Their football seasons started with a clash. Not a collision — those are all too common, part and parcel in high school’s most physically imposing sport — but a meeting between two stalwart squads.
The defending state champion, King Philip Regional High, opened its season against its familiar – but now non-division – Hockomock League foe North Attleboro High. For both teams, it was an early mettle-tester, and KP won that contest, 24-14.
That meeting took place at KP’s Macktaz Field on Sept. 8. The next time the two teams’ schedules and locales aligned was nearly three months later – at Gillette Stadium. North Attleboro, crystallized in part by that early-season loss at King Philip, marched into the Division 3 Super Bowl on the wings of an 11-game winning streak. The Warriors, playing immediately following North Attleboro, sought a second consecutive state title in the Division 2 championship. The latter team accomplished its mission, the former did not. But the shared full-circle journey helped propel both teams to their lofty destinations. The squads won a combined 23 of 25 contests over the season – and that includes the season-opening Red Rocketeer loss to King Philip.
“Our first goal was to beat KP in that first game,” said Sam Bullock, a departing North Attleboro senior captain who was an anchor for the Rocketeer offensive and defensive lines. “We didn’t succeed in that (goal), but failing in that propelled us to work that much harder. As awful as it was to take that loss right at the beginning of the season, that was probably one of the biggest motivators for us.”
And so North Attleboro marched through regular season, thumping all but one opponent by more than a touchdown. The margins tightened in the playoffs, but so did North Attleboro, learning from its early-season failure.
“We made a lot of mistakes in that game (against KP), we turned the ball over four times in that game,” said North Attleboro coach Don Johnson. “But we only turned the ball over once in our five playoff games, and our opponents turned the ball over to us nine times (in that span). This team probably improved more week to week than any other team we have had.”
The Red Rocketeers’ successes sometimes stunned themselves, but Johnson saw them as the byproduct of a fastidious squad. In past seasons, the coach would see some players’ attention drift during film work. This group wanted more feedback and met the ever-present challenge to work hard, then harder still. Lo and behold, the pieces fell into place. “Going into it, a lot of us weren’t expecting to have as good of a year as we did after graduating so many seniors last year,” said senior captain and quarterback Chad Peterson, a gridder going back to age 9. He’ll continue his playing career at Amherst College, regardless of the inherent and ongoing sacrifice it entails. “It’s countless hours of hard work to prepare for the season.”
That work comes before, during and after the season, which is to say it only ends with your playing eligibility. When King Philip won the first of its back-to-back titles in early December of 2016, the fervor gave way to rededication in little more than a fortnight.
“We probably enjoyed it up until Christmas break,” said Andrew Dittrich, a KP senior captain and the team leader in tackles as a defensive back. The players spent every day Monday through Thursday in the weight room after school through June. Then the players worked out early summer mornings, building camaraderie and muscle alike, until preseason camps kicked into gear. And there’s no respite once the season kicks into gear — practices, workouts, homework and sleep drown out high school hijinks. “There’s almost no social life, but that’s the sacrifice you’ve got to make,” Dittrich said.
It’s easy to forget now that King Philip graduated a talented senior class in between championship seasons. There was no guarantee the team would repeat its championship feat. Dittrich had internal doubts too, but during a preseason practice, that worry subsided. He felt — not thought — his team was destined. “It was crazy,” he said. “There was just this feeling, way early in the season that we aren’t going to lose. I’ll never forget that.”
That’s not to say the season was a breeze. But the sore Saturdays — hyperextended elbow, gashed knee, chronic thumb and ankle pain among Dittrich’s various ailments over the last two seasons — were made more palatable by success.
But as the championship fades into the rear view mirror, coaches and players will be tasked with doing it all over again, finding that magic mixture of personnel and perseverance, teaching and talent to get all the way back to the top. For King Philip coach Brian Lee, whose football program has set the highest conceivable bar, losing players is even worse than losing games.
“It’s the worst thing about coaching high school football,” said Lee, who meets most of his players when they reach eighth grade and start the workout regimen. “You get to know them when they’re just babies. When they’re seniors, you’re starting to see what they are as young men, their true personality develops. By the time we build up that trust, and you get to know them, they’re out the door.”