SAUGUS — What started out as a tough fall for the Saugus High football team ended up as one where the Sachems improved significantly.
Saturday night, they were rewarded by the state athletic association for their efforts.
At halftime of the Mashpee-Blackstone Valley Tech football game at Saturday’s Massachusetts Super Bowls, the Sachems received the Division 5 team sportsmanship award.
The award is presented at the state championship final of every MIAA-sponsored sport to a team in each division. The teams must have demonstrated “a sincere commitment to the highest ideals and objectives of sportsmanship during their season of play,” according to the MIAA website.
“Teams can be nominated for this award by coaches, athletic directors and principals.”
In the case of Saugus, first-year coach Anthony Nalen and athletic director James Bunnell, also new at the school, made the nomination.
“We had to submit a cover letter explaining why we represent ourselves in a sportsmanship fashion,” Nalen said. “And it got matched up with what the MIAA is looking for with regards to team sportsmanship.
“Everybody kind of has their own idea of what sportsmanship is,” said Nalen. “We make sure our players represent our town and community with class, and are respectful of other teams we play. Most importantly, we make sure we promote ourselves as a team that holds itself up with class.”
Nalen said the Sachems’ goal in 2017 was to be competitive “but to do it the right way. That, and getting better on the field.”
This fall, the Sachems started out 0-5 and ended the season at 4-7.
“I was proud of them for that,” Nalen said. “We never quit.”
After losses to St. Mary’s and North Quincy, the Sachems traveled to Bertram Field in Salem and got behind 22-6 at the half. However, Saugus scored 13 unanswered points. They weren’t enough to win, the Nalen was happy with the fact his team hung in there.
“I told them from Day 1 that I’d never be upset with a loss as long as they gave the maximum effort out there. In fact, I thought we played better in some of our losses than we did in our wins. All our losses came against teams that made the playoffs (Saugus did not).”
Nalen inherited a team this past fall that had struggled in recent years. In the past decade, Saugus has bounced from the Northeastern Conference to the Cape Ann League and back again. At one point, it chose to play an independent schedule to ensure games against teams with which the school felt it could compete physically.
None of that mattered to Nalen, and he worked to give his players the same view.
“We pride ourselves as a coaching staff not to worry about the past,” he said. “Everybody got a clean slate.
“We put our best foot forward,” he said. “I think sometimes it’s easier to turn around a program when a new staff comes in. It’s good to have a fresh start. We told them what we wanted to do, and they kind of went with it. It was exciting,” said Nalen, who had previous head coaching experience at Matignon, Bishop Connelly and Randolph.
As the year progressed, Saugus found itself in more games. The Sachems had a lead against Gloucester midway through the fourth quarter before the Fishermen came back to win.
“We learned a lot of lessons this fall,” he said. “We learned you can’t let teams get the early jump on you, and we had to learn how to finish.”
A game in which the Sachems appeared to have learned that less came in the third week of the non-playoff portion of the season when they defeated Greater Lowell 42-12.
“We got up on them, and we never looked back,” he said.
The feeling his he and his players got being honored Saturday night at Gillette was very rewarding, he said.
“When we walked through that tunnel, our guys’ eyes lit up,” he said. “It was a great experience for the kids. I’m happy they got to have it.”