The 2019 high school football season came to an end for the Gloucester football team Thursday with a rough 61-12 Thanksgiving Day loss to rival Danvers.
It was certainly a rebuilding season in Gloucester as the program brought in first-year head coach Dan O'Connor to lead an inexperienced starting lineup in a deep Northeastern Conference. The result was a 1-10 campaign that saw Gloucester take its fair share of lumps.
Sure, it was a rough season for the Fishermen, who allowed 440 points (an average of 40 points per game) and scored only 72 (6.5 ppg). But let's not panic long-term just yet.
Down seasons happen to every football program, and while Gloucester looked infallible at times from 1995 to 2010 and was consistently contending from 2013-18, the program is not immune to going through a rebuilding phase.
In more than a century of football, the 2019 season was the 16th time a Gloucester football team has won two games or fewer while playing a schedule of at least nine games. Every time, the program eventually bounced back.
In the long and storied history of the program, which features several legendary head coaches, each and every one of them not named Paul Ingram (who went a ridiculous 84-10 from 2003-10 while losing four games in one season and never losing more than two in any other) has gone through a trying season like the one the team went through this fall.
That includes the program's top two winningest coaches: Terry Silva, who had a 2-8 campaign in 1985, and Nate Ross, who won a single game in both 1936 and 1959. Nobody would ever question their coaching credentials, as both opened up their respective coaching careers with a three-win season only to go on to combine to win eight state championships — five for Ross, three for Silva.
Gloucester's previous head coach, Tony Zerilli, also had a tough start to his career, going 2-16 in his first 18 games — only to follow it up with five Northeastern Conference titles in the next six seasons and a sectional crown.
Football is a highly competitive sport which relies on more players to contribute than any other sport. It is not only the most physically demanding game, but the most mentally demanding as well. Give coach O'Connor some time to settle into the program and find his niche as a head coach. Several great head coaches were in his shoes at one time, and experience was the best way to rebuild the program.
With the 2019 season now in the rearview mirror, how does the program get better in the future? There is no definitive answer to that question, but it can certainly be done.
There has been a lot of chatter around the city about the now-defunct Cape Ann Pee Wee Football League. Many believe the demise of it has led to the predicament that the high school program is now in with low participation numbers. Those low numbers are also a product of a smaller student body.
While I agree that the Pee Wee league was an invaluable resource to the high school program for several decades and helped shape many young football players in the city that ended up contributing greatly to the Fishermen, that talking point needs to be let go.
The Cape Ann Pee Wee League housed five teams in Gloucester. and that model was no longer viable. That caused the city to switch to a Youth League, where there is one team per age level instead of five.
When I first heard the rumors of a switch to the Pop Warner style, I was admittedly skeptical for the same reasons stated above; the Cape Ann Pee Wee League was such a huge help to the Gloucester High program. But then I attended the 2014 championship games, the final year of the Pee Wee League.
That year the B Team championship saw the Tigers take on the Manchester Essex Jr. Hornets, who also left the Pee Wee League for a Pop Warner system. The Tigers were the second-best B team in the entire league, yet they only had three substitutes. That's 12 players on the entire roster, for one of the league's top teams. That's flat out unsafe.
Of course with the switch to the Youth Fishermen, there were some growing pains as well. But it now seems that Gloucester has settled into the league nicely with its C Team (5th and 6th graders) earning a spot in the Cape Ann Youth Football League Super Bowl this season.
With Gloucester now settled in to its youth league, that success could carry over in the near future.
Another change that could be made is scheme. Gloucester has been running the Wing-T offense since 1991, and it has run that system in eight Super Bowl games and six Super Bowl wins. This is not a knock on the Wing-T; far from it.
The system fit Gloucester perfectly because the players were perfectly suited to the system that favored quickness on the line over sheer size and strength.
But we saw this season that the personnel did not exactly fit the scheme anymore. Coach O'Connor and staff had to dive deep into the playbook early on in the season, and we saw some wrinkles in the offense that haven't been unveiled in years.
The team, however, was at a size and strength disadvantage inside, which hurt the fullback trap game as teams could clog the middle to take it away. The same problems were there on some of the slower developing plays too, as opponents could fill gaps and react to certain plays before they got going.
Could a switch to a system that's more balanced between running and passing and features more ways to attack the edge be the best thing moving forward?
We saw a glimpse of that on Thanksgiving morning as Gloucester ran a lot of single back, double wing and bunch formations to confuse the defense and try to work some quick-hitting plays on the edge. The Wing-T puts a lot of pressure on the offensive line, with Gloucester struggling up front this season it made it extremely tough to find a way to move the football.
A balanced, quick-hitting offense would take a lot of pressure off the interior line and keep the defenses honest.
This season, Gloucester showed some glimpses of a very capable passing attack. But as the season wore on and more coaches saw the Fishermen on film, they realized they could stop the run with seven men in the box and still be ready for the passing attack. With the run game struggling, defenses were not susceptible to play action passes.
I know the words 'spread offense' makes the locals shudder, but putting the quarterback in the shotgun gives him more time to throw, puts less pressure on the line, and could open up the inside run game if it's effective enough on the edge.
It was a tough season in 2019 for GHS football fans and its supporters. But let's not turn our backs on the program. As we've seen before, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel.