Strong to the core

Any high school coach will tell you that you always win with seniors.

Right now, the Merrimack High School football team has had to bypass that formula. But that doesn’t mean the Tomahawks don’t appreciate the few seniors they have.

As in their core four.

That’s right; just four seniors – tight end/defensive end Ian Roberts, defensive back Kyle Newman, two-way lineman Shane Heath, and running back/defensive back Jacob Denver.

The four have played right from the start of their freshman season for the Tomahawks, but they were part of a freshman team three years ago that had as many as 17 players. Now they’re all that’s left.

"They’re all different," Merrimack coach Kip Jackson said of his senior foursome. "They’ve been through three coaching changes, which is a lot. … I think all of them were skeptical of a new coaching staff, but now they’re fully invested. They all have a key role in one way or another."

Why’d they stay?

For Roberts, that was easy – he loves football.

"I fell in love with it since I started playing, and I never stopped loving it," he said of taking up the sport at 7 years old. "As far as the history of the program, it hasn’t been as good as other programs, and there’d be kids around the school saying, ‘Why are you
playing football, you’re not that good.’

"A lot of peer pressure, kids who maybe don’t love the game as much as the four of us do."

Heath stuck it out for a good reason.

"It’s kind of like a personal thing," Heath said. "I don’t want to give up just because it gets tough. At first I was annoyed that all my friends quit, but then I thought about it and us four guys are the ones who decided to stick it out."

After the foursome’s freshman season, the Tomahawks’ numbers had dwindled to the point they couldn’t field a full junior varsity team. That, Heath said, caused many to drop off during their sophomore season.

"I felt like part of a family," Newman said. "And I didn’t want to give up on something. I felt I had to stick it out. … The thought crossed my mind that maybe they’re making the right decision. But then you come back the next year, try to keep going with it, and it’s always fun."

Denver agreed.

"I love football, have played it all my life, and never been a quitter," he said. "I just had to stick it out. … I guess the others didn’t have the same passion I did. … It’s how the game makes you feel, how you feel under the lights on Friday nights. It’s a whole different experience."

The best pure athlete of the four may be the 6-foot-3 Roberts, who is used as a red zone target (two TDs) and has tenacity as a defensive end. He’s also a basketball player, but football is his No. 1 sport.

Roberts, Jackson says, "is really a natural leader. Not only is he real smart, but great common sense. His athleticism for someone his size is impressive."

Newman has been helpful at defensive back, but his main game is lacrosse, which he is set to play next year locally at Daniel Webster College.

"Kyle is a very quiet leader, constantly trying to do the right thing," Jackson said. "He’s gotten caught in the numbers game at times. He may not be the most athletic kid, but I can’t think of anybody better to have on the team."

Denver, Jackson said, "is another kid I love having around. He’s an OK athlete, knows it, but works really hard and sets a good example."

Heath has worked hard as a reserve lineman and is invaluable, Jackson says.

"He’s very strong," he said. "I think our style of offense and defense probably doesn’t fit a lot of his strengths but he works at it every single day. A great asset to the team."

Roberts thinks the frequent coaching changes are a reason – Jackson is the program’s third head coach in four years – although it’s likely former coach Dante Laurendi would’ve stayed on much longer had the Nashua High School North job, where he teaches, not opened up.

"It was definitely the toughest part of high school football," Roberts said. "Three coaches in four years is tough."

Heath said that he was able to roll with the punches of having three different head coaches.

"I wasn’t going to let that get in the way of getting better;" he said. "Each coach has had their own style."

But it’s tough for a program to overcome missing a class, which is what happened. How can you prevent it in the future?

"The best way to avoid it is to make sure the kids have a positive experience all four years," Jackson said. "Let them know it’s not just about football when they’re here.

"They can get a lot of value out of this, whether it be some of the extra stuff we do with schoolwork, learning discipline, and also us being involved in their lives – not only on the field but off the field – try to help them out with other issues."

Merrimack won’t have this senior shortage next year, with a numerous and talented junior group currently the mainstay of the team. But that makes the core four even more important.

"It’s a big junior class and they’re playing well," Roberts said. "So being a senior is a tough role. You have to be a leader, and you’ve got to play well.

"There’s only four of us, so regardless of how we play we’re going to stick out. Fortunately we’ve done pretty well."