NORTON — It was to be a coming-out party for the Norton High football team.
The Tri-Valley League’s Small School Division champions, led by Hunter Murphy, Dolan Wilke and Nathanael Thomasson were to be among the players on the field at Bentley University for the annual Shriners Football Classic on June 19.
Best of all, Norton head football coach Jim Artz was to serve as a member of the South squad coaching staff. However, the COVID-19 pandemic stole the thunder from Artz and his Lancers.
“It was such a great opportunity for the three of them,” Artz said of the annual all-star competition between the South and North squads.
“I remember the day after we found out about them being selected, Dolan in the weight room working out like a madman. That (being selected to the Shriners Game) is one of the best accomplishments you can have.”
For the past 35 years, the Mass. High School Football Coaches Association and the Shriners have joined forces to promote the game of football and generate funds for the Shriners Hospital in Boston.
Graduating seniors from the North and South sections of eastern and central Massachusetts convene to play what is an all-star benefit game with all proceeds from the Shriners Classic donated to the charity.
Mansfield High was to be represented by Jason Comeau, Mike DeBolt and Vinny Holmes. Other area all-stars included Ethan Friberg and Ethan Mottinger representing North Attleboro High; Nick Norko of Bishop Feehan High, Jordan Pina of Tri-County; George Anton of Foxboro High and King Philip High’s Ryan Halliday on the South roster. Dighton-Rehoboth High head coach Dave Moura was also to be a member of the coaching staff.
, it would have been a crowning sense of achievement, a late-comer to the game of football, not playing Pop Warner in Norton until seventh grade. Since then, he’s played at virtually every position on the field, including on both lines.
“I completely learned the game in seventh grade,” said Wilke, who also played baseball and soccer. “It gave me a good foundation. I started off as a lineman and linebacker and then I went all around (the field).”
Eventually he suited up in jersey No. 40 for the Lancers, playing on specialty teams as a sophomore, then being the combination running back-linebacker in each of the past two seasons. His career highlight game was a three-TD performance against Dover-Sherborn.
“To have been selected for the Shriners Game, I was very humbled by that,” Wilke said. “I was surprised, I never thought of myself as super-good. I just do my thing, I don’t concern myself with what other people think.
“To finally get some recognition from playing football is humbling.”
Little did Wilke, Murphy and Thomasson know that they played their last football games on Thanksgiving Day against Bellingham.
“You feel bad about the experiences that they won’t get — that’s what makes the Shriners Game o special,” Artz said of creating relationships with players from different towns and leagues for the 10 days of practice and then participating in the game.
In order to participate in the Shriners Classic, players are nominated by their high school coaches in December, right at the conclusion of the fall season.
The MHSFCA assembles in December to select a coaching staff, which consists of a variety of head coaches from various leagues who were their respective league “Coaches of the Year” on a rotating basis annually.
Players are selected upon the recommendations of coaches and athletic directors with the MSHFCA creating a roster for the South and North squads in January. Players assist in the creation of revenue thereafter.
The Lancers were to have begun their 10 days of practice with the South squad at Oliver Ames High in preparation for the game, but instead are sidelined due to federal and state health and safety guidelines. The Shriners Classic was officially canceled for the first time ever in mid-April.
“It’s something (all-star selection) special, something that they can look back on,” added Artz. “We want to make it special for our kids. You have the best of the best players participating in this game, kids from the Tri-Valley League, kids who are going Division I football.
“It’s a whole other level (of competition).
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Murphy, a two-way end and basketball member, will be attending Assumption College in the fall.
The 5-foot-11, 235-pound Thomasson, a guard on the offensive line and defensive tackle and member of the wrestling team, will be attending East Coast Prep (Barrington, Mass.)
And the 5-foot-10, 185-pound Wilke, a running back and linebacker, is heading to Johnson & Wales University where he intends to become a member of the club football team.
“Dolan is one of those kids that gets discounted because of his height and weight, but put him on the football field and you hear his name over and over again,” Artz said.
The Shriners presented each player with a commemorative game jersey. Individuals are now seeking donations from the general public or through fundraisers, the challenge to both North and South squad team members being to create a “winner” for most revenue raised.
Wilke, Murphy and Thomasson were to be partaking in graduation exercises June 6, but the pandemic erased the pageantry.
“Finishing the second semester was not easy (with online classes), it just wasn’t much fun being in school every day, around your teammates,” Wilke said.
He will attend Johnson & Wales University as a Food and Beverage Management major as his parents are the proprietors of Wendell’s Restaurant on Route 123 in Norton.
“As a kid, I was always trying to find out what (sport) best for me,” Wilke recalled. “I started football from the first week of practice I knew this is what I wanted.”
Playing as many positions as he did, Wilke was fortunate enough to learn the playbook from both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“It helped other players too because I had an understanding of their jobs,” Wilke said. “As a linebacker this year, I knew what the entire front line was doing, what they were dealing with and the secondary, their coverages.”
Artz was honored as well to be selected to the Shriners Classic.
“it’s a tremendous honor for me to be selected as a coach, but I’m still worried about the (2020) fall (season),” he said.
If the fall football season is canceled, there likely would not be a 2021 Shriners Classic due to the unavailability of prepared players.
To have a trio of Norton Lancers play in the game and Artz, the Tri-Valley League’s Small School Division Coach of the Year, selected for the coaching staff is a badge of honor.
“It kind of humanizes what they’re doing, how important that it is,” Artz said of the Lancers still “playing” for a cause in soliciting donations in these pandemic times. It’s a great exclamation point on a great season.”
For Wilke, it’s another chapter in his football odyssey — from being a kid who never played the game until he was 12 years old to having an opportunity to continue his gridiron career in college.
“I was never that super athlete, all-star kid,” Wilke said. “That didn’t bother me, but once that I found football, it helped me express myself as a person. It gave a sense of purpose, this is who I am, what I was meant to do.”