDs) ran it in from three yards out.

The rout was on, as it was 21-0 after the first quarter and 35-7 at the half. Scarlet Knights’ senior quarterback Jake McElroy completed 13-of-19 passes for 341 yards and two touchdowns. Senior running back Darren Watson (103 rushing yards, 91 receiving yards) scored three touchdowns, and senior receiver Gabe DeSouza (six receptions, 170 yards) ate up double-team coverage all game and hauled in a 61-yard TD catch, and had an interception on defense.

North Andover (2-0) looked every bit the team that is widely considered to be a powerhouse in the Merrimack Valley Conference.

“We didn’t know when we were going to play. It took forever on Friday to figure out when we would play,” said Dubzinski. “The kids were texting me, ‘when are we playing? when are we playing?’ There was some frustration because it was so unsettled.”

Lowell (0-2) was held off the scoreboard until very late in the second quarter when senior quarterback Aidan Foyle connected on the first of two touchdown passes to senior David Brito. The 20-yard strike made it 35-7 just before the half.

The Scarlet Knights’ defense made life very difficult for Lowell. Foyle was picked off twice and was sacked four times.

“It was obviously really, really tough for those three communities,” said Lowell head coach John Florence. “We all had to wait and see what happens in terms of when the game would be played and then refocus. It was around 2 p.m. (Friday) that we found out we were going to play (Saturday), and we repeated our typical Thursday walkthrough. I thought we had a good day (Friday) and the kids were focused, but that first quarter kind of sunk us.”

DeSouza silenced any chance of Lowell momentum by intercepting a Foyle pass inside the North Andover 5-yard line. He returned it 64 yards the other way on the opening drive of the second half. Six plays later, Watson raced into the corner of the end zone from 15 yards out to give NA a 42-7 lead.

After the game, there were plenty of smiles on the faces of North Andover players.

″(This week) put a lot of things in perspective,” said Dubzinski. “This was a great win, and like I said, I’m so proud of the way the kids handled this situation. They were fired up, they always are, but this was a different atmosphere -- it was palpable.”

Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone