The improbability adds to mystique. A typical game in this rivalry is enough to get the blood pressure spiking all week long around the city. But these are two very different teams from the ones that met in Everett almost a year ago to this day.
The 2014 Everett Crimson Tide were nearly unanimous Division 1 North favorites led by a superstar, Lukas Denis, bound for the Boston College Eagles. The 2014 Peabody Tanners were an immensely talented team, that had played together for years, determined to start a program to make up for the ailments of their 0-10 season in 2012.
Those circumstances collided head-on with the Tanners coming in heavy underdogs with a chip on their shoulder so large that Peabody filled half the stands available on the road to back their determination. The result: a breath of relief for Everett after a relentless Peabody crusade challenged them for every second of a hard-earned 55-41 win.
Times have changed, but the stakes are very similar.
Everett got to this point by becoming the first 8-seed to ever win a MIAA playoff football game, coming out and holding ball away from the powerhouse Prep in a 12-7 mind-blowing upset. Just a week earlier they were trying to hold their heads high after a crushing loss to Malden that cost them a GBL title, the conference they had won for over a decade straight.
Then there was Peabody. Their entire offensive line, their quarterback, their key producers on defense, their vocal leader at tight end; all gone. With a new group of players looking to fill roles once held by well-established by veterans, the results were as expected.
The Tanners struggled. They were outmuscled in Wellesley then beat up on a weak Somerville squad, before getting torched in the second halves of home games against Beverly and Marblehead.
A team that stampeded into Everett at 7-1 less than 12 months earlier, felt hopeless at 1-3. There was no cohesion on the front lines while both the offensive and defensive units were not showing the heart and killer instinct needed to own the late downs.
Coach Bettencourt looked us dead in the eyes after the loss to Marblehead that had the entire season in question and put it simply, "We don't make plays."
The bluntness was astoundingly descriptive. Peabody wasn't playing instinctively like their 2014 counterparts, they weren't extending themselves in key situations to get the extra yards or prevent their opponents from doing the same. They didn't have the confidence playing with each other on either end needed to make things happen.
It all changed with a trip to the city of sin. Pressed with back to back match-ups against Lynn Classical and Lynn English, the Tanners had one last chance to save their season.
Throwing it back to that game against Classical, Peabody led 7-0 midway though the first. Inconsistency still being the only true characteristic they held as a team, they followed up a fantastically executed fake to Doug Santos that opened a lane for an Eric DeMayo 73 yard touchdown with a quick three and out.
It was 4th and short on the Peabody 11. Up 7, not too far from their own goal line, Coach Bettencourt showed what appeared to be even beyond his usual aggressive coaching approach. He sent the offense out to go for it.
The booth immediately lit up, "what is he doing!" "this is insane!" "are you kidding me!"
But ahead they went, D'Amato drew the snap and handed right to Doug who made his way through an open hole to the 15. Coach Bettencourt showed the confidence in his embattled team to convert what many would call in the pros a "fireable decision" and it paid off. A few more Santos explosions to midfield set up a 60 yard touchdown throw to Evan Thompson to make it 14-0.
The Tanners dominated on both ends from there. After beating Classical 27-0, they jumped on Lynn English the next week early and survived a comeback attempt to get back to 3-3. Finally, the team showed a level of steadiness on both sides of the ball and most importantly played with confidence over teams they knew they could beat.
After the 34-19 Round 1 victory over Malden, a testament to how far this team has come since their trip to Lynn, Bettencourt spoke on the importance of his wild coaching decision at Classical:
“The 4th down play at Classical on my own 11, people thought I was crazy. That was a major breaking point for this team. Nobody will go back to that. Nobody will ever think to go back to that Classical game…when we were on our own 11, that was a break through for us. Cause that offensive line…on our own friggin 11 said ‘hey coach thinks we can do this, he’s out of his mind, but he thinks we can do this and we can.’”
Early season everybody began to ask, what would be the defining characteristic of this 2015 team? What would separate them for the enormous baseline that the well-documented 2014 set?
The answers became apparent upon return from Lynn. They were the composed ones against a highly-touted Danvers team that came in for Week 7 at 5-1. The Tanners were all over them from start to finish, making plays on each end of the ball off countless Danvers mistakes.
With a little help, they were improbably back at home facing a Malden team hot off their GBL title win vs Everett. A team that was 1-3 to start the year found themselves as the 4 seed again.
If there was any doubt about the definition of the 2015 Tanners, they were quickly dispelled. Doug Santos had arguably his greatest game ever (400 all-purpose yards, 4 TD) behind the offensive line once scrutinized so heavily. The defensive line began to add to their own story by owning the line of scrimmage, while the team as a whole showed an incredible prowess to execute in the biggest moments.
We try to find definitives in sports all the time. It makes the stories even more awesome, they're our form of hyperbole. But while the decision by Bettencourt on his own 11 in Week 5 didn't directly set them up with this rematch with Everett, it exemplified the confidence to make plays that he was pushing since the preseason. In that moment, it began to click.
“I knew we were going to struggle early in the season, I told everybody that…and getting these kids to believe in themselves. Not just themselves individually but each other, the way it was when I played…we didn't need kids from out of town, you believed in each other, you believed in the guys that you grew up with…thats what Im trying to create. This four game winning streak…in the back of my mind this was what I was hoping would happen" Bettencourt explained.
That's what it's all about in high school football, reloading. In his first weeks as coach during my sophomore year I'll never forget Bettencourt stating his goal in our first interview: to create a program that can produce consistent success with new players every year.
This game may be the true confirmation of Bettencourt's sentiment. Last year's team, for all their fanfare and importance in Peabody football history, couldn’t finish the deal vs Everett on the road. This team, the one so many doubted because of their losses, has set themselves up in the same position, except this time on their own turf. They have a chance to take it to the next level, perhaps once and for all proving that Peabody High football is in fact a program once again.