Andover senior captain and lineman AJ Heidtke is already committed to play football next year at Brown University, but that doesn’t matter right now.
Heidtke and fellow senior captain Ben Entner – who is committed to play at Colby College – along with fellow senior linemen Parker Rankin (UNH perferred walk on) and Charlie Baillaregeon (Endicott) were all set to be the driving force behind a strong Golden Warrior squad this year.
“We’ve always had skill guys, but we had four senior linemen, all big guys returning that should be my best line since my first year here,” said head coach EJ Perry.
With a season tentatively set to start in one month and still quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding it, Andover is hoping for a chance to at least chase a Merrimack Valley Conference title after falling in the Division 1 North semifinals a year ago to eventual Super Bowl champ St. John’s Prep.
” I think a league title isn’t the same as a state title but that doesn’t mean it would be any less meaningful to us,” said Heidtke. “It definitely doesn’t knock any skill off of a win. As a team, the mentality we have is to just keep grinding and not give up hope on having a season.”
“A league title definitely isn’t as good as a state title, but if that’s the only championship we can play for, we’ll take whatever title we can get,” added Entner. “As a team we understand that we need to keep moving forwards as if the season is going to happen. We know we have a great group of guys and we’re all ready to go whenever the season starts.”
Perry has been at this for a long time and gone through his share of senior classes, but this one has stood out for its attention to detail amongst the chaos.
“With this senior class, the effort and the focus amongst the Covid protocols has actually been pretty easy,” he said. “It’s been a huge factor that those guys have all wanted to lift, wanted to do their workouts, their conditioning in the summer months individually working 7v7’s on their own. I think the worst part of all this for the seniors is the uncertainty because they’ve worked and planned so hard to get to this point.
“We’re cautiously optimistic and hopeful that February is workable. I think it would be traumatic for not just our guys but programs everywhere, for seniors to not go out on their own terms, out on the field. They’ve worked tremendously hard as a unit and as individuals and deserve to go out together.”
Winning a Merrimack Valley Conference and hunting for a state title is no easy task, but the Golden Warriors seem to consistently find themselves in the conversation each year for a few different reasons. One reason is a devoted coaching staff that doesn’t get nearly enough recognition. Another big one that may go overlooked is fundraising, and perhaps the biggest reason of all is because of the outstanding youth program in the area.
With all of those factors affected this year, there is some concern regarding the future success of Andover football.
“We rely on four volunteer coaches because we get between 40 and 50 freshman, so we need three freshman coaches but the town only pays for two,” he explained. “We always bring one in thanks to the boosters, and at the varsity level we have three guys. If the boosters can’t supplement some of that because they haven’t been able to do fundraisers we worry a little bit about that.
“For youth football, Covid hit at a terrible time. The decline in the youth leagues, you worry about the kids who are on the fence. I always ran my camp so we would get like 100 kids at both camps, all from Andover between ages second grade and 9th grade. In the summer you can make football really fun, not in pads, so when that fall comes around for those kids, the kids who are on the fence will probably go the football route. Nothing could be held as “mandatory” in the fall, and we still had 42 freshman show up for every workout. Our youth program run by Kevin Lynch is unbelievable.”
Andover will probably find a way to maintain its strong youth presence, but for now, the returning line and a handful of other guys are going to be in charge of trying to out work teams like Central Catholic, North Andover, Methuen and Lowell among others while chasing the MVC title.
Heidtke, Entner, fellow senior captain Matt Rigazio (DB, Ithaca or Hobart), Baillaregeon and Rankin won’t be the only guys Perry will be relying this year either. Senior wide receivers Tomas Loureiro (St. Lawrence or Dennison College), Jolfy Frias (UMASS Dartmouth) and Jay-ronn Chevalier (WR/DB) are all part of this senior class looking to go out the right way.
“When you’ve got a lot of guys who are great leaders like the seniors, guys who are football oriented and you mix in guys like sophomores Scott Brown and Lincoln Beal who could eventually go D1, we just have a great mix,” Perry said. “Senior leadership and dynamic players at the younger level are always going to be important pieces.”
The Golden Warriors are ready to go, but if they can’t, then what?
“Our legacy as a class should be one of resilience even in the face of this Covid-19 pandemic,” said Entner. “It hasn’t been easy to have practices or workouts but we got them done regardless and have figured out how to overcome the difficulties this virus has presented.”
“The legacy I wish we leave as a class is the resilience we have to do what we have done so far with what we have been given because of Covid,” added Heidtke. “Having the lifts and practices haven’t been easy to get done but we did anyway and we did it in a very good manner.”